As part of our week-long celebration of the 70th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon (1941), today we are taking a look at the first film version of Dashiell Hammett’s pulp crime novel. For a brief introduction to the 1941 film, check out our post on Falcon from last year. For a more in-depth synopsis of the film’s plot, we recommend the AMC FilmSite entry about the movie. And if you’ve never seen any of the film versions or read the book, be warned that we will be discussing elements of their respective endings in our posts this week.
In 1931, The Maltese Falcon was first produced by Warner Bros. This initial film version stars Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as the devious Ruth Wonderly, and also features Una Merkel as Effie, Thelma Todd as Iva, and Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman. The movie is directed by Roy Del Ruth, whose career was mainly filled with B-pictures, including a number of musicals (Gold Diggers of Broadway, Broadway Melody of 1936 and 1938, DuBarry Was a Lady). Due to its status as a pre-Code film, and the judgment of the Hays Office that the film was not fit for reissue once stricter enforcement of the Code began in 1934, this version was unavailable for years. It was finally shown on television in the 1960s, where it was re-titled Dangerous Female in an effort to distinguish the movie from the better-known 1941 version.
There are elements of this movie that work, and that is mainly due to its relative faithfulness to Hammett’s dialogue and plot–though several scenes are cut to accommodate an abbreviated running time of only 79 minutes. But overall, when placed up against both the source material and the later film, this Falcon is a rather pale production.
Cortez plays Spade as both the smooth womanizer, secure in his own charms, and the gruff, hard-bitten private dick. It makes for an odd combination, and in the end, it doesn’t really work. Throughout most of the film, his Spade wears a perpetual smirk, which seems odd given the circumstances in which the character finds himself. Cortez is, by turns, jocular and unfeeling, and his almost jaunty nature is jarring at times, making the scenes in which Spade grows angry or defensive ring false. Cortez ultimately suffers in comparison to his successor, as he lacks the gravitas and determination that Humphrey Bogart would bring to the role a decade later.
Furthermore, some of Cortez’s affectations are entirely incongruous to the character. Filing his nails while questioning Miss Wonderly? The action is so out of place as to be laughable. And I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t believe for a single second that Sam Spade would be caught dead in a pair of polka-dotted pajamas. The scene in which Spade is awakened by the news of Archer’s death loses some of its gravitas due to the strangeness of the detective’s attire.
The film goes out of its way to establish Spade’s popularity with the female sex. The movie opens with a shot of Spade’s office door, where two embracing shadows can be seen through the frosted glass. The door opens, and the camera pans down to a shot of a woman’s legs as she adjusts her stockings and straightens her seams. All the shot needs is a train shooting through a tunnel at full speed–just to drive home the fact that the couch in Spade’s office has recently gotten quite a workout.
Additionally, the film emphasizes the sexual tension between Spade and his faithful secretary, Effie. The two have obviously engaged in a sexual relationship in the past, and their flirtatious behavior–Effie sitting on the arm of Spade’s chair, Spade’s nuzzling her neck–hints that the arrangement likely continues in between Spade’s other conquests. Effie accepts Sam’s womanizing and even enables it, as when she ensures that he takes a phone call from his erstwhile lover–Mrs. Miles Archer, his partner’s wife–and encourages him to see new client Miss Wonderly by declaring that the girl is a “knockout.” It’s all part and parcel of her role as the ultimate “Girl Friday”: loyal and true to the very end, even when the boss is knocking boots with half the women in San Francisco. Merkel comports herself well in the role, but this film’s characterization of Effie is no match for Lee Patrick’s performance in the 1941 version. Patrick’s Effie is loyal but no-nonsense, faintly disapproving of Spade but unwilling to voice it, and the relationship between boss and secretary is fond but platonic (and thereby much more believable in the latter film).
One of the few strengths of the ’31 version comes from the performance of a supporting player who is onscreen all of five minutes. The character of Iva plays a minor role in both versions, but Thelma Todd makes more of an impact in the small part than her ’41 successor, Gladys George. Instead of skulking in the shadows and causing trouble for Spade, Todd’s Iva confronts the detective directly, threatening him in a jealous rage over seeing Wonderly in Spade’s apartment (“wearing MY kimona!”). Todd is great in the role, one of the few she had in mainstream full-length features during her sadly-abbreviated career.
But it is in the relationship with Miss Wonderly where the 1931 film is able to distinguish itself somewhat from the latter production. Daniels’ take on Ruth Wonderly is less desperate and, ultimately, less effective than Mary Astor’s later performance–her motives are more transparent (Daniels’ facial expressions lack the key element of subtlety in many scenes); she is more defiant and snappish toward Spade; and she does not have the same breathless (and seemingly effortless) guile that Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy so capably displays (note that in the 1931 film, Wonderly is the character’s actual name, and she does not go by an alias–this element was likely cut due to the shortened running time of the film).
The movie is much more explicit in its insinuation that Spade sleeps with Wonderly–though he supposedly spends the night on the couch, a shot of the bed the next morning shows a distinct headprint on the pillow next to the sleeping woman. The film also includes a couple of daring scenes, even for the pre-Code time period: one in which Daniels is shown taking a bath–though she is only shown from the shoulders up, it’s quite obvious the actress is, at the very least, topless–and another in which Spade demands Wonderly strip so he can search her for a missing $1000 bill–though the stripping is not shown on-camera, Daniels throws various articles of clothing at Spade’s head while she undresses (this stripping scene was a key scene in the novel, highlighting the level of Spade’s distrust of the girl, but was excised from the 1941 film as per the rules of the Code).
Wonderly’s peccadilloes are also spelled out more explicitly in this movie. When negotiating with Spade for possession of the falcon, Gutman implies that the detective is merely the latest in a long line of infatuated male suitors: “Miss Wonderly’s admirers have been many, sir, and she has used them to her advantage.” In other words, in case you couldn’t grasp the leering meaning behind Gutman’s claim, Miss Wonderly is, in his estimation, little more than a common whore.
Of course, Gutman’s own peccadilloes leave him little room to criticize anyone, let alone the admittedly deceptive Miss Wonderly. When Spade demands that Gutman’s “boyfriend,” Wilmer, be given to the police as the “fall guy,” Gutman’s initial refusal gives way to his greed. Though Gutman claims that he views Wilmer as his “son” (which adds a disturbing dimension to their relationship, considering Gutman is having sex with the boy), he soon begins to agree that there will be other “sons,” but only one falcon. Digges’ take on Gutman is somewhat histrionic, in that he flaps his arms and acts more agitated than the calmer Sydney Greenstreet in ’41. The end result is that this Gutman serves more of a comic relief-type role, as in the scene when he slaps Cairo’s napping, newspaper-covered face with a fly swatter. It’s hard to take him as a serious threat, as he lacks both Greenstreet’s civilized menace and his intimidating bulk. Indeed, the ’31 Gutman is not referred to as the “Fat Man” in this film–the actor simply does not have the girth to carry it off.
All of this is not to say that the first 75 minutes of the film are necessarily bad. It’s quite watchable, and if you’ve seen the 1941 movie, it’s a fun exercise to compare and contrast the two (despite the decided weaknesses of the ’31 cast in comparison to that of ’41). There are some obvious similarities in these movies, as each is pretty faithful to the original novel–several scenes mirror one another almost precisely, and some snatches of dialogue are virtually identical.
It’s only in the last five minutes that the 1931 Falcon dissolves into sheer, unadulterated “what-the-fuckery” (for lack of a better term) that will leave you scratching your head and asking, “Why?” For some reason, the filmmakers found it necessary to leave viewers on an upbeat note by grafting an epilogue to the end of the movie. After Wonderly has been taken away and convicted (the results of the ensuing trial are revealed to viewers through a series of newspaper clippings onscreen), Spade goes to visit his jailed paramour and informs her that he has been made the chief investigator for the District Attorney’s office. He stares at her longingly, reaching a hand through the bars to touch her, and leaves. On his way out, he tells the guard to give the girl anything she wants … “good food, cigarettes, candy.” When the guard asks who should be billed for it, Spade gives her a broad grin and tells her to send the bills to the DA’s office.
This ending is disconcerting because it is inconceivable that Sam Spade–the solitary, morally ambiguous rebel against authority–would accept a position working for “the man.” Spade revels in his combative relationship with the police–after all, most of them (with the exception of Polhouse) distrust Spade and think he has more in common with the criminals than the “good guys.” In the scene in which Spade is interrogated by the DA and the police, the detective’s attitude and derisive tone indicate the depth of his loathing for them. It doesn’t make sense that Spade would then agree to essentially become one of them (even if he does apparently plan to stick them for all of Miss Wonderly’s expenses). It is also strange to see Spade–particularly Cortez’s version, who values his propensity with multiple ladies–obviously yearning for the now-inaccessible Wonderly. We know he loves her–he admitted as much before sending her away for Archer’s murder–but that moment of vulnerability feels like an odd coda to a relatively solid yarn.
Tomorrow: a look back at Satan Met a Lady (1936).