The Maltese Falcon (1931) Roy Del Ruth

Okay, I am not going to tell you this original version of Dashiell Hammett’s now classic novel is better that John Huston’s 1941 masterpiece, but the truth is Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 pre-code has a sensual sinful aura the Huston/Bogart film lacks and it makes you want to keep it in your back pocket and save it for a night of wicked dreams.

After the release of the Huston/Bogart gem, Warner Brothers changed the title of the earlier flick to the more vapid and generic “Dangerous Woman” so as not to confuse anyone. Over the years this first version has practically been pushed into oblivion and only recently, thanks to TCM, popped back on to the screen.

The plot is the same with both films using plenty of Hammett’s source dialogue, however there is a different feel to the two films. Huston’s film is much darker in tone possibly due to the effects of the recent depression and fear of World War II which loomed over America soon becoming involved. This is most prominently seen in the Sam Spade character. Ricardo Cortez’s Spade is a skirt chaser of the first degree. In the end when he turns Miss Wonderly over to the cops Spade is clearly saving his own hide, even though he has clearly fallen for the duplicitous dame. Bogie’s Spade is more righteous, someone who lives by a personal code. As he hands her over to the cops he says, “When your partner is murdered, you are supposed to do something about it.” Cortez’s Spade plainly states he didn’t give a damn about his partner, dead or alive, and only is out to save himself.

And then there is the sex!

The pre-code drips with it. Let’s take a look at the women. The first woman we see is a unidentified client, and while we don’t really meet her, we are treated to a silhouette of Spade and the female client kissing on the other side of his office door. As she leaves Spade’s office we are given a close up of her shapely pair of legs. Spade’s eyes as well as the audiences getting an appreciative look. We then meet Effie (Una Merkel); Sam’s secretary who gives off a light hearted air that possibly at some time in the past, and maybe it’s still going on, there was something electric going on between these two. She knows Sam better than anyone and you clearly see it in her suggestive knowing eyes whenever a female client is on the scene. We are then introduced to Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) the two-faced femme fatale who hires Sam to “find her sister.”  Later in the film she objects to a strip search but once undressed she sees no need to hurriedly put her clothes back on and later is seen in a sexy bathtub scene. Finally, there is Iva Archer (Thelma Todd) as the cheating wife of Miles Archer who can’t wait to hop back into bed with Sam. Actually, after meeting Archer (Walter Long) a short while later, the audience I am sure, at least the woman in the audience, could not blame her for wanting a little snuggle time with the handsome Cortez when compared to the man she is married too.

The rest of the cast is memorable though definitely not iconic as the gang in Huston’s film. Otto Mattison makes for a slimy Joel Cairo and your easily can see his performance as Lorre’s inspiration.  Dudley Diggs is nice and sweaty if a little lightweight for someone cast as the fat man though he is never called that in the film. Dwight Frye makes for a fine Wilmer.

The Huston/Bogart film is actually the third version of Hammett’s book to make it to the screen. In 1936, only five years after the Del Ruth film, Warner’s released “Satan Met a Lady” starring Bette Davis and Warren Williams as P.I. Ted Shane (Spade) in an alternate universe version of the Falcon. It’s easily the weakest of the three films. New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers said in his review,  “so disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s incidents, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in constant expectation of seeing a group of uniformed individuals appear suddenly from behind the furniture and take the entire cast into protective custody. There is no story, merely a farrago of nonsense representing a series of practical studio compromises with an unworkable script.”

For many of those familiar with the 1941 classic, viewing this pre-code for the first time it might seem to be a bit jarring watching Cortez as Spade. He is certainly more handsome than Bogart and he handles the role well at times, for example he exhibits a knowing charm only men who see themselves as ladies men possess. The main problem though is Cortez, like many actors from this period, came from silent film and he does not tone down his expressions enough to be truly believable.  Additionally, his Sam Spade is less the cynic than Bogart’s sullen outsider who looms large over the character. There are some similarities though, like neither man will be “played for a sap.” The double crossing dame is taking the rap in both films. As for Bebe Daniels, she gives a much more balanced performance and she certainly a sexier version of Ruth Wonderly than Astor’s.

John Huston’s film was a game changer in American film. Considered by some to be the first or one of the first film noirs, the Bogart starring Falcon defined the hard-boiled detective on screen. Bogart’s Spade was cynical down to the bone but honorable and honest. You get this with the Huston/Bogart version. With Cortez’s Spade he’s honest but he still comes across as more out for the ladies and most of all for himself.

Taken on its own terms and made during less cynical times, “The Maltese Falcon” from 1931 is still intriguing, entertaining and a wicked delight to watch.

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9 comments on “The Maltese Falcon (1931) Roy Del Ruth

  1. […] Frames takes a look at the pre-Code version of The Maltese Falcon. (“Did you know there was an earlier version of The Maltese Falcon? I’ve never seen it, […]

  2. Page says:

    John,
    I’m so glad to know you feel this way about the original since I do as well. I can see why the film was re-made with Bogart as it was such great writing by Hammett but I’ve always enjoyed the original for the reasons you’ve so beautifully stated here. Cortez, Merkel, Todd, Long and Daniels were perfectly cast and Cortez was a more rounded Spade. Maybe it was because of his prowess but he was the more interesting of the two when you compare him to Bogart. The only role that I did prefer in the later remake was Lorre’s. He was perfectly cast.

    I’ve never been a big fan of Bacall and Astor together on screen. There was zero chemistry for me. Do you think there was another actress that would have been better suited to play Brigid in the remake?

    I’ve not seen/ heard of Satan Met a Lady but hopefully I can find it.
    I really enjoyed your comparisons and it made me realize just how sexy the original was. I want to go re-watch it now.

    I hope you had a great holiday.
    Page

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Page,

      Hope you had a great Thanksgiving too! While I prefer Bogart to Cortez, Ricardo does give us a different interpretation of Spade. The women are all sexy and superb. Daniels comes across as truly evil. I think Gene Tierney or maybe Stanwyck would have made for a good Brigid opposite Bogie.

      SATAN MET A LADY was released on VHS years ago. It’s also available on DVD as part of the three disc release of THE MALTESE FALCON which includes the 1931 version and SATAN if it is still in print. I think TCM has shown it also.

      It’s a good film that stands on its own. I hope more people get to watch it.

  3. Judy says:

    I’d like to see this version, John – will watch out for it, and also for ‘Satan Met a Lady’. It’s often interesting to see different versions of the same story and tends to shed light on why decisions were made in the more famous version. Thanks for making my list of films to watch even longer!

    • John Greco says:

      You’re welcome Judy! Always willing to help out in making your list longer! (LOL). This is a good version of the film. Not the classic the Huston/Bogart version is but good stuff.

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    Yes this earlier version is indeed a sinful delight John, and it does as you note, evince a sensual aura as you astutely opine. I did get to see this at a pre-code Festival, where I actually watched it for the first time, and was very impressed with it overall, though of course it stands in the shadow of Huston’s 1941 masterpiece. I agree with you that Cortez is a more “handsome” Spade than Bogart, but that’s where the advantage ends. Bogart’s spectacularly-charismatic turn leaves Cortez in the dust, and your view that the influence of silent era acting works against him seems sound. I did enjoy Mattison and Frye, I must say, but against as you document, the iconic cast of the later film will always be a stumbling block for true appreciation of Del Ruth’s respectable adaptation. As always john, your wonderful essay is ‘chock full of goodies!’

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam! It’s a good film and should be more known to many movie watchers. I hope TCM will put in into its rotation a bit more often.

  5. […] Frames takes a look at the pre-Code version of The Maltese Falcon. (“Did you know there was an earlier version of The Maltese Falcon? I’ve never seen it, […]

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