Tuesday, January 20, 2009

DVD: The Maltese Falcon (1931)/Satan Met a Lady (1936)

At last I have caught up with the two adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon that preceded John Huston’s definitive 1941 version. In the process, I received an object lesson in screenwriting.

No bones about it: 1931’s The Maltese Falcon is lousy. It’s stilted, and despite an interesting supporting cast – Thelma Todd, 42nd Street’s Una Merkel, the original Renfield Dwight Frye as Wilmer the gunsel – is hamstrung by having the one-dimensional Ricardo Cortez play Sam Spade. Mainly, though, it’s a perfect example of playing the notes but missing the music. Many of the beats and lines of dialogue that Huston took directly from Hammett’s novel are here, yet each one feels off.

Brown Holmes – now that’s a moniker! – cowrote the ’31 film and received solo credit on Satan Met a Lady, which treats the story as more of a comedy. Prevented from using Hammett’s names, Holmes threw the Falcon out as well; here the MacGuffin is a ceremonial ram’s horn stuffed with jewels. He also reinterpreted the characters. Spade’s capable secretary Effie Perine is now a ditz, but one who may not be as dizzy as she seems. The Levantine Joel Cairo becomes enormous Englishman Arthur Treacher. And “the fat man” Kasper Gutman is a woman. Who is, to be fair, still pretty big.

Spade, rechristened Ted Shayne, is played by Warren William, who had already portrayed Perry Mason and Philo Vance and would go on to be the reformed jewel thief The Lone Wolf. In Rosemarie’s words, Shayne is “whimsical to the point of derangement.”

Again key scenes survive from the book, but Holmes mixes them up, reassigning dialogue and bits of business, playing them for laughs. The thing is ... it works. The documentary on the DVD had me hating Satan in advance, only using clips that made it appear foolish. As it happens, my main dislike was Warren William’s enormous hat. It’s a testament to Hammett’s novel that it survives adaptation even when pushed into Thin Man territory.

Both movies are considerably shorter that the ’41 Falcon. One reason is that the scripts eliminate my favorite scene, where Spade blows out of his initial meeting with Gutman in order to test the fat man, only to return and learn the statue’s history. I understand why this edit was made; it’s a common note to collapse scenes so locations aren’t repeated unnecessarily. But we lose a great moment.

It’s also worth noting that the two earlier films break the first-person POV hewed to so rigorously by Huston and taken to its logical extreme by Robert Montgomery in his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. After Miles Archer’s murder in the ’41 film, Spade appears in every scene. The other films accelerate the action by cutting away from Spade to follow the conspirators or the police. These moments by themselves don’t hurt the films, but they do break the spell.

Satan Met a Lady will air on TCM as part of its Bette Davis tribute – Bette Davis is in it, did I mention that? – on January 26 at 11:15AM EST.

Upcoming: Noir City

This interview with my friend Eddie Muller paves the way for Noir City, kicking off in San Francisco this weekend. This year’s irresistible theme is newspaper noir. The exception is a special event this Saturday honoring actress Arlene Dahl with a Q&A and screenings of her films Slightly Scarlet and Wicked as They Come.

Yours truly will be at that event. I’ll also be at every screening when Eddie brings Noir City back to Seattle next month. And while I won’t dress vintage, I will dress appropriately.

Miscellaneous: Links

Jeff Pierce of The Rap Sheet introduces the spin-off site Killer Covers of the Week.

This ad is NSFW. It’s also the funniest thing I’ve seen in weeks.