The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936)

Maltese Falcoln (1931)    Satan Met a Lady (1936)
The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936)

Film:                                   The Maltese Falcon                       Satan Met a Lady
Year:                                  1931                                               1936
Director:                              Roy Del Ruth                                William Dieterle
Writing Credits:
   Novel:                              Dashiell Hammett                         Dashiell Hammett
   Screenplay:                     Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes      Brown Holmes
                                           Lucien Hubbard
Production Company:        Warner Bros./Vitaphone                Warner Bros. Pictures
Cinematography:               William Rees                                  Arthur Edeson
Film Editing:                       George Marks                               Warren Low
Art Direction:                      Robert M. Haas                             Max Parker

Cast:
Ruth Wonderly:              Bebe Daniels            Valerie Purvis:               Bette Davis
Sam Spade:                   Ricardo Cortez         Ted Shane:                    Warren William
Casper Gutman:            Dudley Digges          Madame Barbbas:         Alison Skipworth
Effie Perine:                   Una Merkel               Miss Murgatroyd:           Marie Wilson
Detective Lt. Dundy:      Robert Elliott             Detective Pollock:          Charles C. Wilson
Iva Archer:                     Thelma Todd            Astrid Ames:                   Wini Shaw
Dr. Joel Cairo:                Otto Matieson          Anthony Travers:            Arthur Treacher
Miles Archer:                  Walter Long             Milton Ames:                   Porter Hall
Wilmer Cook:                 Dwight Frye             Kenneth:                         Maynard Holmes
Det. Sgt. T. Polhouse    J. Farrell MacDonald  Detective Dunhill:         Olin Howland

December 1, 2012

John Huston has frequently been quoted as saying that he was excited by the idea of making “The Maltese Falcon” because, even though it had been filmed before, the first Maltese Falcoln (1931)version “hardly touched the book”.  Even though he could probably have gotten away with that statement in 1941 when the idea of the original surfacing again to refute him was remote, it’s unlikely that he ever made the statement.  (The quotes were never from Huston direct, always from someone who had it second hand).  Then especially, he was too good a director and probably too fair a man to make such a claim.  There can be no doubt at all that his version is superior.  The peculiar magic of Huston in the enthusiasm of his first direction, Warners at the peak of their production expertise foir this kind of film, an incredibly felicitous cast (Greenstreet, Lorre, Bogart, Astor, Cook), all combined to make it a classic which absolutely transcended its genre.  Huston was a better director than Del Ruth, and handled his actors with greater intelligence.  Moreover, his own scripting wrought subtle changes that in some cases were an improvement on Hammett’s own writing, and as a director he handled the camera in a semi-subjective way that brought about unconscious audience “participation” and is a key ingredient in the maintenance of the film’s freshness.  Nevertheless—especially given the handicaps of working in the early days of sound—the original is an unusual and interesting production, like 1935’s “The Glass Key” very much at odds with the mainstream of crime and mystery films of the day.  What is really remarkable is the fidelity with which Huston’s version follow the original, even allowing for the fact that both versions were faithful to the novel and thus must be faithful to each other.  But in the choice of angle, and in the selection of dialogue, even in the opening dissolve from the credits into Spade’s office, both versions are virtually identical.

The one element missing—the more gradual introduction of Wilmer, Spade spotting him in the hotel lobby, accompanying him to Gutman and disarming him first—was shot, Maltese Falcoln (1931)exactly as in the Huston version (extant stills bear this out) and was presumably cut just to shorten the film.  The introduction is now effected merely by the insert of a telegram, and a dissolve into Gutman’s room.  Other differences are usually to the disadvantage of the remake, since Huston was hamstrung to a degree by the Production Code, even though deftly suggesting what he could not actually show.  In the original, Spade’s affair with Miles Archer’s wife is clearly established, and Archer is aware of it; Spade’s affair with Brigid is also spelled out a little more clearly, as is the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer.  Brigid’s being forced to strip was averted in the remake; here it clearly takes place, though tastefully and behind closed doors, and Brigid’s own double-dealing is exposed a little earlier.  The performances (especially Dudley Digges as Gutman) are admittedly less flamboyant and less “fun” than in the remake, but they are seedier and dramatically just as valid.  Even given the less subtle scripting and less “involved” acting, this first version still holds up well, and would hold up even better with just a little more mechanical help.  In keeping with the feeling of the times that musical scoring was an artificial device, there is no music at all—except for the one love scene when it was felt to be essential, and they justify it by giving the music a logical source—Spade puts on a phonograph record.  The device also serves as a cutaway as the love scene gets under way; scratching phonograph needles, roaring fireplaces and seagulls swooping over waves were the standard movie metaphors for sex in the 30’s).  Too, Roy del Ruth. who would reach his crackling peak the following year with “Blessed Event”, was not yet sufficiently absorbed into the Warner machine to create the kind of taut pacing that was both is speciality (for a while) as well as a studio trademark.

Maltese Falcoln (1931)Note: Produced under the title “Woman of the World”; this print retitled (for television use) “Dangerous Female”.  For a more detailed comparison between this first version, the second (William Dieterle’s “Satan Met a Lady” with Warren William and Bette Davis) and the Huston-Bogart version, than we have room for in these notes, we refer you to the current Citadel Press book “The Detective in Film”. (by WKE)

William K. Everson, March 2, 1973

Prior to the release of The Maltese Falcon in 1941, the major emphasis in detective films seemed to be fast action, blended with a goodly share of light comedy.  More often than not, these melodramas were of a programmer quality (an exception being The Thin Man series at Metro) and left little lasting impression on audiences.

John Huston’s underplayed version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel accented psychology and characterization, rather than superficial thrills.  It made the formula detective movie obsolete and became the model for a new kind of private-eye film.

John Huston, already a respected Hollywood screenwriter, made his debut as a director with The Maltese Falcon.  Gathering together a brilliant cast, which included Humphrey Bogart as the sardonic Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid, Sydney Greenstreet as Gutman, Peter Lorre as Cairo, Elisha Cook, Jr., as Wilmer, and his won father, Walter, playing a cameo role as the ill-fated Captain Jacobi, the thirty-five-year-old Huston created a picture, filled with tension, that the New York Times called: “The best mystery thriller of the year.”

Huston’s film was the third screen version of Hammett’s novel.  Warners’ original was made in 1931.  The story differences in the two pictures are minimal, but worth noting:

Both versions contain a subplot dealing with the fact that Spade is having an affair with Archer’s wife.  The husband remains unaware of the relationship in Huston’s film, but in the earlier telling, he overhears an “incriminating” phone conversation between his partner and spouse.

Whereas, in the 1941 picture, we see Archer being shot, this murder is committed offscreen in the original.  Also in Del Ruth’s film, the crime has a witness—a Chinaman.

Digges’s Gutman, who is not fat, slips Spade the drug on his first visit—not the second.

The 1931 movie retained a scene from the novel, which Huston omitted because censorship regulations were stricter in 1941.  When, at Spade’s apartment Gutman suggest that Brigid stole a thousand dollar bill from an envelope containing ten times that amount, the detective takes the girl into the kitchen and forces her to strip, so that he can search her.

Later in the same film, we learn from the police that when, on Spade’s tip, they’d attempted to arrest Gutman and Cairo, Wilmer appeared and shot the two men down.  In the 1941 version, the criminals are, simply, arrested.

Finally, Del Ruth’s film concludes with Spade, now working as an investigator for the district attorney’s office, visiting Brigid in jail and expressing his affection for her.  The later edition ends in the apartment—while she is being led away by the police.

Taking into consideration the acting styles and production techniques that were employed during the early thirties, Del Ruth’s The Maltese Falcon was probably a pretty good little film and suffers only in comparison to the 1941 remake.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult for one who has become familiar with Huston’s masterpiece to view this earlier effort with any degree of objectivity.

Maltese Falcoln (1931)However, critics at the time were quite impressed.  Said the New York Times:  “The adventures of Sam Spade, private detective of the firm of Spade and Archer…are here reported smoothly, fluidly, with cultivated humor and a keen intelligence, these qualities being manifest all the way along.  Played with disarming ease and warmth by Ricardo Cortez, the character of Sam Spade is enormously unique and attractive.”

In comparison to Bogart’s interpretation of the antihero private eye, Cortez played Spade as a ladies’ man with much more charm and less ruggedness than his successor.  Dudley Digges, on the other hand, created a Gutman who was almost a comical character—bearing little resemblance to Greenstreet’s pompous, yet quite dangerous, fat man.

By today’s standards, several of the scenes in the 1931 film seem to be terribly overacted.  For example, Captain Jacobi’s staggering into Spade’s office is played so broadly that one can hardly avoid laughing at this “serious” moment in the melodrama.

Maltese Falcoln (1931)The overall “look” of both pictures is also totally different.  Del Ruth places his Spade in a very swanky environment, as opposed to the rather seedy atmosphere Huston created for his detective to  operate in.  This latter approach goes far in helping to create a proper mood for the intriguing story.

The second filming of Hammett’s tale took place in 1936.  Warners needed a property for Bette Davis and, lacking anything better, decided to adapt the mystery story to her talents.  Associate producer Henry Blanke reflects on the project, titled Satan Met a Lady:  It was the worst picture I ever made.  Jack Warner ribbed me about it for years afterward.

“We decided that we could redo the story so soon after the original by switching certain elements around and turning the whole thing into a comedy.  But, as I later found out, the director had no flair for that kind of film and it failed.”

Brown Holmes’s screenplay, directed by William Dieterle, made only two major changes in Hammett’s story.  Instead of a black falcon, the characters were looking for a horn filled with priceless gems.  In addition, the Gutman character was rewritten for a woman—Alison Skipworth.  Other variations of time and place did little to affect the basic plot.

All of the characters’ names were changed.  Arthur Treacher’s initial scene with Warren William, where he returns to the sleuth’s apartment after having ripped it apart in search of the horn, is the film’s highlight.

The New York Times summed up the picture best:  “A cynical farce of elaborate and sustained cheapness, it causes still other intelligent actors and actresses—including Warren William, Arthur Treacher, and Alison Skipworth—to behave like numskulls, and deserves to be quoted as a classic of dullness, in future press notices, as often as The Thin Man—also based on a Dashiell Hammett theme—has been quoted as a classic of scintillating wit.”

Make It Again, Sam: A Survey of Movie Remakes by Michael B. Druxman

In her autobiography (The Lonely Life) Davis refers to the ill-fated Satan Met a Lady thus:  “When the company scheduled the film, a Dashiell Hammett remake that was not to achieve any quality until John Huston directed it years later under the title Maltese Falcon, I was so distressed by the whole tone of the script and the vapidity of my part that I marched up to Jack Warner’s office and demanded that I be given work that was commensurate with my proven ability.”  Put off—for the time being—by more of Jack’s promises, she reluctantly proceeded with the picture.

Satan Met a Lady went through three titles before it settled in:  The Man in the Black Hat, Hard Luck Dame, and Her Mind.  It had been made under its original title, The Maltese Falcon, for the first time in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as the Mystery Woman.  (Decades later it was shown on television under the title Dangerous Female, so as to avoid confusion with the 941 version.)  In 1936 the Davis-William version, with its endless title changes, was made.  Then in 1941, John Huston’s masterpiece clinched Humphrey Bogart’s superstardom and won added plaudits for Mary Astor, who won a supporting Oscar that year for her role in Davis’s The Great Lie.

Appearing with Davis and William was Alison Skipworth, who played the role that “Fat Man” Sidney Greenstreet later made immortal—an interesting characterizational sex Satan Met a Lady (1936)change.  A ram’s horn encrusted with priceless gems was the pièce de résistance instead of the legendary falcon that figured in the other two versions.  Marie Wilson was given full rein in one of her standard comedy turns as Sam Spade’s devoted and protective secretary.  Warren William was not too felicitously cast in the role that Bogart later made his own, and his Sam Spade lacks the realistic toughness and cynicism that Bogart so expertly limned.  Davis’s role was badly written and poorly motivated, and her comings and going seem erratic and confusing.  One bright note for Davis, however: Warren William had obviously lost interest in her and addressed hardly ten words to her throughout the shooting, as she later, half-ruefully, half-relievedly recalled.
”Of course I was twenty-eight years old by then,” she laughed self-deprecatingly, “and everyone knew he liked them really young and really fresh!”

The plot of the 1936 version is confusing, at best.  Valerie (the Davis character) winds up murdering Skipworth’s contact man so she can get the ram’s horn.  She later prevents William’s Spade from picking up the $10.000 reward by turning herself in to the train’s washroom attendant, in the hope of benefiting herself.  When Jack Warner saw the results (poorly directed by William Dieterle, who couldn’t make head nor tail of the assorted shenanigans) he found the plot so confusing that he ordered a reediting by Warren Low, which held up the picture’s release by some months.

The young New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (in later years one of my guides and mentors) certainly spelled it all out clearly and concisely in a pricelessly accurate—and acid—review that is worth quoting at some length, nailing down as it does the assorted ineptitudes of Satan Met a Lady and Davis’s unjust treatment by all hands.  Crowther wrote:

Satan Met a Lady (1936)“So disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s ingredients, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in a 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.”

Bosley continued: “Without taking sides in a controversy of such titanic proportions, it is no more than gallantry to observe that if Bette Davis had not effectually espoused her own cause against the Warners recently by quitting her job, the Federal Government eventually would have had to step in and do something about her.  After viewing Satan Met a Lady, all thinking people must acknowledge that a ‘Bette Davis Reclamation Project’ (BDRP) to prevent the waste of this gifted lady’s talents would not be a too-drastic addition to our various programs for the conservation of natural resources.”

Satan Met a Lady (1936)Bos Crowther was thirty-one when he wrote those words.  Years later a ripe sixty, he recalled the horror he and his critical confreres felt when Satan premiered in New   York.  “God, it brought out the knight to the rescue in all of us males and protective mother in the female reviewers.  We all got together and sent the notices en masse to England and Davis.”

To Jack Warner’s surprise, the Davis-in-rebellion infection spread to others involved with the ill-fated project.  Warren William, a proficient actor who had hitherto been a Warner “reliable” (meaning he’d take any piece of garbage thrown him by the studio uncomplainingly), stood up to Jack Warner like a man one day and told him “no more!”  Warner could break his contract, put him on suspension, do what he wanted, but he, too, would not see his talent so “monstrously debased and perverted,” as he grandiloquently put it.  Next, director William Dieterle marched up to the inner sanctum and declared he would join Davis as far away as England himself, if necessary, if the talents he had honed so carefully in Europe and America were not put to more felicitous

Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk

In 1934, MGM’s enormous success with Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man had other studios scrambling to duplicate their breezy comedy-mystery hit.  Warner Brothers was Satan Met a Lady (1936)in the sweepstakes with the Philo Vance series and their schizophrenic attempts to refashion Perry Mason in a similar vein.  Then in the winter of 1935, producers Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis decided to dust off the studio’s own Hammett property, The Maltese Falcon, which had been languishing at the script department since it was initially filmed in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez.  Although the novel was clearly of a different stripe from the charming fluff of the MGM film, the producers stubbornly forged ahead to reinvent The Maltese Falcon as a screwball farce in order to chase the box office of the Thin Man.  The idea was not altogether illogical but it was immensely stupid.  There is very little room for screwball comedy in Hammett’s novel, and without the time, money, script, and appropriate casting or director, the project was doomed from the start.

If Blanke had gotten his way, film history would have had the fascinating proposition of seeing William Powell or Spencer Tracy as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.  Luckily for both men, Blanke’s June memo directing Wallis to try to secure the services of either star went unfulfilled.  “In case you can’t get William Powell, Spencer Tracy would also be excellent for the part.  He and Davis would make a marvellous team,” he futilely directed.  The actors were spared the ignominy of appearing in this puerile production, eventually extruded onto the screen as Satan Met a Lady.  Warren was not so lucky.  When Powell and Tracy had the good sense to balk, or the good fortune to have MGM refuse, the unlucky actor was assigned to this incoherent, unruly, directionless mess that began shooting on December 2.

On the set with Warren was his old nemesis Bette Davis, now in the early stages of Satan Met a Lady (1936)becoming a Hollywood icon following her successes in Of Human Bondage, The Petrified Forest and an Oscar-winning performance in Dangerous.  In spite of their previous problems, there was no trouble between the two actors; on set, Davis complained incessantly of everything except Warren.  The actor was in a position to stand by and agree with her anger, even if he was put off by her haughty manner.  Everyone in fact was unhappy with the entire sordid mess, including producer Wallis, who almost immediately complained of the script in a memo: “We’re going to throw the plot right out the window, what there is of it.”  Wallis also endured months of debate and uncertainty about the movie’s title, which was finally chosen after the exasperated producer started an informal contest to name the picture. An office boy named Howard Clausen got a $25 bonus when he submitted the utterly incomprehensible winning entry over a list of sixty others, including the producer’s own suggestion Beware of Imitations, Every Girl for Herself, and Men on Her Mind.  (Almost all the alternate titles refer to the Brigid O’Shaughnessy character, rather than Spade himself.)  Since the film was inexplicably originally known as The Man with the Black Hat, Warren was forced to wear an absurd black Stetson—which he promptly “lost” six times—until the title was changed dring filming due to legal complications.  Wallis quickly told director William Dieterle to drop the hat, saying it looked “screwy”—a little late, since Warren wears it in almost every scene.

The picture vaguely follows the story of the classic book (with Spade now known as Ted Shayne), but the script by Brown Holmes—in which Shayne comes off less as a hard-bitten pragmatist and more as simply a self-absorbed lout—broadens the characters to cartoonish proportions.  Dieterle was a terrible choice to direct; he was technically adept, but his comedic instincts were virtually non-existent.  He simply allows the cast to grotesquely overplay the humour—a particular problem since Warren usually went ballistic when allowed to modulate his own comedic choices.  Here he careens from semi-serious to downright outrageous—hanging from a doorjamb claiming to be King Kong at one point—and back again.  Everyone, in fact, is so aimless that one gets the impression that Dieterle was simply checking the lighting and letting the camera run.  After a break for Christmas, the project wrapped on December 28.  That evening, Warren attended a gathering to designate his neighbour Al Jolson the unofficial “Mayor of Encino.”  He was happy to have the whole ting over.

Only the Washington Post offered anything positive, unfathomably stating that in Satan Satan Met a Lady (1936)Met a Lady “all the true Hammett facility and wit have been translated to the screen,” while simultaneously insisting that The Thin Man had failed to do justice to the author.  The critics who saw the film while sober were merciless.  Bosley Crowther termed it a “cynical farce of elaborate and sustained cheapness,” Time magazine dubbed the film “a frayed tassel from Hollywood’s lunatic fringe,” and the words like “asinine” and “atrocity” were tossed around like so many nickels.  It fared so poorly at the box office that a Warners executive later insisted that they had to give out dishes wherever Satan Met a Lady was playing.  By the time John Huston’s 1941 version was released, Satan Met a Lady was blissfully forgotten.  Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal became immortal, and Warren’s merely a bizarre footnote.

Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood by John Stangeland

Joining me for the evening was Ronda, Allen, Lee, Andrea, Rolf, Karen, Peggy, Thee and David.

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