Hollywood made two attempts at adapting Dashiell Hammett’s pulp masterpiece The Maltese Falcon before John Huston scripted and directed the definitive adaptation in 1941. The stunning serendipity of the casting of Huston’s film defines the characterisations in concrete for all time. Yet it is still worth looking at the earlier movies as they each offer their own flavour and particular piquancy.
In 1931 Roy Del Ruth directed a largely faithful scenario penned by Maude Fulton and titled The Maltese Falcon, starring would-be heartthrob Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and the voluptuous Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly. The studio being Warner Bros. and the times pre-code, the picture has a dark gritty feel, and the sexual sparks between Spade and Wonderly are bright and thunderous. There is a coy frivolity in their antics even though in the end Bebe gets no reprieve. An early sequence starting with a scene showing a silhouette of a couple kissing in Spade’s office, which then cuts to one focused on a pair of shapely legs leaving the office, has pre-code all over it, and deftly establishes that Cortez’s Spade is definitely a lady’s man. His secretary Effie spends a lot of time on his knee while otherwise engaged in more routine office duties. The rest of the casting got the job done, and it is interesting to see Dudley Digges’ seedy portrayal of a very thin Gutman. Interesting too is seeing Bebe Daniels taking a bath, and her bare shoulders after stripping in Spade’s kitchen to prove she hadn’t palmed some of Gutman’s cash. It all gets serious by the end though.
Satan Met A Lady directed by William Dieterle in 1936 plays fast and loose with Hammett’s story, and mainly for laughs. Warren Williams as the private dick and femme-fatale Bette Davis chew up the scenery with rambunctious over-the-top portrayals. While a lot of the humour is over-played, ironically the whole affair can be seen as a cheeky satire of film noir made before Hollywood actually made one! While Williams’ exuberance is perhaps too theatrical, Davis is a delight, revelling in screwball antics that still have a whiff of pre-code insouciance. She has the best line in the movie when she is holding a gun to Williams – who throughout dons a hat which must have been borrowed from a nearby Western set – and demands “Take off your hat in the presence of a lady with a gun!” Another novelty is the Gutman character played as a matronly but mean old lady. Great fun.