The Case of the Four Maltese Falcons
By Andrew MacRae
(Warning: There be spoilers ahead. This article compares the novel, “The Maltese Falcon,” and three film versions. Of necessity, this requires discussion of the plot and characters, how they are similar, and how they differ from the film version with which we are most familiar. If you have not read the novel, nor seen the version starring Humphrey Bogart, please stop reading now, and watch it. You are in for a treat.)
It took Warner Brothers three swings at Dashiell Hammett’s novel before they not only got a hit, they knocked it out of the ballpark. John Huston’s script and his directorial debut captured to near perfection Hammett’s setting, story, and characters. So much so that readers not knowing the chronology could easily believe the book to be a novelization of the movie.
The two previous film versions, released in 1931 and 1936, unable to compete with their younger sibling, have become ‘check-off’ movies. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy movies that are a bit obscure, DVD’s are available from Warner Brothers, including a box set with all three films.
Dashiell Hammett was already a successful writer of pulp stories when he wrote The Maltese Falcon. Previous stories featuring The Continental Op had brought a gritty realism to crime fiction. That made sense, as Hammett had worked as a private detective (or operative) for Pinkerton’s nationwide detective agency.
In Samuel Spade, Hammett created the archetypal hard-boiled private investigator, a character that has become ingrained in our popular fiction.
The Maltese Falcon was originally published as a five-part serial that ran from September 1929 through January 1930, in Black Mask, a top-selling pulp magazine. Serialization was common for popular fiction prior to the rise of mass-market paperback books. An additional advantage to an author in releasing a novel first as a serial was the opportunity to tweak their stories, based on the reactions of readers, as installments were published. Alfred A. Knopf published the novel in hardback in 1930.
Hammett’s story was a success both as a serial and a novel, and Warner Brothers quickly scooped up the film rights.
The first film version of The Maltese Falcon was released in June 1931, and it enjoyed good reviews and box office success. The movie is played in a breezy style, with then popular stars Ricardo Cortez as Samuel Spade and Bebe Daniels as Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
Part of the fun in watching this film is noticing the many differences in everyday life of 1931, glimpsed in the sets, costumes, and props, from what we see in the 1941 version. The lingering influence of the Edwardian Age can still be detected in the older film, in hair and clothing styles. This was still in the era of detachable shirt collars and spats, and women’s dresses had more in common with the 1910s than the fashions of the mid-to-late 1930s. Cars and telephones and other devices are decidedly antique to our eyes.
The 1931 version is a pre-code film and therefore not bound by the moralistic rules imposed by Hays Code enforcer, Joseph Breen, beginning in July, 1934. Cortez’s Spade is an unabashed womanizer, to a degree modern audiences might find uncomfortable, but this is truer to the novel than the later versions. The screenwriters even gave him another bedmate, though we only catch a glimpse of her as she adjusts her stockings and slips discreetly out of Sam’s office. Sam picks a pillow up from the floor and replaces it on a sofa. Later in the story, Eva, his late partner’s widow, throws a fit when she spots Brigid in Sam’s apartment wearing one of Eva’s negligees. These are innuendos unthinkable in a movie after 1934.
The story only veers significantly from the novel at the end, when a scene was added in which Sam visits Brigid in prison after her conviction for murder. Strangely, they left out Spade’s now-famous speech where he explains why he turned her in. (“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”) As a viewer already familiar with the story, we keep waiting for Sam to deliver the lines. While his scene with Brigid is effective and opportune, the speech never arrives. It’s as though the scene was written to highlight it, and then the speech itself was nixed.
Ricardo Cortez performs the role with a great deal of energy and charm, though you wonder if the film wasn’t sponsored by Brilliantine. He plays the part as someone who can laugh at whatever life throws at him. Ice Cream Blonde Thelma Todd plays Eva Archer as a brunette. Casper Gutman is played by Dudley Digges, an actor easily one-quarter the mass of Sydney Greenstreet. His shirt collars are fitted tightly to create an illusion of rolls of fat, and he tries mightily to play a large, overweight man, but they don’t even bother calling him ‘The Fat Man.’ Joel Castro becomes Dr. Castro, and is called Joe by his sometimes partners-in-crime. Wilmer is capably played by Dwight Frye, with an uncanny likeness to Elisha Wood Jr. Audiences had seen him in Universal’s Dracula only a few months earlier as poor, doomed Renfield. Spade’s adoring secretary, Effie, is played by a very cute and bubbly Una Merkel.
In general, this first film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon has a much lighter tone and style than Huston’s. Why it works is due in no small part to the energy Cortez brings to the part.
Five years later, Warner Brothers released a second film version of The Maltese Falcon. They had wanted to re-release the Ricardo Cortez version to capitalize on the enormous success of rival studio MGM, with their film of another Hammett novel, The Thin Man, in 1934, but that was nixed for reasons mentioned above. And so, Warner’s decided to remake the story.
Perhaps because The Thin Man was a fast-talking, mystery-comedy, Warner’s, in their corporate wisdom, turned The Maltese Falcon into a fast-talking, mystery-comedy, too. For those familiar with the 1941 version, it can be disconcerting to hear lines tossed off as light banter, where we are used to them being growled by Humphrey Bogart.
Nor was that the end of the changes.
In perhaps the oddest change, the Maltese Falcon—the black bird, itself—has been transformed into the Horn of Roland, an equally mythic relic.
The ending is changed in this version, too. William Warren delivers Spade’s heartfelt speech, but it’s stepped on by Bette Davis’ laughing farewell as she is led away in handcuffs. Even the title was changed to Satan Met a Lady, recognizing Davis’ featured, built-up role as Brigid, and referencing Hammett’s description of Spade as “a blonde Satan.”
Continuing the alterations, all the characters’ names are changed, too. Sam Spade has become Ted Shane. Brigid O’Shaughnessy has become Valerie Purvis, and Effie, Miss Murgatroyd. For purpose of sanity, this article will use the canonical names. The plot remains basically the same, though it starts with Sam blowing into town, and dropping in on his old partner, Archer. William Warren plays Spade. He was a popular leading man in the early and mid-thirties. He had played Julius Caesar to Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra two years before. Joel Cairo has grown into a tall, lanky Englishman played by a remarkably young Arthur Treacher. Instead of gay, he’s presented as comedically polite, something much more acceptable under the Hayes Code.
Perhaps the most interesting casting transformation is Casper Gutman becoming Madame Barabbas. She is a sinister, older woman with an aristocratic bearing, possibly a member of the disposed Russian nobility. She and Spade are already acquainted in this version of the story.
Satan Met a Lady comes off as a “Bizarro World” replica of The Maltese Falcon. The film performed poorly at the box office and the reviews were scathing. Bette Davis was so disappointed in the script that she went on strike for better films, and on to major stardom.
John Huston had sold several scripts by the time he wrote and directed Warner’s third attempt at The Maltese Falcon. Given the mountain of books, essays, and papers written about the movie, these notes about this film version will be brief.
Perhaps it was a case of genius born of inexperience, but Huston as director captured the narrative voice of Hammett’s novel to a degree rarely seen in screen adaptations of books. Huston understood how to use light and shadow, dialog and action, tension and release—all of the elements that make up the language of cinema. In doing so, he created one of the first forays into a new film genre that would soon be called film noir.
But Huston’s film is not a slavish adherence to the original text either, the downfall of many well-intentioned movie versions of cherished novels. Much as Francis Ford Coppola improved upon the potboiler prose of Puzo’s, The Godfather, so did Huston. For example: Huston, like his predecessors, eliminates the character of Rhea, Casper Gutman’s self-cutting daughter.
The idea of watching three film adaptations of the same novel may not appeal to many people. But those who give it a shot will experience something akin to a time machine. Present day 1931 blends into contemporary 1935, and then into 1941. Same story, characters, and settings, mostly, but with three actors portraying each role. And for those with an anthropological bent, the films capture the years of the Great Depression remarkably well.
So, there it is. Read the book. Watch the movies. Have fun! ■
“The Maltese Falcon”
Serialized, Black Mask 1929 – 1930
Novel published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1930
The Maltese Falcon (Warner Brothers, 1931)
Starring Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Thelma Todd.
Directed by Ron Del Ruth.
Screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes.
Satan Met a Lady (Warner Brothers, 1936)
Starring William Warren and Bette Davis.
Directed by William Dieterle.
Screenplay by Brown Holmes.
The Maltese Falcon (Warner Brothers, 1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr.
Directed by John Huston.
Screenplay by John Huston.
Andrew MacRae is the author of two novels about a good-natured pickpocket, as well as numerous stories and poems. As an editor for Darkhouse Books, he has published over a dozen titles, including “Black Coffee,” “The Anthology of Cozy-Noir,” “Stories from the Near-Future,” “Descansos,” and the upcoming anthologies, “Sanctuary,” and “Shhhh… Murder!”