The Maltese Falcon (1931)

*. This is a movie that’s hard to judge on its own merits today. Meaning that if you’ve seen it, you’ve likely only done so after seeing John Huston’s more famous 1941 version of the same story.
*. That’s hard on Roy Del Ruth’s film, because even though I think most people consider it to be a good little movie, with lots of things in it to enjoy, it doesn’t do one thing better than Huston’s.
*. Just look at the cast. The 1941 film had one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled, so it’s no surprise that Otto Matieson, though very good, is no Peter Lorre, that Dudley Digges, though also very good, is no Sydney Greenstreet, or that Dwight Frye, who hardly gets to speak but who certainly looks the part, is no Elisha Cook Jr. In sum, the gang of falcon-hunting weirdos is great, but they fall far short of what we got ten years later. The perfect, as they say, is the enemy of the good.
*. The leads, I’m afraid, are an even bigger step down. Bebe Daniels is game, but no Mary Astor. And Ricardo Cortez . . . can we say he’s no Sam Spade, or should we just say he’s no Humphrey Bogart? Because Sam Spade really became Bogie. There are no alternatives.
*. I feel bad just making all these comparisons, but like I say: there’s no way you can watch this movie without its remake in your mind, and the comparisons are all to its disadvantage.

*. Take another point that’s often raised: that this movie was made pre-Code and so could take more risks in its adaptation of a gritty novel. Yes, in theory. But in practice? There’s Sam’s strip search of Ms. Wonderly, which I’ll admit is kind of fun. But the franker depiction of his adultery with his partner’s wife just makes him seem more of a leering creep (and one who even files his nails at one point!). Also, while I’ve heard it said that they could be franker about the homosexual subtext, I don’t think this is played up any more than in the later version, where Lorre’s Joel Cairo is about as swishy as you can get and Wilmer is even more the kept boy.
*. Huston’s Maltese Falcon is sometimes considered the first film noir, though you’ll find lots of people to argue about that. Some people credit Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and others will push things even further back, into the 1920s. But it made me wonder: if the ’41 Maltese Falcon is the first noir, or even among the first, then what is this movie? What generic distinction would you make between the two to classify the one as noir and the other not? The lighting?
*. I don’t care for the ending, with Spade visiting Ms. Wonderly in a women’s prison. Gone is his big speech about standing up for something, which would only fly past her anyway since she doesn’t recognize any code. And the fact that he is now working for the District Attorney just tastes bad. Sure, Sam may have his principles, but I can’t see him working for the Man after all he’s been through.
*. So it’s a decent movie, and to say it falls short of Huston’s film is hard to hold against it. But even if it had never been remade I doubt this version would be very well known today. The leads just aren’t strong enough, the action not tough enough, the cracking wise not snappy and smart enough. It was, however, a step in the right direction. And that’s more than can be said for Hollywood’s next attempt at the same material five years later: Satan Met a Lady.

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