If you’re anything of a movie buff at all, you know that while the taut crime drama High Sierra (1941) put Humphrey Bogart on the map, The Maltese Falcon, released later that same year, was the film that made him a star. What many don’t realize is that this was the third big screen adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, with two other versions, The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936) having preceded it. A rare treat is in store as Turner Classic Movies will be running all three versions Friday evening and Saturday morning as part of their Friday Night Spotlight which focuses this month on films based on novels written by classic crime novelists.
Once you see all three versions, you come away with a greater appreciation of John Huston, who wrote the screenplay and directed the Bogart feature. While the other two breeze by far too quickly, clocking in at 79 and 75 minutes respectively, Huston takes his time not to rush through key details from Hammett’s novel yet is able to generate a sense of urgency amongst the characters that never flags. This is only the most obvious difference between the three films with the conflicting sense of mood and perspective varying in great degrees as well.
What follows are brief reviews of each version as well as the time they will be screened so you can set your DVR accordingly. Watched in the order in which they were released or starting with the Bogart version and working backwards, this night of programming plays out like a mini film class as it provides a great lesson in how a director’s approach and the time period in which a movie was made can have a profound and varied outcome on the finished product.
The Maltese Falcon (1931) – Briskly told in just under 80 minutes, this version of the story is the raciest of the bunch as it was made before the Hays Commission was formed to regulate lewd material in the movies. There’s no question that detective Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) is a bit of a lothario here as the first scene shows him tidying up a bit after an afternoon tryst and the fact that he's having an affair with his partner’s wife is stated rather than implied. The other obvious difference comes in the portrayals of Casper Gutman (Dudley Digges) and Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson). While there is a suggestion that they are involved in a homosexual relationship in the 1941 version, it’s far more obvious with the overly suggestive performances from the two actors. However, the biggest problem with the film is Cortez. A capable silent film star, he delivers a performance here that is more of that era – broad, obvious and ultimately bland. A suitable entertainment for its time, this is a movie that has not aged well and is nothing more than a historic cinematic artifact thanks to the success of the better-known version of the story that would be released a decade later. (TCM – Friday night at 7:00 PM)
Satan Met a Lady (1936) – Though the name of the characters and the object of their desire had been changed, there’s no question that the story is taken from Hammett’s novel. Instead of detective Sam Spade being on the case, we have Ted Shane (Warren William) while Valerie Purvis, the acidic dame who brings him nothing but grief, is played by the immortal Bette Davis. The Maltese Falcon is no where to be seen as all involved are in pursuit of the Horn of Roland, a ram’s horn filled with jewels, while the role of Gutman, immortalized on screen by Sydney Greenstreet five years later, has been inexplicably changed to that on a woman. Apparently Davis knew that the script was a dog and took her complaints to Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner, asking to be released from the project. He refused to budge, the film ended up being the disaster Davis had envisioned and she eventually walked out on her contract at the studio because of it and low quality of subsequent movies she was assigned to. No, this is not a good film but it is fun to watch as you wonder how such talented people could end up making such a turkey. (TCM – Saturday morning at 3:30 AM)
The Maltese Falcon (1941) – Reams have been written about this classic version and not just because it plays such an integral part in the careers of Huston and Bogart, but it also is a prime example of how a classic film was made during the Studio Era and is a significant entry in the crime genre. Perhaps the most important thing about this version is that it is the one that adheres closet to Hammett’s novel. Huston, before going on a vacation, instructed his assistant to get a copy of the book and type it up in screenplay form for his perusal upon his return. Somehow, studio heads got ahold of it before then, read it, approved it and wanted Huston to start shooting before he even had a chance to read it himself. Equally important is the casting of the film. Huston had a great eye for talent and in assembling Bogart, Mary Astor as femme fatale Bridgid O’Shaughnessy, Sydney Greenstreet in his first big screen appearance as Gutman, Peter Lorre as the weasel-like Joel Cairo and Elisha Cook, Jr. as fall guy Wilmer Cook, he was able to bring together a cast that was more than capable of creating characters that would become iconic figures in the crime genre. However, the greatest thing Huston does here is he gives the film an edge of cynicism that is rare for the period and provides the film noir genre with a seed from which to grow. Dreams and the stuff that makes them wither and die in a world populated by amoral treasure hunters, adulterers and men who lean on a pistol rather than reason. More than anything, The Maltese Falcon reminds us of the larceny that exists in us all and the greed we possess that causes it to bloom. (TCM - Saturday morning at 1:30 AM)