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After accidentally killing the man who raped her and forced her into prostitution, a New Orleans woman flees to a Caribbean island. While she awaits her fiancé, the vicious local police chief sets his sights on her.
William A. Wellman
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
Hollywood's first and far from negligible crack at The Maltese Falcon
Over the years, the version of The Maltese Falcon released in 1941 has accrued an enviable reputation: As an opening salvo in the film noir cycle, as Humphrey Bogart's first big starring vehicle and John Huston's directorial debut, and as a favorite example of the pleasures to be found in `old' black-and-white movies. But it was the third crack that Warner Brothers took at Dashiell Hammett's breakthrough novel. Probably best forgotten is the 1936 Satan Met A Lady, where a bejewelled ram's horn subbed for the black bird; even Bette Davis couldn't salvage the movie. But this first filming (later retitled Dangerous Female), made the year after the novel's release in the technical infancy of the sound era retains enough punch and flavor to give the formidable forties version a run for its money.
Starring as Sam Spade and Miss Wonderly (who never becomes Brigid O'Shaughnessey) are Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, the talkies' first immortal guy/gal team. And joining them is the familiar ensemble of grotesques: As `Dr.' Joel Cairo, Otto Mathiessen; as Casper Gutman, Dudley Digges (who, lacking Sidney Greenstreet's girth, is never called The Fat Man); and as Wilmer the gunsel, gimlet-eyed Dwight Frye, familiar from the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises. And while Huston's cast in each instance has the edge, it's not by much these pioneering hams have a field day.
Huston trusted Hammett enough to preserve more of his astringent dialogue intact, but Dangerous Woman shows surprising fidelity to the book. The subplot about Spade's affair with his slain partner's wife Iva Archer stays prominent, and the merry widow is played by Thelma Todd (herself later to fall victim in one of Hollywood's most notorious unsolved murders). Owing to less prudish times, before the Hayes Office tried to make sex un-American, the scene is kept where Spade, in his quest for a palmed $1000 bill, makes Wonderly strip naked (though left largely off-screen). And in calling Wilmer Gutman's `boyfriend,' Spade makes a mite more explicit their old-queen/rough-trade dynamic.
Roy del Ruth, who directed, was an old newspaper man who came to Hollywood in the silent era, racking up a workmanlike list of credits (in 1949, he would return to San Francisco locales for the unusual noir Red Light). He adds some deft touches, as when, after Spade departs with her bankroll, Wonderly blithely extracts a fat wad of bills from her stocking. Much of what he might be credited for, however, may be inadvertent. Since the novel was published and the movie made on that critical cusp between the Roaring Twenties and Old Man Depression, an authentic period tang asserts itself Daniels' marcelled hair, for instance (not to mention the Vienna-born Cortez' being palmed off as a Latin lover).
The movie deviates from the novel in ending with a scene in the women's house of detention that manages to be simultaneously sassy and poignant. Dangerous Female offers an instructive lesson in how the various versions, with their differing tones and emphases, shed their own light and shadow on a classic American crime novel.
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