Monday, November 19, 2012


Long before it became fashionable, Warner Brothers was into recycling in a big way. Not plastics or paper, mind you, but stories. Throughout the '30s and into the early '40s, the mantra seemed to be, If it worked once, it'll work a second time. Or a third, if we don't have anything else on hand. Often a twist was necessary to fool people. Give it a different title. Change the sex of the lead character. Make it a comedy instead of a drama. But keep making it over and over so we don't have to pay for a new story! Celluloid composting, as it were.

And so it was with The Maltese Falcon. First filmed a year after its 1930 publication, Dashiell Hammet's novel was ripe for the pre-code Warner Brothers: fast-paced and sexy, it featured a few murders, a half-dozen fascinating characters and that strange, jewel-studded statuette everybody wants to get their hands on.

Too bad it took another ten years to get it right.

Well, not really. Sure, Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade is iconic. Come to think of it, so are the performances by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and the great Elisha Cook, Jr. The screenplay and direction by John Houston are both brilliant. It's even cool to see Houston's dad Walter make his good-luck cameo as the murdered sea captain. Yes, the 1941 Maltese Falcon is pretty much Exhibit A as far as perfect movies are concerned. But the original version... um... well... is the original!

"Admit it -- ain't I a better
looker than Bogie?"
OK, why give it a second (or, for most, a first) look? A couple of reasons. First, Ricardo Cortez as Spade. A Latin lover in silents, it took only a microphone to make clear this was no sweet-talking Spaniard -- he was, in reality, a New Yorker named Jacob Krantz who nonetheless had a face for movies, perhaps moreso than Bogart. 

Unlike the brooding Bogie, Cortez's Sam Spade is a smarmy, sex-obsessed guy who has no compunction about having an affair with his partner's wife (and every woman who crosses his path). His teeth gleam like the grille of a newly-polished Duesenberg. (His slimy demeanor got more than one "Oh yuck!" from my wife during just the first minute of the movie -- the sure sign of a fine performance.) Indeed, we're introduced to Spade just after he's had a roll on his office couch with an anonymous woman. While Bogart's Spade is difficult to know, Cortez dares you to even like him.

I would kill to have a smile like that.
Another thing. Bogart's Spade doesn't even seem to like his job. But Cortez? He's having the time of his life. You can't wipe that smug smirk off his face, even when he's locking horns with Detectives Dundy and Polhaus from the San Francisco Police Department.  He loves calling them "darling and "sweetheart" just to piss them off even more than they are already. (Polhaus at one moment silently mutters "son of a bitch" at Spade through cigar-clenched teeth, a moment the remake never would have been able to get away with.)

What the hell -- let's call the gun a phallic symbol.
A major difference lies in the final third of both movies,coinciding with Spade's dealing with the trio of villians: Casper Gutman, Dr. Joel Cairo and Wilmer Cook. The actors -- Dudley Digges, Otto Matieson and Dwight Frye (the latter fresh off his deranged sidekick roles in Dracula and Frankenstein) are all fine, but no match for their 1941 counterparts. (Mary Astor's portrayal of Ruth Wonderly, too, is more entertainingly neurotic than the inexplicably top-billed Bebe Daniels is here.) The dialogue carried off so splendidly by Greenstreet in the remake sounds merely expository when spoken by Digges, slowing things down as if the brilliantine in Cortez's hair gummed up the movie projector.

Gutman and Cook,
sittin' in a tree...
The original supporting cast, you might say, is merely a rough sketch for a masterpiece to come a decade later. But at the same time, the performances by Greenstreet, Lorre and Cook are so similar to those in the original -- right down to line readings -- that I wonder if Houston screened it for them before rolling film. What Houston was obliged to cut, however, was the gay vibe that the villains give off in the original. When Spade, speaking to Gutman, refers to Cook as "your little boyfriend," he's not being facetious.

But it's the ending where the two versions really deviate. There's no need to recount the now almost-cliched finale of the remake. But, again, the line readings come into play. When Bogart tells Mary Astor, "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck," he makes you feel that he means it. When delivering the same line, Cortez is all teeth and sarcasm -- he's looking forward to seeing her swing from the noose at San Quentin.

Why the long face? You're getting free Hershey bars!
Or is he? In the final scene, missing from the remake, Spade visits Wonderly in prison. Just to rub salt in the wound, he tells her that he brings good news: thanks to the way he broke the case, he's gotten a high-profile position in the DA's office. Yet, he still has a soft spot for her, telling the prison matron to provide her with candy, cigarettes, anything she wants -- and to charge it to the DA. 

It certainly doesn't pack the punch of the jailbars-like shadow passing over Mary Astor's face as she steps into the elevator. But for the only time in the movie, the scene shows that Spade just might have a beating heart somewhere inside him.

Don't you wish your stockbroker had a
headshot like this?
Interestingly, Ricardo Cortez slipped into B-movies as Humphrey Bogart leaped into the stratosphere with The Maltese Falcon. One can only speculate what Cortez thought of the remake -- and if he conceded that while his version was a snappy little picture, Bogart's was an instant classic. 

If so, he probably didn't care much. After making a stab at directing (and a final movie performance in the aptly-titled The Last Hurrah in 1958), Cortez returned to New York and, in a move that would boggle the minds of middle-aged men these days, carved out a second, lucrative career as a Salomon Brothers stockbroker. He died in 1977, outliving Bogart by 20 years.

Remakes have a bad reputation, usually for good reason. Not so with the version of The Maltese Falcon. However, the original is worth a look, if only to compare and contrast, and to see exactly what one could get away with before Will Hayes decided that audiences needed to be treated like children. You know, when movies were the stuff that dreams are made of.

Just so you can see what repulsed my wife, here's a clip from the first scene of the original version of The Maltese Falcon:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating read; a friend I sent this to also thought it was a great read and thanked me for sending it on. Keep 'em coming!