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?"
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.|
|What the hell -- let's call the gun a phallic symbol.|
|Gutman and Cook,|
sittin' in a tree...
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!|
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?
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: