Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

The Maltese Falcon (Roy Del Ruth, 1931) One of the "other" "Maltese Falcon" adaptations (the other is the Falcon-less Satan Met a Lady starring Bette Davis, which we'll look at tomorrow), before John Huston got it right and turned the Hammett story into a classic of the detective genre in 1941.

This one follows the story-line well enough—Brigid O'Shaunessy, the death of detective partner Miles Archer, rumors of a legendary jewel-encrusted black bird statue, and the motley trio of swindlers, Cairo and Guttman and Wilmer, a shade more flamboyant in this version. The story runs its course.

Where it differs—and all the "Falcon" versions differ—is in the character of Sam Spade, of Spade and Archer Detective Agency, soon to be "Sam Spade, Detective." The Bogart persona is familiar: tough guy, cynical, has the image of disrepute, but a resolute moral compass—like the Falcon itself, you have to scrape away layers of hardened lacquer before you get to the stuff that's valuable. That's Bogart, imprinting Spade and the image of detectives—but movie detectives—with the same template ever since.  

But, the first version of The Maltese Falcon was this pre-Code version starring Ricardo Cortez, and the top-billed Bebe Daniels as client "Ruth Wonderly." Don't let Cortez's latin name fool you; he was born Jacob Krantz, raised in the Bronx, but his name was changed to attract audiences during the "Rudolph Vaentino" phase of leading men. His Sam Spade is openly a lothario, a charmer and ladies' man, quick with a leering smile and altogether too happy in his work. You have no sense of Spade actually thinking, but going through false motions among other finaglers. He's unreadable to the audience except he's the guy "in charge," and enjoying himself.

There's much more sexuality to this one, featuring a scene with Bebe Daniels talking on the phone in the bath, and when a thousand dollar bill goes missing in the exchange scene, Daniels is forced to strip-search before Spade concludes that Caspar Guttman might have withheld it. This Sam Spade, one has the impression of making her do it just for the "fun" of it.

And the trio of con-men/murderers after the black bird?  When Spade's secretary, Effie, introduces a new walk-in as "gorgeous," Spade assumes it's a woman, but it's "Dr." Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson) in the first allusion to the veiled homosexuality of Cairo, Guttman and Wilmer.  The latter is openly referred to as Guttman's "boyfriend" and is played by Dwight Frye, the manic character actor from so many of the Universal horror films, including Frankenstein and Dracula

The film includes a coda of Spade visiting O'Shaunessy, making it known that Spade has gone "legit," working for the D.A.'s office which, although it may be intended to show Spade more in a "good guy" role, it paints a rather poor picture of the San Francisco district attorney (especially considering the police's earlier suspicions about Spade).

The steamy elements forced Warners to shelve this Maltese Falcon once the Hays Office opened its doors. The studio then made another version, Satan Met a Lady, played with a lighter tone, but which met the newly-imposed standards of the Motion Picture "Code." That's tomorrow.
Ricardo Cortez as the first Sam Spade

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