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
In 1931 Roy Del Ruth became the first director to bring Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON to the screen. Although it received favorable reviews and did a brisk business at the box office, like many early talkies it was soon eclipsed by ever-advancing technology and forgotten--until television, with its endless demands for late-late show material, knocked on Hollywood's door. Retitled DANGEROUS FEMALE in order to avoid confusion with the highly celebrated 1941 version, it has haunted the airwaves ever since.
DANGEROUS FEMALE is interesting in several ways, and perhaps most deeply so as an example of the struggle that ensued when sound first roared. What had proved effective on the silent screen suddenly seemed highly mannered when voices were added, and both directors and stars struggled to find new techniques--and DANGEROUS FEMALE offers a very vision of the issues involved.
It is a myth that the advent of sound forced directors to lock down the camera, but it is true that many directors preferred simple camera set-ups in early sound films; it gave them one less thing to worry about. And with this film, Roy Del Ruth is no exception: in a visual sense, DANGEROUS FEMALE is fairly static. The performing decisions made by the various actors are also illustrative and informative, particularly re leads Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. Cortez is still clearly performing in the "silent mode," and he reads as visually loud; Daniels, however, has elected to underplay, and while she is stiff by current standards, her performance must have seemed startlingly innovative at the time. And then there are two performers who are very much of the technology: Una Merkle as Spade's secretary and Thelma Todd as Iva Archer, both of whom seem considerably more comfortable with the new style than either Cortez or Daniels.
The film is also interesting as a "Pre-Code" picture, for it is sexually explicit in ways most viewers will not expect from a 1930s film, and indeed it is surprisingly explicit even in comparison to other pre-code films. Hero Sam Spade is a womanizer who seduces every attractive female who crosses his path--and the film opens with a shot of just such a woman pausing to straighten her stockings before leaving his office. Still later, the dubious Miss Wonderly tempts Spade with her cleavage, lolls in his bed after a thick night, splashes in his bathtub, and finally winds up stripped naked in his kitchen! It is also interesting, of course, to compare DANGEROUS FEMALE to its two remakes. Directed by William Dieterle and starring Warren William and Bette Davis, the 1936 Satan MET A LADY would put Hammett's plot through the wringer--and prove a critical disaster and a box office thud. But then there is the justly celebrated 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor under the direction of John Huston.
Both the 1931 and 1941 films lifted great chunks of dialogue from Hammett's novel, and very often the dialogue is line-for-line the same. But two more completely different films could scarcely be imagined. Where the 1931 film strives for an urbane quality, the 1941 film is memorably gritty--and in spite of being hampered by the production, considerably more sexually suggestive as well, implying the homosexuality of several characters much more effectively than the 1931 version dared.
In the final analysis, the 1931 THE MALTESE FALCON (aka DANGEROUS FEMALE) will appeal most to those interested in films that illustrate the transition between silent film and sound, to collectors of "pre-code" movies, and to hardcore FALCON fans who want everything associated with Hammett, his novel, and the various film versions. But I hesitate to recommend it generally; if you don't fall into one of those categories, you're likely to be unimpressed.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon reviewer
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