Richard J. Leskosky: 'Maltese Falcon' a case of remake improvement
When people complain about all the remakes and reboots we see in the cinema these days (most recently, "RoboCop"), they forget that in some very notable cases the remake has been significantly better than the original. Probably the best example of this is John Huston's 1941 version of "The Maltese Falcon," showing this Saturday, June 21, in the News-Gazette Film Series at the Virginia Theatre at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Huston brings Dashiell Hammett's 1930 classic hard-boiled detective novel to the screen in a faithful, equally classic adaptation. San Francisco private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) takes what appears to be a simple case with a large retainer, but his partner Miles Archer quickly ends up dead, and the cops suspect him of the murder. After all, he was having an affair with Archer's wife.
Then three odd characters (Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr.) start showing up at his office and his apartment pointing guns at him and asking about a mysterious statue. His client, Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), keeps changing her story, and Spade does not trust her even though he's strongly attracted to her. She also seems to be the key to Archer's murder and whatever it is the villains are after.
Warner Bros. originally filmed the story in 1931, with the same title as the novel. Roy Del Ruth, best known for middling comedies and musicals, directed Latin lover Ricardo Cortez in the Sam Spade role and Bebe Daniels as his sexy client.
It did reasonably well with critics and at the box office. In 1936, Warner Bros. attempted to re-release that version, but the Production Code Office would not approve it because it did not meet the moral standards of the Production Code which had come into effect since its initial release.
Instead, the studio redid the story in a more comic mode as "Satan Met a Lady." William Dieterle, who would make his reputation with biopics, directed with Bette Davis in the femme fatale role and Warren William as the detective, here renamed Shane. It did not do well.
When Warner Bros. approached George Raft to play Spade in their third run at the novel in 1941, he turned them down. He was a big enough star at the time that his contract specified that he would not appear in remakes!
So you might argue that because Huston's version was based on the same popular novel as were its predecessors, it was not technically a remake as such. But clearly people in the film industry at the time considered it a remake.
In any event, Bogart wound up in the role (he had been Huston's first choice anyway) and set the pattern for movie private eyes to follow, just as Hammett's novel influenced subsequent American crime fiction. He also established himself as a heroic leading man after a decade of playing criminals and psychopaths.
Huston as screenwriter smartly left most of Hammett's dialogue in place and subsequently earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
As a first-time director, Huston demonstrated a canny sense of space in composing his images. He storyboarded every scene — a common practice now — so that he could maintain fairly strict control over his images. He composed his images in depth so that we are aware of different levels of activity or interest within the frame, but he also used tight framing and unusual camera angles, for instance, to emphasize chief villain Caspar Gutman's (Greenstreet) size and menace. And no doubt in part because his father, Walter Huston, was a well-established Hollywood star, he had a knack for working with actors and eliciting convincing performances from them. (Walter does an uncredited cameo as the dying sea captain who delivers a precious package to Spade.) Huston directed Greenstreet, in his first screen role (after years on stage), to an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and the film itself received a Best Picture nomination.
"The Maltese Falcon" was the only novel in which Sam Spade appeared, and it was also the only film in which he appeared. Hammett's previous protagonist was the unnamed agency detective, the Continental Op (short for "Continental Detective Agency operative"), and subsequently he created Nick and Nora Charles, the detective and his high society wife in "The Thin Man." Hammett actually worked on a couple of subsequent film scripts about the couple's further adventures, and a total of six "Thin Man" films were made. But the only other thing he did with the Spade character was a trio of short stories printed in 1932 in major popular magazines (that is, not the pulp mystery magazines that had printed his earlier stories).
Spade had a successful career on radio, though, appearing in over 240 episodes of "The Adventures of Sam Spade" from 1946 through 1951 (all but 24 starring Howard Duff). Spade made a marginal return to the big screen when Duff's voice as Spade could be heard coming over the radio in the 1949 film adaptation of the popular radio comedy series "The Life of Riley."
In 1946 Humphrey Bogart also played Raymond Chandler's private eye character, Philip Marlowe, in Howard Hawks' adaptation of "The Big Sleep" for Warner Bros., and he became identified with that character as well. As they are both private detectives and as Chandler's Marlowe was influenced by Hammett's Spade, it's easy enough to think of them as the same character. But Marlowe is something of a knight errant while Spade hews only to his own code and tends to enjoy it a little too much when he sows doubt and mistrust among his adversaries as he ferrets out the truth.
Note 1: If, after seeing "The Maltese Falcon," you find yourself wondering how Spade and Archer became partners and how the affair with Archer's wife began, you're in luck. In 2009, with the approval of the Dashiell Hammett estate, crime writer Joe Gores (whose 1975 novel "Hammett" with Hammett as its detective protagonist was filmed in 1982 by Wim Wenders) wrote a prequel entitled "Spade & Archer." It fills in all that background, and Gores describes Spade as Hammett did — very unlike Bogart, tall, blond, with a satanic cast to his features.
Note 2: For more on the film, see my column on the 2012 Hessel Park screening (which wound up being canceled because of rain).
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.