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Surprise! Satan Met a Lady is an easy breezy detective dramedy VERY
based on the Dashiell Hammett Book, The Maltese Falcon. This book had
adapted for the film before (in 1931) and, more famously, after (1941),
version made its way to the silver screen in 1936, with Bette Davis in
form in a comedic role. Warren William, who could be as suave as the
similar and better known actor William Powell, plays it fast and loose as
detective out to settle a mystery-and maybe find himself very rich. This
version of the Hammett tale has been sadly underrated due to the fact that
many of its naysayers were suffering under a misapprehension concerning
tenor of the film. In their attempt to set it under the same microscope as
its more famous remakes and premakes, many of the critics overlooked the
simple truth that this is a light, comic bit of film fluff concocted to
entertain a mid-Depression Era audience with its confection of comedy,
mystery, and romance. It has none of the nihilistic brooding of the
original book, nor the leering innuendo or virtuoso performances of the
other films. What it does provide is a diverting pastiche of one liners
clever story lines that keep its audience on the edge of
their seat. Even if they're almost falling out of their seats for
there's always a reason for the viewers to use (and not lose) their heads.
I'd like to see most movies do that today (and at 76 minutes.)
The casting of the principal stars is first rate. There's always a glint of a coiled cobra in Warren Willliam's silver-tongued shamus. But most of the time he keeps his gun in his pocket and his tongue in his cheek. Even his name is a parody of the nickname for a detective. Bette Davis matches him line by line and sets the movie at its pace. she was still a young actress and everything she says and does is as real and as fresh as homebaked bread. Allison Skipworth makes a charming but sinister villianess. Arthur Treacher (hilarious as a thief with manners) and portly Porter Hall round off this mad quad of moneygrubbers all showing that not only is the love of money the root of all evil, it can also be very, very, funny. Like Arsenic and Old Lace and Beat The Devil, Satan Met a lady is one movie that was ahead of its time and, after more than 65 years, is still got plenty of zest and zing. A Thumbs up for Satan Met a Lady.
Not even Bette Davis could save a lousy script. Dashiell Hammett's The
Maltese Falcon might seem a surefire property, as its first version in 1931
(sometimes called Dangerous Female) and the canonical 1941 John Huston movie
testify. But Satan Met A Lady misfires badly.
The problem with the script isn't so much that it's mediocre as that it's misconceived. The thinking behind it stays fairly transparent, however: The Thin Man, based on another Hammett novel, proved a big hit over at MGM. Warner Brothers hoped to work the same magic by subjecting Falcon to a blithe, tongue-in-cheek treatment. It didn't take.
The cosmetic changes applied to disguise the original story remain, at least to movie buffs, faintly amusing. Private eyes Spade and Archer become Shayne and Ames, while the falcon becomes a medieval ram's horn supposedly stuffed with gems that turn out to be sand. Involved in its pursuit are Warren Williams as Shayne, less the debonair lady-killer he presumably aimed for than a foolish old roué, and Davis as the femme fatale.
The trio of mercenary cutthroats, on their own broad terms, surprisingly remains the most memorable aspect of the movie. The Joel Cairo character becomes Prince-Charles-lookalike Arthur Treacher (whose career would later encompass playing second banana to Merv Griffin and selling his name to a string of fish-n'-chips franchises). The gunsel is pudgy and petulant Maynard Holmes, who went uncredited in just about every film he ever appeared in, including this one. Best of all is crusty Alison Skipworth, pinch-hitting as the Fat Man. And as Williams' dumb-blonde secretary Murgatroyd, Marie Wilson starts out irksome but ends up winsome.
But the racy comedy that was piled on falls flat (particularly as projected by Williams and Davis); there was enough irony in Hammett's prose to begin with, and it emerges in the two filmings of the book made five years earlier and five years later. This version even dispenses with the indispensable locale, for The Maltese Falcon was, and is, the quintessential San Francisco story. As a vehicle for Hammett's imagination, the best thing that can be said about Satan Met A Lady is that it's slightly more respectable than the 1979 made-for-television abomination The Dain Curse.
I can practically recite "The Maltese Falcon" by heart, so I was intrigued by this alternate filming. I put the tape in and immediately went "What the. . . ." Then I picked up the box and saw the word "comedy." so I sat down and watched it on its own terms. It's a hoot. the trick is to never really think about the great Bogart version and just think of it as a send-up of the genre. It is much better this way. I especially the ditsy blonde secretary, and the bumbling gunsel.
Boy, once Warner Brothers bought a property, they did everything but
serve it for dinner. 1936's "Satan Met a Lady" is yet another version
of "The Maltese Falcon," which was finally given the classic touch by
John Huston in 1941. This particular version is out of control but
manages to be a lot of fun at the same time.
This time Sam Spade is named Shane, and he's played by '30s star Warren William. William was a tall, handsome man with sharp features and a refined speaking voice - by this time, he was the Warners version of William Powell, though he had started his career as an unsympathetic, precode villain. A more extroverted performer, he excelled at the William Powell-type vehicles. He even took over for Powell as Philo Vance. William was the movie Perry Mason, and if you think this is a wild "Maltese Falcon," you should see what was done to Perry before the TV series. Put it this way - Della Street wore diamonds.
In this version, the falcon is the Horn of Roland, a trumpet stuffed with jewels, and it's being sought by a young, pretty Bette Davis in the Bebe Daniels-Astor role, and now the Sydney Greenstreet character has had a sex change in the form of Madame Barrabas (Alison Skipworth). Though there's no doubt Barrabas a ruthless character. and the usual people have been murdered by the usual people, this version is pretty much played for laughs. It moves faster than the Cortez version, and while Cortez played Spade as a delightful rogue, William has a ball, laughing at the whole thing as he collects money from everyone. In the Cortez version, Spade had some feeling for Ms. Wonderly (Bebe Daniels); here, William clearly enjoys playing the field and never takes the Davis character seriously. Shane's secretary in "Satan Met a Lady" is played by Marie Wilson, whose part is quite large. She's very funny. Davis is okay, but her sincerity isn't believable - at this point in her career, she's still a little stagey.
The very tongue-in-cheek William runs this show, which is done in the style of "The Thin Man." Though it was a bomb when it was released, today it's of interest for Davis, its handling of the material, and also as a chance to see William, who died in 1948, in top form. After this film, he went into character roles.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you can get past the fact that this is not another version of the
much-loved noir classic and take it on its own terms, this film
actually has a lot going for it. If you want emotional depth, look
elsewhere. Here, murder, betrayal, infidelity and the mindless
destruction of gorgeous deco furniture are routinely shrugged off as
The film is briskly paced and full of snappy dialog. The characters are broadly drawn and fun to watch. The acting is -- well, not full of subtle nuance but certainly appropriate to the piece. The script is by Brown Holmes, who is also credited with the original 1931 version (which I have not seen but would love to; Dwight Frye as Wilmer -- wow!).
William Warren carries the film as the confident, always one-jump-ahead Ted Shayne (and looks appropriately satanic). Bette Davis gives as good as she gets, even managing to thwart Shayne of the reward for her capture. Marie Wilson is a treasure as the ditsy Miss (Effie?) Murgatroyd, who apparently has trouble spelling her own last name but still has a lot on the ball. Alison Skipworth is fun as a female Gutman, Arthur Treacher has Peter Lorre's rather superfluous role (without the innuendos), and Maynard Holmes is the creepy gunsel who can't seem to hold onto his gun. The cops are, of course, suitably dense.
If you enjoy colorful characters exchanging breezy chatter and cracking wise, you could do worse. Give it a chance the next time it's on TCM. If you don't like it, you can always change the channel.
(PS: The plot summary as given by the IMDb is incorrect. Shayne doesn't meet Valerie on a train, she doesn't hire him to find Barabbas, Barabbas doesn't ask him to find Valerie, and the ram's horn is not covered with precious jewels. Other than that, it's spot on.)
A cynical private eye becomes entangled with a gang of
dangerous criminals trying to find a fabled ram's horn.
SATAN MET A LADY is an alternate movie version of Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon' and has received much criticism because it isn't closer to the Bogart model. This is unfortunate, as the film has much going for it and should not be placed into unfair comparison with the more famous film. Here is a lighthearted, comedic take on the story, full of snappy dialogue and a few good laughs. It is quite able to stand on its own.
Although she receives top billing, Bette Davis is rather overshadowed by the over-the-top acting of her costars. Her mystery woman character gets to act suitably dangerous, but her talent is seldom really engaged. Indeed, this would be one of the films which would soon put Davis into rebellion against Warner Bros. in her demand for better roles.
Warren William plays detective Ted Shayne (no Sam Spade here) in a wonderfully sardonic manner, always ready to puncture the balloons of pomposity around him, whether they be from client, criminal or cop; here he even turns a graveyard murder site into the location for a few deadpan utterances. With his patrician profile and glib delivery, William was always enjoyable to watch; it is a shame this very fine actor is so obscure today.
British character actress Alison Skipworth steals her few scenes as the elderly Madame Barabbas, the grandmotherly criminal mastermind with the looks of a sweet old lady and the instincts of a born killer. Arthur Treacher is marvelously droll as an English gentleman crook, apologetic & polite, seeking the ram's horn.
Pert & pretty, Marie Wilson scores in her role as William's ditzy secretary. Winifred Shaw plays the glamorous widow of William's late partner. An uncredited Maynard Holmes appears as Miss Skipworth's gunsel nephew.
It had never previously occurred to me that the convoluted plot of 'The
Maltese Falcon' was verging on that of a farce; but in fact this
reinterpretation fits with surprising success throughout most of the
action of the film...
The gulf between this version of the story and the darker wartime 'Falcon' of 1941 is a jolting one, but when it is compared to the film of which it is actually a remake -- Warner Brothers' 1931 'Maltese Falcon' -- the relationship between the earlier two becomes obvious. Warren William's Ted Shane, with his womanising touch and his insolent grin, has far more in common with Ricardo Cortez' silent-style Sam Spade than with Bogart's noir version (and, to be honest, with the 'blond Satan' of Hammett's original novel).
William is well cast here as the amoral private eye playing all sides off against one another: in this film, he comes across as being in control of the situation all along, tricking information out of the gentleman crook Travers, disarming the impotent but vindictive Kenneth and driving a hard bargain with Madame Barabbas for a treasure he knows to be without value. When he induces Valerie to confess her guilt in the railway carriage, I was all but expecting him to produce a concealed police officer at the appropriate moment to bear witness! Despite the fact that everyone from his former lover to his own secretary seems to take it for granted, despite his assurances, that it was he who murdered his partner, Ted Shane -- as befits the hero of a light-hearted farce -- never leaves us in any doubt that he is destined to come out on top.
Bette Davis, despite her top billing, has relatively little to do here and demonstrates an all too apparent lack of interest. Bebe Daniels, in the equivalent 1931 part, is both more alluring and more obviously faking it; her scenes with Sam Spade often have more comedy, as her character rolls out her full seductive armoury against a complacent male target, than Davis' scenes underplayed here in what is intended to be a farce. I found the minor role of the scatty little secretary Murgatroyd -- who, in this version ends up with the hero for the requisite happy ending! -- to be the more memorable one.
But I'm afraid the ending was my main difficulty with the reinterpretation of this plot in comic vein. The mix-ups, multiple women and seemingly pointless events of the start are almost intrinsically amusing, and indeed are already played as such in the 1931 'Maltese Falcon'. The final scenes, however, with their betrayals, dirty dealing and killings for a fortune that never was, have a much more nihilistic tone, and the 'siege' sequence of the earlier version, where all the characters are locked in a room together by mutual suspicion until the morning comes, holds an edge of explosive threat. Staging the equivalent sequence on the docks under a fire-hose downpour, with Shane brandishing the valuables literally just above the villains' noses and getting paid for his trouble rather than coshed for the loot, doesn't serve to raise a laugh... but does rob the scene of most of its effectiveness.
Likewise, Valerie's admission of murder and her railing at Shane after he hands her over to the police are not only not funny -- although at least in the latter case, they're clearly intended that way -- but they have no emotional impact either. The result was an unsatisfactory resolution without any resonance to speak of; and Valerie's parting shot, while being dragged off to pay the penalty for murder, where she predicts for Shane the dire fate of... marriage, falls flat as almost embarrassingly inappropriate.
'Satan Met a Lady' actually starts off by looking quite promising and at the outset is genuinely funny: but a lacklustre part for the leading lady, plus a growing incongruity between the hard-boiled subject matter and its delivery, serve to undermine this favourable first impression. I enjoyed Warren William's performance, but in the end I felt the film didn't really work.
The second version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon came in the wake of the big success of a cinematic adaptation of another of the author's novels, The Thin Man. So here we get a comic version starring a wise-cracking gentleman, Warren William (who had played Julius Caesar in DeMille's Cleopatra). The comedy is sometimes desperate. It's played WAY over the top. If they had toned in down a tad, and maybe got William Powell instead of Warren William, it would have been a great film. Which would have been terrible because then, if it had been a success, Warner Brothers wouldn't have deigned to remake it five years later. We wouldn't have the 1941 masterpiece, John Huston's career might have went an entirely different way, and film noir wouldn't have developed as we know it. Film history might look damn different just because of this goofy little adaptation! It's generally considered the worst of the three adaptations, but I really liked it. It's a heck of a lot better than the stale '31 version, and it stands as a nice little companion piece to the '41 version. A couple of the actors I really liked, notably Alison Skipworth in the Gutman role (all character names have been changed, by the way, but I'll keep to the originals), Arthur Treacher as Cairo, and Maynard Holmes as Wilmer (shockingly uncredited where several less important characters were!). The best of the best, though: Marie Wilson in the Effie role. Oh. You thought I was going to say Bette Davis. Nah. She's probably the least of the three Brigids. The secretary role is expanded a bit, and she's almost made Spade's love interest. Wilson gives a very cute comic performance. Well worth checking out.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Perhaps because Dashiell Hammett's movie cachet was enhanced by the
success of the THIN MAN comedy/mystery movies in the 1930s and '40s,
the folks behind Satan MET A LADY (SMaL) reworked Hammett's MALTESE
FALCON (TMF) into the 1936 screwball comedy Satan MET A LADY (SMaL).
Directed by William Dieterle and scripted by Brown Holmes, SMaL gave
director of photography Arthur Edeson practice for his future stint as
D.P. of the now-classic 1941 version. For that matter, it turns out
SMaL and the early Ricardo Cortez/Bebe Daniels version of TMF have more
in common than being inspired (however loosely) by the same novel.
Cortez as Sam Spade is replaced in SMaL by Warren William as Ted Shane
(or Shaynethe filmmakers can't seem to decide how to spell it), and
Cortez and William each played Perry Mason in the movies! But it's a
fresh young Bette Davis who gets top billing here as wily Valerie
Purvis, who could be Brigid O'Shaughnessy's witty, bantering sister.
William looks and acts like a fun-loving troublemaker and tomcat who's just had one drink too many no matter what time of day it is. William and Davis play off each other most enjoyably as they seek out, not the Maltese Falcon, but an ancient ram's horn rumored to be stuffed with jewels. They're aided and abetted by a rambunctious supporting cast. Joel Cairo has been turned into Travers, a bumbling English gentleman crook played by Arthur Treacher (yes, the one who brought the world Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, "the meal you cannot make at home"). Casper Gutman has gotten a name change and a sex change in the form of Alison Skipworth as sly Madame Barabbas (love her Biblical name!), who has a friendly adversary relationship with Shane (there's a funny bit where each one proves too clever to let the other one slip them a mickey). Instead of gunsel Wilmer, Mme. Barabbas' sharpshooting right-hand man is her obnoxious, buffoonish, beret-wearing nephew Kenneth (or as Auntie calls him, "Kenny Boy"), played by an unjustly uncredited Maynard Holmes. The ill-fated Miles Archer and his restless wife Iva are now Mr. and Mrs. Ames, played briefly but entertainingly by Porter Hall (best known in our household as Macaulay in THE THIN MAN and Jackson, the "Medford man" from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) and Winifred Shaw. My fave was the pre-MY FRIEND IRMA Marie Wilson redoing trusty secretary/receptionist Effie Perine as cheerful blonde Über-ditz Miss Murgatroyd. Her cute little squeak of surprise/distress cracked me up! Zesty quips abound, like Valerie's "Do you mind very much, Mr. Shane, taking off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun?" When Ames is found murdered in a cemetery, Shane remarks, "It's the first time he ever did anything in an appropriate place." My fave was Shane's dialogue with Murgatroyd when she's about to quit on account of Ames being unable to pay her: Shane (cheerfully): "Have you finished packing all your things?...And all the things that weren't yours, but that you thought you could use?" Murgatroyd (flustered): "Yesum, I mean, I'm all packed." SMaL is unfairly maligned and misunderstood for not being a serious TMF adaptation. It was clear to me from the start that this one's played purely for laughs. Just approach SMaL as a wacky parody of TMF, and you'll be able to enjoy the flick as a pleasant, if forgettable, piece of fluff for a lazy afternoon.
This was the film that Bette Davis finally walked out of Warner
Brothers because she'd had enough. Satan Met A Lady is a comic version
of the Dashiell Hammett novel, The Maltese Falcon it in fact is the
second of three versions of the story that was filmed, all by Warner
Brothers. It was that third one with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor
that is the beloved classic come down to us.
I wouldn't be surprised, but that Bette might have thought that this was a straight version of the story, that she'd be doing the part that Mary Astor made famous. Instead the version she got was something that might have worked with Joan Blondell doing the part, but Bette was clearly unhappy and just going through the motions.
As for Warren William, his Ted Shayne is far different from the laconic and cynical Humphrey Bogart. He's one unapologetic rogue just breezing through the film as he did with so many others on charm and a Barrymore light profile.
Instead of the loyal and efficient Effie that we all remember Lee Patrick for, we get the scatterbrained and clueless Marie Wilson doing her usual shtick. The parts that Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet made classic were done by Arthur Treacher and Allison Skipworth. I thought Arthur was going to offer some fish and chips to William at many points during the film.
The famous Hitchcockian McGuffin is not a black bird allegedly crusted over to hide a jeweled coat, but an old ram's horn, purportedly the trumpet that French legendary hero Roland sounded as he covered Emperor Charlemagne's retreat. It too was stuffed with jewels according to legend.
At the end of the film Warren William actually got a few notes out of the French horn. It blew well and some might say the film did also.
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