As part of our week-long celebration of the 70th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon (1941), today we are taking a look at the second 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.
In 1935, Warner Bros., unable to re-release the somewhat racy 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon due to stricter enforcement of the Production Code, decided to film a second version of the novel. The studio assigned an unenthusiastic William Dieterle to the director’s chair, an unwilling Bette Davis to the leading lady role, and pre-Code heartthrob Warren William to the pivotal role of Sam Spade … er, I mean, “Ted Shane.” The end result, released in 1936, was nothing short of underwhelming; to call the film a “misfire” is a severe understatement (the term that comes to my mind is “clusterfuck,” in case you were wondering).
The job of adapting the book into screenplay form was given to Brown Holmes, who had also worked on the screenplay for the earlier film. One would think that his previous experience with the material would result in something that was greatly similar to the original production. But the resulting script was merely a loose adaptation of Falcon. Now, when I say “loose,” I mean LOOSE. The screenplay ultimately had little in common with the source material. Holmes, in what appears to be an attempt to imbue the film with a farcical sense of irreverence, changed the characters’ names (and even one character’s gender), their personalities, and even the film’s “MacGuffin,” for the fabled gold-and-jewel-encrusted falcon was changed to an ivory ram’s horn stuffed with gems. Elements of the plot were altered to the point that any similarities to Falcon seem, in hindsight, almost coincidental. In short … this just ain’t Hammett’s story.
Satan’s “Spade” figure lacks the subtlety and the ambiguity of Hammett’s characterization. In fact, there’s nothing very subtle about Ted Shane–he’s painted as greedy, ambitious, and an unrepentant womanizer. Every woman he meets is greeted as “Kitten,” regardless of her actual name. William plays the role almost tongue-in-cheek; Shane is not meant to be taken seriously, despite the seriousness of the trouble he’s in. There is no sense of mystery to Shane’s motives. If Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade values women above all, and Humphrey Bogart’s values self-reliance, then William’s Shane is most concerned with gain–monetary gain, romantic gain, ego boosts, and whatever else he can get. In this sense, Shane is perhaps the most mercenary of the Spade incarnations … though this is undermined greatly by his sheer goofiness. After all, can you really refer to a man who imitates King Kong as a “mercenary?”
Davis absolutely loathed the experience of making the film. The actress, who demonstrated a keen eye for quality throughout much of her career, knew the script was bad and that the part of Valerie Purvis virtually reeked of “vapidity,” as she would later state in her memoirs. But while Davis may not have wanted to make the film, she simply did not have it in her to deliver a half-assed performance, regardless of the weaknesses of the concept. As a result, Davis is easily the best thing about Satan Met a Lady. Valerie is scripted as more antagonistic than other versions of Brigid O’Shaughnessy–she is combative from the start, and instead of manipulating Shane through her feminine wiles, Valerie (at least initially) relies on a pistol to get her way. Because of this, she is a much less effective female foil for the detective. Still, Davis manages to make an impact when she’s onscreen, bringing a steely determination to Valerie that belies the character’s sometimes insipid dialogue.
The “vapidity” Davis complained about is evident in all of the female characters in the movie. Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson), the parallel to loyal secretary Effie, is a shrill, ditzy, whiny combination of worldliness and naivete. Astrid (Winifred Shaw), the wife of Shane’s doomed, shlubby partner Ames (Porter Hall), is a flirtatious man-eater whose role in the plot is reduced to irrelevance. And this film’s “Casper Gutman” figure, the stout Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth), lacks the menace and suavity befitting a purported criminal mastermind. None of these characters can hold a candle to their literary and (other) cinematic counterparts.
Equally ineffective are Satan’s versions of Dr. Cairo–now a dapper, tall Englishman named Travers (Arthur Treacher)–and the “gunsel”–now a baby-faced “nephew” of Barabbas, Kenneth (Maynard Holmes). Travers spends much of the film apologizing for trashing Shane’s apartment and office while complaining that Shane’s behavior is “not cricket.” Kenneth threatens to kill the teasing Shane, and has in fact murdered other characters in the film, but his comically young appearance and whining tone make you doubt his ability to kill a bug, let alone a person. The effort to paint these characters in a “funny” light ultimately weakens whatever impact they may have otherwise had.
That’s the problem with the entire film, truth be told. In the end, though Dieterle and company try to make the movie work as a comedy, the audience is not laughing. It’s almost impossible to take a story with the darkness and verve of The Maltese Falcon and turn it into slapstick–well, successful slapstick, anyway. Satan Met a Lady stands as a prime example of how literary adaptations can go horribly wrong when the source material is utterly bastardized on the way to the big screen.
Tomorrow: Hollywood finally gets The Maltese Falcon right.