Sam Spade is quite the womanizer. When his secretary tells him the new customer waiting outside his office is a knockout, he wastes no time before seeing her. It turns out she's a knockout with money. And she wants to spend it on his services as a private detective. She has some story about wanting to protect her sister. Neither he nor his partner, Miles Archer, believes it. But with the money she's paying, who cares? The job proves to be more dangerous than either of them expected. It involves not just the lovely dame with the dangerous lies, but also the sweaty Casper Gutman, the fey Joel Cairo, and the thuggish young Wilmer Cook. Three crooks, and all of them are looking for the statuette of a black bird they call the Maltese Falcon. Written by
I got such a kick out of this filmed version of Dashiell Hammett's detective novel that I think I was grinning from ear to ear throughout the movie. Because it was a pre-code film it was much more open to the sexiness of the original novel, for instance here we have Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels in the role played by Mary Astor in the 1941 version) actually undressing in the kitchen scene. In another scene, when she claims someone is following her and she is frightened to be alone, Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez, who is much more handsome than Bogart) offers her his bedroom for the night. "You can have my bed, I'll sleep out here." She turns to him coyly from the sofa and says "Aw, don't let me keep you out." I burst out laughing. Couldn't imagine this repartee between Bogie and Astor!
Una Merkel was superb as the devoted secretary of Sam Spade. She constantly gives off the aura that she has had a physical relationship with him in the past and that some of it still hangs around even though it is essentially over (note their sitting real closely on a chair in one scene, lingeringly holding hands). Thelma Todd plays Archer's wife, who has also had an affair with Sam in the past, and she adds some more spice to the film which is already loaded with it compared to the 1941 version, which was made under the control of the Hollywood Production Code.
The other cast members are wonderful, including Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman, Otto Matieson as Joel Cairo, and Dwight Frye as the psychotic Wilma Cook. They completely hold your attention and are just as interesting, perhaps even more so, than the 1941 version actors.
I am a Bogie fan, but Ricardo Cortez steals the picture with this performance. He is a much more selfish, less noble character than Bogie's Sam Spade, and that makes him more interesting to watch on screen. For instance, in the 1941 version, Bogie's Sam Spade reluctantly gives over the girl to the police because "when your partner is murdered, you are supposed to do something about it." In the 1931 version Ricardo's Sam Spade hands her over simply because he himself doesn't want to be charged with murder. He's saving his own neck, not acting out of some false loyalty to a partner he didn't even like. In fact in this version Ricardo as Sam states firmly, "I couldn't shed a tear for Archer, dead OR alive." This is a lot more honest and realistic.
Don't miss your chance to see this early talkie gem. It is fascinating to watch on its own merits, and also to compare with the later, more famous, Bogart version.
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