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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
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.
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
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.
This is a fascinating version of the story definitively filmed ten years
later by John Huston, because of the ways in which it comes close to
capturing the Hammett novel-- and the ways in which it doesn't. As a
pre-Code film it's often more explicit than the Huston version--
about the fact that Spade was having an affair with his partner's wife,
about the homosexuality of the male crooks (this movie's Gutman is plainly
depicted as a seedy john rather than as the refined aesthete Sydney
Greenstreet would play). But hardboiled attitude is what really matters,
and Ricardo Cortez (a good early talkie actor who always tried hard) just
isn't playing Hammett's hardboiled, unsentimental Spade-- he's playing the
more typical suave gentleman detective of the period, like Philo Vance.
a result, it's the love affair with Ms. Wonderly that takes over, and the
shocking bite of Hammett's ending is lost. It was capturing the Hammett
worldview that was John Huston's great accomplishment, and that made his
Falcon so influential over the films noir to follow.
All the same Huston, who was working at Warner Bros. when this was made, must have liked something about this movie-- the scene where Spade first meets Joel Cairo (Otto Mattiesen, doing an excellent Peter Lorre imitation years before the fact) is repeated almost shot for shot and inflection for inflection in the Huston version, the only such case of direct inspiration I spotted here. Mattiesen, a familiar silent era character actor, sadly died not long after the film came out; had he lived he certainly could have had as interesting a talkie career as Lorre eventually did.
As everyone knows by now (at least if they're on this IMDb page!), this
was the original film version of "The Maltese Falcon". And, of course,
it (being pre-code) is a lot sexier than the Bogart version, which is
to say, comparable to a racy 1970s TV movie. We see Miss Wonderley
sleeping in Spade's bed, and actually see her naked in the bathtub
(from the shoulders up) at one point.
As in "Satan Met a Lady", the detective is made out to be a sleazy ladies' man in this movie. When we first see him, he's kissing a woman goodbye; we never actually see her face, but we see her adjusting her stocking, and when Sam returns to his office, the pillows from his couch are in disarray. He seems to be getting some from Effie as well (and I must point out that Una Merkel, as Effie, is hot, hot, hot in this movie; quite a contrast to the matronly Lee Patrick in the 1941 version).
Overall, though, this movie is still somewhat unsatisfying. I suppose if we had never seen the Bogart/Huston version, this would stand as an acceptable adaptation of Hammett's novel (by the standards of the time). It follows the novel fairly closely, but skimps on the plot somewhat. The subplot where Wonderley disappears, and then reappears (as O'Shaughnessy) because she realizes Gutman is in town is missing, as is all the great interplay between Spade and Wilmer ("Just keep riding me, buster", "This'll put you in solid with your boss", etc.) that was such a treat in the later version. True, this movie is a little more explicit about the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer, but Wilmer is such a minor character (with literally only a few minutes of screen time) that their relationship still seems more fully-developed in the 1941 movie. There's also a very odd change at the end (just before the prison scene) that seems like something of a cop-out.
And, finally, it must be pointed out that Ricardo Cortez really stinks in this movie. He spends most of the movie with a smirk plastered on his face, and his performance in general is extremely stiff. I suppose that's to be expected in such an early talkie, but, combined with the general aura of sleaziness that his character exudes, it makes it impossible to really care what happens to him. In the end, this is an enjoyable movie, but mainly for reasons of historical curiosity, and it never comes anywhere near the "classic" status that the later remake has achieved.
DWIGHT FRYE plays Wilmer Cook in this version! Imagine my amazement at finding this out. Don't get me wrong, Elisha Cook Jnr. was extremely good in the later version and Dwight's role is considerably smaller but if you asked me to pick which one was the deffinitive Wilmer I would have a very hard time. The role does not call for subtlety; Wilmer is a psychotic who enjoys his work a little too much. Both men do an admirable job playing a role that is more complex than appears on the surface. The audiences first impression is to laugh at the baby faced kid waving his big .45 automatics around and talking tough but as soon as we find out that not only is he not shy about using his weapons he is darn good with them too he becomes a frightening image because his young, fresh faced looks hide a true monster beneath the surface. Well done, Dwight. I have a new respect for this hard-to-find early version of the famous novel now and it's all thanks to you.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having seen the later version first and stumbled on this earlier version
later, I was struck immediately by how closely the later version followed
the earlier. It seemed to me that the later used the same script and set
the action in the same or very nearly the same scene.
I also found Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels more convincing in the leading roles. For instance, in both versions, there is an exchange between Sam Spade and his police buddy where Sam says something like "...what do I know about women !" and his police buddy replies "since when." These lines are just throwaway in the later version as this aspect of Sam's character has not been defined properly for the viewer. However, in the earlier version, the viewer already has some idea that Sam is a ladies' man and can turn on the charm.
Likewise, the Miss O'Shaughnessy character is obviously meant to be a femme fatale for whom men fall and gladly sacrifice themselves for her. Bebe Daniels plays this role to perfection and fits the bill far more satisfyingly and believably than does Mary Astor in the later version.
The earlier version is more convincing in portraying the charged atmosphere and obvious attraction that Sam Spade and Miss O'Shaughnessy have towards one another. Consequently, it makes the scene between the two of them later, and the dilemma Sam faces between handing her over to the police to face the music ("Don't be silly, you'll take the fall and like it !" and "...sure I'll have some sleepless nights...") and not implicating her to the police, more poignant.
Having said that, no one could better Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in their respective roles. Majestic, magnificent and they never stop playing their roles, even when they are in the background of a scene e.g. Peter Lorre when Sidney is whispering a warning to Humphrey in his (Sam Spade's) flat and Peter (Joel Cairo) interrupts the putting into his mouth and lighting of a cigarette to focus his attention on Sam Spade and 'Fatman' Gutman.
Before Humphrey Bogart, Ricardo Cortez, as Sam Spade, was looking for
that big black bird in 1931's "The Maltese Falcon," also starring Bebe
Daniels, Una Merkel, and Thelma Todd. Since it's 1931 and therefore
pre-code, the emphasis is on sex and Sam's libidinous nature. In the
first scene, a woman leaves his office straightening the seams in her
stockings. Bebe Daniels as Ms. Wonderly takes a bath in Sam's tub,
strips in the kitchen - you name it. Thelma Todd is on hand as the wife
of Spade's partner, Miles Archer who, if you know the story, gets it in
the first reel. Sam's had a thing with her too. He keeps them all on
I found this version slow going, mainly because it's an early talkie - the dialogue pacing isn't quite right. You can drive a truck through the pauses. The only one with a more modern feel for the dialogue is the handsome, smiling Cortez, and he's absolutely marvelous as Spade. His Spade is more relaxed than Bogie's, less sardonic, more delightfully crooked - in short, he has a lot more fun. He fits just as well into this version as world-weary Bogie does into the 1941 version.
Bebe Daniels is attractive and alluring as the greedy and totally ruthless Miss Wonderly. The gay subplot between Greenstreet and Lorre everyone assumes isn't as apparent in this film between Wilmer (Dwight Frye) and Caspar Guttman (Dudley Digges).
I found the comments in the first post on the actors' approaches to their roles very interesting; I'm not sure I totally agree, but for sure, Cortez spoke louder and Daniels did underplay (which she did not do in "42nd Street" - at all). However, as far as the pace, I still Cortez did better in keeping the dialogue going than anyone else.
This is a fascinating film - so different from the 1941 version, which I hope to see this evening - it's definitely worth catching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have seen this version of Maltese Falcon three times, from off-the-air taping. Of course, it follows the same basic plot line of the 1941 film, but that early film noir classic becomes more like a morality play, with relatively little emotion. From the start, Sam Spade is portrayed as a ladies man: an approach validated by the smooth good looks of Ricardo Cortez and his urbane manner. It is difficult to imagine a first shot of a woman's legs coming out of Sam's office as the first shot of the 1941 film, in light of Bogart's understated performance. Moreover, one gets a strong impression that there is a real attraction between Cortez and Daniels, conveyed not so much by the scene in Sam's apartment with its bathtub scene and her stripping in his bedroom, where she has spent the night; rather, in the last scene where Sam is visiting her in her prison cell (instead of turning her over to the police with no regrets, as in 1941) and tells the matron to provide her with every luxury she wants, and we see her alone in the cell, weeping and bitterly commenting on (their?) love. There are other interesting features. Whereas in 1941 a homosexual relationship between Greenstreet and Lorre lay beneath the surface, in this film Gutman strokes Wilmer as "my own son" and seems truly troubled at the thought of giving him up as the "fall guy". Dwight Frye as Wilmer has only a few lines, but gives his usual expressive performance of mental unbalance, without the hardness of Elisha Cook, Jr. in 1941. It's interesting for me to speculate how I would have evaluated the 1941 film if I had seen this one first, and used it as the basis for comparison.
It might have been wise to watch the two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon before I re-watched the 1941 classic. It would have reminded me just how great Huston's film is. The '31 version isn't bad, per se. It has the same major flaw that most films of this early talkie era had: leaden dialogue delivery. It's also a bit stagy, though by no means the worst I've seen from the time. None of the actors are as good as their '41 counterparts, with the possible exception of Bebe Daniels, most famous for her role in 42nd Street. She's a bit sexier than Mary Astor, and it's more believable that she could hold sway over men. I also thought Otto Matieson was pretty good as Joel Cairo. Una Merkel is very cute as Effie, Spade's secretary. Thelma Todd, of Marx Brothers' movies fame, also co-stars as Iva Archer. Ricardo Cortez plays Sam. He's a bit too nice for the part, like he should rather be starring in musicals (Daniels doesn't suffer this way she's appropriately ruthless). The film only runs 78 minutes, but it feels a lot longer. It excises even more of the novel than Huston's version, but the pacing is really slow (the '41 movie runs 100 minutes). It seems the major success in Huston's movie well, besides the awesome cast was its lightning pacing. It also changes some things around at the end, if I remember right. I actually really liked the final sequence, not in the '41 version and (if memory serves me correctly) not in the novel, either, where Spade visits Ms. Wonderly (which isn't a pseudonym in this movie) in prison. I wouldn't say it surpasses the '41 version in any way, but then again I've never quite been satisfied with Spade's final exchanges with Brigid O'Shaughnessy either.
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