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 obviously 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.
This pre-code version 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. Spades’ 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. Later she is seen in a sexy bathtub scene. Finally, there is Iva Archer (Thelma Todd) who 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 John 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 Roy 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 Hammett’s story. 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 Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. He is certainly more handsome than Bogart and he handles the role well at times. For example, he exhibits a knowing charm that only men who see themselves as ladies men possess. The main problem though is Cortez. Like many actors from this period, he 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.