THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

Pre Code Confidential #11: THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Brothers 1931)

Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.

Cortez is no Bogie, but he’ll do

The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez  interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door opens and the camera pans down to the girl’s gorgeous gam, hitching up her stocking, so there’s no doubt that more than just business was being conducted behind that closed door. This sets the tone for Cortez’s character, an amoral man completely out for himself. We later discover he’s been banging his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva (and as she’s played by the lovely Thelma Todd  , who could blame him?!?). He’s also got a thing going on with secretary Effie ( Una Merkel , another Pre-Code cutie). Cortez made a career playing shady types, and though his Spade differs from the more cynical Bogart , he does well in the role of less than honorable gumshoe.

Bebe in the bathtub/la-dee-da-dee-dah!

Bebe Daniels plays opposite Cortez as the lying, duplicitous Ruth Wanderly, enacted in the Huston film by Mary Astor. Miss Daniels, a star in the silent era, was more closely associated with early musicals (DIXIANA, 42ND STREET), and is no match for Astor in the dramatic department. However, she does get to strut her Pre-Code stuff more freely than Astor did ten years later. There’s a scene where Ruth and Sam are passionately kissing while a record comes to an end; the scene changes to Daniels asleep in his bed the next morning. Sam answers the door to find Iva, who spies Ruth peeking through the bedroom door… in her kimono! Later, when a thousand dollar bill goes missing from an envelope, Sam orders Ruth to “take off your clothes” so he can search her… and she does! Though she’s no Mary Astor (let’s face it, few actresses were), Bebe Daniels does fine in the pivotal role of Ruth Wanderly.

Diggs & Frye… more than just friends?

The villainous trio of Casper Gutman, “Dr.” Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer Cook are portrayed with no ambiguity about their homosexuality. Right off the bat, Effie tells Sam a “gorgeous new customer” has arrived, and in walks the effeminate Dr. Cairo (Danish actor Otto Matieson). Gutman (Irishman Dudley Diggs) sports feminine curls and is more than fond of his hired goon Wilmer, played by none other than Dwight Frye. It was a very good year for Frye, as he appeared in both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA for Universal in 1931. There’s also some homophobic slurs tossed by Spade at the homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus (Robert Elliott, J. Farrell McDonald), as he teases Dundy with the sobriquets “sweetheart” and “darling”, much to their chagrin.

When Warner Brothers wanted to re-release the ’31 version in 1936, the then-in-place Hayes Production Code had a fit, claiming it was too “lewd” and unacceptable to be put on the Silver Screen again. Warners then commissioned a remake, retitled SATAN MET A LADY, changing some things around and starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the Cortez and Daniels roles. The new film was a bomb (Davis hated it), and Hammett’s story sat untouched until John Huston got ahold of it in 1941, and the rest is film history. The Huston/Bogart MALTESE FALCON remains the definitive version, and is still my favorite, but this  Roy Del Ruth  1931 Pre-Code take has a lot to offer. While not nearly as atmospheric or influential as the later film, this MALTESE FALCON is at least the stuff that Pre-Code dreams are made of!

The “Pre Code Confidential” Files:

  1. LADY KILLER
  2. KONGO
  3. MAKE ME A STAR
  4. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
  5. HOLLYWOOD PARTY
  6. THE SECRET SIX
  7. PLAY-GIRL
  8. BABY FACE
  9. BLONDE CRAZY
  10. CLEOPATRA