”THE MALTESE FALCON” (1931) Review
The three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel seemed to have become a legend in Hollywood circles during the past decade. Many filmgoers are familiar with John Huston’s 1941 adaptation that starred Humphrey Bogart. However in recent years, these same movie fans have become familiar with previous adaptations of the novel. In 1936, William Dieterle directed a comic version starring Warren Williams and Bette Davis called ”SATAN MET A LADY”. And Roy Del Ruth directed the original adaptation in 1931, which starred Ricardo Cortez. It is this particular film I will be discussing.
I have a confession to make. I have never read the novel, ”The Maltese Falcon”. The only Hammett novel I have ever read was ”The Thin Man”, published in 1934. Because of this, I would not be able to compare the novel to Del Ruth’s film adaptation. But I can discuss the movie. In a nutshell, ”THE MALTESE FALCON” told the story about a San Francisco private detective named Sam Spade, who finds himself drawn into a search for a valuable falcon statuette first created during the Crusades, while investigating three murders.
The story began with a Miss Ruth Wonderly hired Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, to find her missing sister and a man named Floyd Thursby. When Thursby and Archer end up murdered, Spade discovered that Miss Wonderly is one of three people searching for a statuette called the Maltese Falcon. A mortally wounded ship’s captain delivered the statuette to Spade’s office before dropping dead, making him the case’s third murder victim. The entire case spiraled into a game of cat-and-mouse between Spade, Miss Wonderly, a wealthy fat Englishman named Caspar Gutman and an effeminate continental European named Dr. Joel Cairo. Spade also had to deal with the police, who are determined to pin the three deaths on him.
So, what did I think of this version of ”THE MALTESE FALCON”? In the end, it turned out better than I had expected. However, the movie is not without its faults. There were times when I felt I was watching a filmed play (very common with early talking movies). But the film’s main problem seemed to be its pacing. It seemed too slow for what was supposed to be a witty murder mystery. Especially during the film’s first half hour. By the time Joel Cairo was introduced into the story, the pacing finally began to pick up. The dialogue provided by screenwriters Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes and an unaccredited Lucien Hubbard failed to improve over the course of the movie. Not only did the screenplay allow the dialogue to drag throughout the entire film, the latter was not that memorable. I did recognize a few lines from the 1941 film (which probably came from the novel), but nothing more. Also, I found the scene that featured Spade’s visit to an imprisoned Ruth Wonderly rather irrelevant. Spade’s reluctance to turn her over to the police should have conveyed his feelings for her toward the audience. The prison visit featured in the movie’s final scene simply struck me as unnecessary.
But ”THE MALTESE FALCON” still struck me as a pretty damn good film. Considering that it had been released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code Period (1929-34), it is not surprising that this version is considered the sexiest of the three movies. Del Ruth, along with Fulton, Holmes and Hubbard, did an excellent job of conveying the womanizing aspect of Spade’s character by revealing his affairs with Archer’s wife Iva, his casual flirtation with his secretary Effie, and visual hints of his relationship with Ruth Wonderly – like a small indent in the pillow next to the client’s head, which hinted that Spade had spent the night with her. Other signs of Pre-Code sexuality included Spade bidding a female client good-bye at the beginning of the movie, a nude Miss Wonderly in a bathtub, an off-screen striptease eventually revealed with a bare-shouldered Miss Wonderly, and a hint of a homosexual relationship between Caspar Gutman and his young enforcer Wilmer Cook.
Fulton, Holmes and Hubbard did a solid job of adapting Hammett’s novel for the screen by maintaining most of the original story. As I had pointed out earlier, the film’s dialogue did not strike me as memorable. It lacked the sharp wit of the 1941 adaptation. And it included an unnecessary scene from the novel – Spade’s visit to an imprisoned Ruth Wonderly – that could have easily been deleted. But the screenplay managed to hold its own. And considering that I have never read the novel, the screenplay did allow me to completely understand the story in full detail for the first time, without leaving me in a slight haze of fog. I found nothing memorable about William Rees’ photography or Robert M. Haas’ art direction . . . except in one scene. The scene in question featured an exterior setting, namely a street in San Francisco’s Chinatown where Miles Archer’s body was discovered. I suspect that this particular scene gave both Rees and Haas an opportunity to display their artistry beyond the movie’s usual interior settings.
”THE MALTESE FALCON” also featured a surprisingly solid cast. In fact, I would say that it turned out to be better than I had expected. Ricardo Cortez, a New York-born Jewish actor with a Latin name, led the cast as detective Sam Spade. Cortez got his start in silent films and had grown to leading man status by the time he shot this film. By the late 1930s, he ended up in supporting roles as a character actor and later ended his acting career to become a successful stockbroker on Wall Street. I thought that Cortez gave a very sexy interpretation of Spade in his performance. Mind you, his constant smirks and grins in the film’s first ten to fifteen minutes seemed annoying. But in the end, Cortez grew on me. I can honestly say that not only did I find him very effective in portraying a sexy Sam Spade, he also managed to superbly capture the character’s cynical humor, toughness and deep contempt toward the police.
Bebe Daniels, another survivor from the silent era, portrayed the movie’s femme fatale, Ruth Wonderly. She first became a star (following a stint as a child actor before World War I) during the 1920s. Her role in ”THE MALTESE FALCON” has been be considered as one of her best. And it is easy to see why. She managed to give an excellent performance as the ladylike, yet manipulative Ruth Wonderly, who drew Spade into the labyrinth search for the Maltese Falcon. Mind you, she lacked Mary Astor’s throbbing voice and nervous manner. But that is merely a minor hitch. Daniels still managed to portray a very convincing elegant temptress.
Irish-born Dudley Digges portrayed the wealthy and obsessive Caspar Gutman, who is not above murder, bribery and a score of other crimes to acquire the falcon statuette. Although not as rotund as Sydney Greenstreet, Digges seemed plump enough to be regarded as Gutman’s nickname, ’the Fatman”. However, Digges’ Gutman seemed a bit too obsequious in his performance. He lacked the style to believably portray a man wealthy enough to conduct a twenty-year search for a valuable artifact. Instead, Digges reminded me of a corrupt minor official at a British post in the tropics. He seemed to the subtlety for infusing menace into his character. Whenever he tried to be menacing, he only ended up giving a hammy performance. On the other hand, Otto Matieson gave a more believable performance as Dr. Joel Cairo, Gutman’s Continental accomplice. Despite Effie’s description of him as an effeminate, Matieson portrayed Cairo as a no-nonsense and practical man who is careful with his money and with whom to trust. Whatever effeminate qualities his character possessed, Matieson kept it to a minimum.
Una Merkel gave a humorous performance as Spade’s Girl Friday, Effie. Her Effie is not hesitant about expressing her attraction to Spade, yet at the same time, she seemed to find the detective’s other amorous activities rather amusing. Perhaps Merkel was amused at Thelma Todd’s performance as Archer’s widow and Spade’s mistress Ivy Archer. I found the future comedy star’s portrayal as the amorous and spiteful Ivy rather theatrical and false. It could have been her slightly hammy acting . . . or the fake clipped tone she used when pronouncing her words. All I do know that is that Todd seemed to be trying too hard as a scorned lover without any subtlety. At least Dwight Frye fared better as Gutman’s young enforcer, Wilmer Cook. Frye barely had any lines in the film, thank goodness. I have seen him in other films and his performance seemed to come off as hammy. But in ”THE MALTESE FALCON”, I thought he did a solid job in conveying the portrait of a baby-faced killer.
It is a shame that John Huston’s 1941 movie has overshadowed this version of Hammett’s novel. Mind you, Roy Del Ruth’s version is not perfect. The movie’s pacing in the first 15 to 20 minutes struck me as rather slow. But if I must be honest, I can say the same about the 1941 film. I was not that impressed by Dudley Digges and even less impressed by Thelma Todd’s performances. And this Pre-Code movie seemed to lack any memorable dialogue or mysterious atmosphere. But it had a sly sexuality that seemed to be missing in both the 1936 and 1941 versions. Also, the rest of the cast gave excellent performances – especially Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. And ironically, this version of ”THE MALTESE FALCON” made me clearly understand the story’s plot in clear detail for the very first time. I believe that it deserves to be considered more than just a footnote in movie history.