After the Silents: The Maltese Falcon (1931)

I love a good mystery and Dashiell Hammett is one of my very favorite authors in the genre. His twisty plots, crisp prose and colorful casts keep me hungry for more. Hollywood fell for Hammett in a big way and created very successful adaptations of The Thin Man, The Glass Key and, of course, The Maltese Falcon.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

This 1931 film is not the most famous version of The Maltese Falcon. Made at the height of the wild pre-Code years, it was denied re-release in the more buttoned-down Breen era. This eventually led Warner Bros. to remake the film and the 1941 version is justly hailed as the best adaptation of the tale.

(We are not going to talk about Satan Met a Lady. Ever.)

I am all for giving forgotten movies a fair shake and so I propose this: I will review this 1931 version in comparison to Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel and will not talk about the 1941 film until the very end. Fair enough? Good!

The film starred two big names from the silents: Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez. Daniels was only 30 years old at the time but already a twenty year veteran of the motion pictures. Cortez had made a name for himself as a silent loverboy and had easily transitioned over to the talkies. As usual, I will be writing profiles of these two performers after my review of the film.

Review

Sorry to do this but I am going to start things by getting technical.

The first and most important thing to know about The Maltese Falcon book is that it is written in the third person limited objective viewpoint. The “third person” part means that the story uses “he” instead of “I” while the “limited” means that only one character is focused on and the “objective” part means that the reader is not given access to that character’s thoughts or feelings.

Most writers prefer to focus on more than one character (and dip into their heads) so this style of writing is relatively uncommon. Dashiell Hammett liked to keep his characters at arm’s length. This distance, however, meant that his books were ideally suited to be turned into movies. Novels that contain a lot of interior monologue can be quite difficult to adapt into talking pictures (it was easier in the silents) but Hammett’s Pinkerton-trained prose contained none of these pitfalls.

It’s obvious why the film rights to the Falcon were snapped up. It had a juicy mystery, a tough-talking anti-hero and one of the finest femmes fatales to ever grace the page.

For those of you who may not know, here is the plot: Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) is a private eye who gets hired by the comely Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) to tail a ne’er-do-well named Thursby. His partner, Archer (Walter Long), opts to follow the cad but ends up getting shot. The police are suspicious and things are complicated by the fact that Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife, Iva (Thelma Todd). Then Thursby gets shot to death.

Oh dear. So many bodies.

In any case, Spade needs to clear his name. Wonderly hires him to protect her but doesn’t give him many details. It seems that she and some other criminal types are after a jewel-encrusted bird but no one admits to having it. What does this falcon have to do with Archer’s death? Can Spade find the real killer before the police pin the murder rap on him? And could it be that he is falling for his client?

This is where our knowledge of viewpoint pays off. The book had a tight focus and an unrelenting pace. The movie… meanders. We are shown Spade’s point of view sometimes but then the camera and the audience wander off to see Spade’s secretary, his lover, his enemies… Normally, an omniscient viewpoint is perfectly acceptable but with a book that is so lean and precise, these tangents deflate the narrative. The added scenes and viewpoints contribute very little to the tale and are dead weight for the most part.

This short attention span is actually a problem I have with some pre-Code films. They are so busy being naughty that they let the plot stop dead in its tracks. I realize this is big part of the pre-Code appeal to many viewers but it just doesn’t do it for me.

But the film has even bigger problems. I feel bad saying this but Ricardo Cortez is really the biggest flaw in the film. He is the very essence of tall dark and handsome to be sure but his idea of seductiveness is to grin like a hyena. All the time. All the time! Spade does his share of grinning in the book but not 24/7, for heaven’s sake!

Ooo, we're so sassy!
Ooo, we’re so sassy!

Bebe Daniels seems perfectly nice and that is a real problem. She just doesn’t have the hardness that is required for a character like Miss Wonderly (in the book, her real name was Brigid O’Shaughnessy but this version just keeps her as Wonderly) and the story suffers. She simply does not seem capable of playing rough with the boys, which is weird because her later silent career was focused on action-comedies. In the book, Brigid definitely used her feminine charm to get her way but she was also physically dangerous.

The whole look of the film is entirely too glossy. Spade is a sleazy Depression-era private investigator but his apartment looks like it is set up for visiting royalty. The place is huge! And it sports all the latest mod cons. If the P.I. money was that good, I should think that there would be detective agencies on every single corner.

In the plus column, Walter Long and Thelma Todd were good in their small parts as Archer and his wife. Long as a lunk and Todd as a bombshell. Smart casting, that. And I thought Una Merkel was the single best thing about the film. She plays Spade’s long-suffering secretary-with-benefits, Effie. She’s cute, tough, emotional… the perfect balance for a Hammett character with a conscience. Three cheers for Una! I cannot think of a more adorable smile in all of classic filmdom.

Una. Awww! (via Bill’s Blog)

And now, the ending. Hoo boy.

I am going to be spoiling this thing like crazy so consider yourself warned.

Undoubtedly, the biggest adaptation mistake that the movie makes is creating a witness to the murder of Archer. A Chinese gentleman saw Wonderly and names her as the killer. Spade, who conveniently speaks fluent Chinese, talks to the man immediately after the murder. So, he has an eyewitness who can identify the killer (and who does so at the eventual trial). The police are breathing down his neck, he has an impartial witness to the murder who can clear him in a heartbeat and he just sits on this information?

In the book, Spade suspected Wonderly/O’Shaughnessy pretty early in the plot. After all, Archer’s killer was someone who could get close without him being suspicious. However, Spade did not have the proof he needed and continued to play the game in order to gather evidence. Having an eyewitness means that he did a whole lot of work for nothing. And don’t tell me he did it just to keep close to Wonderly. Spade is an insatiable womanizer in this version (he definitely liked the ladies in the book but the screenwriters dialed this tendency up to 11) but having him risk his neck just to chase after a tomato contradicts his pragmatic character. Note his speech at the grand finale. (“I won’t play the sap for you.”)

Then, as a final insult to its source material, the movie tacks on a happy-ish ending. Wonderly ends up in stir and Spade gets a job at the DA’s office. He uses his influence to get her tobacco and chocolate in prison. The end. Um, yay?

So, the 1931 version is something of a disappointment. It messes with its source novel but none of its changes can be described as improvements. I can see why it would appeal to fans of pre-Code cinema but the 1941 version is considered definitive for a reason. (Director John Huston reportedly loved the novel and greatly disliked the previous versions with their tacked-on semi-happy endings.)

Oh and one final note. Some folks seem to have the idea that Cortez looked more like the book Spade than Bogart did. Not really. Neither man looked much like the book version. Spade was described as tall (one point for Cortez), blond, pink complected, having a v-shaped mouth and sloped shoulders. “He rather looked pleasantly like a blond satan” according to Hammett. Not many classic Hollywood leading men fit that description but if I had to choose purely on physical looks, I would go with Sterling Hayden, who is about an 85% match. In any case, at least Bogart doesn’t sport a Chesire cat grin.

Bebe Daniels

Bebe Daniels was a seasoned veteran.
Bebe Daniels was a seasoned veteran.

Bebe Daniels (whose real name may or may not have been Phyllis) was born in Dallas, Texas in 1901. A precocious child actress, she made her first confirmed screen appearance in 1910. Her second appearance was in the very first movie version of The Wizard of Oz, where it is generally accepted that she played the part of Dorothy.

Bebe made the jump to grownup roles at the ripe old age of fourteen and became Harold Lloyd’s regular leading lady in the comedy series he was starring in for Hal Roach. Her spunk and devilish charm caught the eye of Cecil B. DeMille, who offered her a contract at Paramount. The comedienne was refashioned as a cynical vamp.

Daniels spent the rest of the silent era at Paramount. She soon discarded her vamp persona and returned to her comedy roots. She specialized is making gender-reversed spoofs of popular films and proto-screwball comedies. Then sound arrived. Paramount didn’t see the need to keep paying Daniels her large salary and used the talkies as an excuse. Why take a risk on yesterday’s news when you could hire a stage star, guaranteed to walk, talk and sing? Daniels bought out her own contract and then signed on with RKO. Her starring role in Rio Rita proved that she had both the voice and the singing ability to stay on top.

At this point, she was nearly a two-decade veteran of the movies and was not yet thirty. As one of the most successful silent-to-talkie transitions, she continued her reign of mischief in pre-Code films. Her career slowed near the middle of the decade so she and husband Ben Lyon relocated to London. (An abduction threat aimed at her daughter provided further incentive to move housekeeping.)

When the second world war broke out, Daniels and Lyon stayed in London through the Blitz. In her capacity as entertainer to the troops, Daniels was the first woman to land on Normandy after D-Day. After the war, she remade herself again as a radio sitcom star. Life with the Lyons was a fictionalized version of the world of Ben and Bebe and it proved to be enormously popular. Daniels’ last screen credit was the 1955 film The Lyons Abroad, based on the radio program. At this point, Daniels had been in the motion picture game for 45 years.

Daniels passed away in 1971 but she remains one of the most vibrant personalities of the silent era.

Ricardo Cortez

On the surface, Jacob Krantz had all the prerequisites for super-stardom. Tall, handsome, intelligent… What more could you ask for?

Born in New York to Austrian immigrant parents, Jacob was cast in his first film while still in his teens. Unfortunately, during an action scene, a punch from star Milton Sills accidentally connected and the result was six stitches to the head and his scenes cut.

Young Jacob’s career received a shot in the arm from Rudolph Valentino’s contract troubles with Paramount. A huge box office draw, Valentino wanted more money and higher-quality films. Jesse L. Lasky spotted Krantz, noted his physical resemblance to Valentino and knew he had found a successor. Of course, he had to have a properly Latin name so he was dubbed Ricardo Cortez and his birthplace was moved to sunny Spain. The newly-christened Mr. Cortez did not speak Spanish. I know it was the silent era but this was not the wisest choice considering that the greater Los Angeles area is and was home to a large number of, you know, actual Spanish-speakers but then I am not a big time producer so what do I know?

Spain, Austria, what's the difference?
Spain, Austria, what’s the difference?

The deception was soon discovered (It was then claimed that Cortez was born in Austria. Which is near Spain. Or something. In any case, that one stuck and Cortez is still regularly listed as Austrian by birth.) but Cortez became a star. He played opposite Greta Garbo in Torrent, Lon Chaney in Mockery and was Paris in Korda’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy. He did not reach the dazzling heights of Valentino or Ramon Novarro but he did enjoy enormous popularity.

Cortez made the jump to sound easily and his new bosses at Warner Brothers hoped to make him into box office catnip for female moviegoers. Being born in New York was finally paying dividends as an American accent assured that Cortez would not be boxed into an ethnic-stereotyped corner (which, sadly, eventually happened to Novarro, Moreno, Velez and many other Latin stars in the talkies). In the pre-Code era, Cortez flourished as a devilish seducer.

On a personal note, Cortez was widowed in 1931 when his estranged wife, Alma Rubens, passed away after a long battle with drug addiction.

Success in the talkies did not last and by the mid-thirties, Cortez cast in supporting roles, often as villains. He switched over to directing for a time but his reportedly dictatorial style did not win him many friends. Cortez finally left Hollywood, joined a successful brokerage firm and enjoyed a comfortable retirement.

(His younger brother, Stanley Cortez, stayed in the motion picture game and became a noted cinematographer.)

Cortez died in 1977, the last of the great silent Latin Lovers.

7 Replies to “After the Silents: The Maltese Falcon (1931)”

  1. I really enjoyed this review, thank you! I’m plenty familiar with the Bogart Maltese Falcon, but after reading this I’m interested to check out the earlier film for comparison’s sake. I find it interesting seeing the effect of the Code on the exact same story (I’ve just come across The Front Page and am looking forward to seeing how it contrasts with His Girl Friday). Thanks again!

  2. That was a good review, Fritzi. I agree with you about many of the weaknesses of this version, especially the part about Spade speaking Cantonese. I was lucky once about 30 years ago to see a triple bill of the 1931 Falcon, the 1936 Satan Met a Lady (Bette Davis as sort-of Brigid, Warren William as sort-of Sam and a female sort-of Gutman), and the 1941 Falcon.

  3. Timely, as I’m just finishing off a post about its more famous counterpart for the Sleutahon. I was so interested to read this with Huston’s version in my mind, I’ll certainly watch this one as it sounds like a good movie. Think I’ll heed your advice and give the 1936 ‘remake’ a miss though…

    1. I give this one a “meh” but I think it’s pretty essential viewing for Falcon fans. It really helps show just how many bullets the 40’s version dodged.

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