The Maltese Falcon

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The Maltese Falcon, but not that one. Not the 1941 version starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, but the other one, the original filmic take on Dashiell Hammett’s story, from 1931, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Roy Del Ruth directing. That one.

Retaining much of Hammett’s terse, hard-boiled dialogue, it keeps his story intact too – woman called Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) employs private eye Spade and his partner to help her find her missing sister. By the next morning two men are dead, one of them Spade’s partner, another the man who was supposed to have run off with Wonderly’s sister. The “sister”, it turns out, was all make-believe and Wonderly was really looking for a priceless black statuette, and so are a number of other sinister people who are soon making their presences felt.

But no one comes to any version of The Maltese Falcon for the plot. Like the original “missing sister” it’s a feint, a placeholder, there just to stimulate engagement while Hammett gets on with the real purpose of the story, which is to take crime fiction out of the country house and put it back on the street. At its centre a new kind of hero, an implacable dispenser of justice with no sentimental side whatsoever.

Dashiell Hammett’s real first name was Samuel and he had worked as a detective, so there’s both idealisation (the character of Spade) and drawing from real life going on here.

How much womanising Hammett did while on the job is uncertain but his story is alive with sex. There’s barely a relationship in the whole of this Maltese Falcon that doesn’t have a sexual angle to it – Spade and Wonderly, Spade and his secretary, Effie (Una Merkel), Spade and his partner’s wife (Thelma Todd), Spade mockingly with the cops who try to pin the murders on him, Spade with Dr Cairo (Otto Mattieson), who might not be entirely heterosexual (the novel makes him even less so).

Sam Spade in bed on the phone
Spade works all hours

Spade is played by Ricardo Cortez, the actor born Jacob Krantz whose stage name speaks of an earlier career being groomed to replace Rudolf Valentino after his sudden death. Cortez is saddled, to an extent, with the “Latin lover” style and his screen-lothario mannerisms don’t do his characterisation of Spade any favours. When he stops with the smarming, which he does here and there, Spade and the film snap into life. When he’s most like Bogart, in other words.

It’s a pre-Code film so the references to homosexuality – banter with the cops, mostly – make it from book to screen, and there’s a tiny bit of nudity (a nipple?) when Ms Wonderly takes a bath. Ms Wonderly looks like the sort of woman who’s always wanting to take a bath.

It’s this stuff that consigned the film to limbo. When Warner’s wanted to reshow it in 1935 they couldn’t get it past the censor, so it got remade as Satan Met a Lady, a thudding failure, and then again, most famously, in 1941. After which Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stepped in to take the baton handed on from Sam Spade and Hammett’s hero started to recede into history, though this film preceded him.

This version of the story beats out the 1941 one in terms of sexual daring, but is eclipsed by it in most other ways. That’s not to say this isn’t well made – Roy Del Ruth directs and he’s sleek and stylish and the cinematography of William Reese is (apart from the odd moment when he loses focus) crisp and bright. The film looks great. The side characters make a mark – Mattieson as the effete Dr Cairo, Dudley Digges as Caspar Gutman, another seeker of the elusive “black bird”, and Robert Elliott and J Farrell MacDonald as the two cops twisting Spade’s melon.

Daniels less so, with flat line readings as if she were working off idiot boards. The film’s main problem, though, is its star, Cortez. But then we’re looking back at him through other great versions of the same basic idea – the white knight, dog-eared detective, as played by Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Elliott Gould and on and on. Cortez doesn’t stand a chance, the sap.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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