Between 1931-41, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was filmed three times—but only one movie became a classic.
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in John Huston's 1941 classic adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.
Over eight decades ago—in February, 1930—Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was first published in book form. Today it’s easy to understand why the book was quickly hailed as a classic: It’s a fast-paced, deftly written novel, packed with crackling dialogue, highly original characters and a boldly fashioned hero—cynical private eye Sam Spade, the perfect embodiment of America’s new hardboiled detective.
Hammett’s briskly told story also seemed a natural for the movies, particularly the kind they were making at Warner Bros., the home of rat-ta-tat-tat dialogue, reality tinged urban melodramas and tough crime pictures like that year’s Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson and Doorway to Hell with James Cagney. So it was almost preordained that The Maltese Falcon would be turned into a movie by Warner. What still seems amazing, though, is that Warner would turn it into a movie not once, not twice, but three times, all within the span of a decade.
The original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is today known as Dangerous Female. Left to right: Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly, Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman, and Otto Matieson as Joel Cairo.
The first version of The Maltese Falcon was distributed to theaters in 1931 while the book was still fresh in the minds of its first eager readers. Known today as Dangerous Female, the title that distinguishes it from the more famous 1941 version when it’s shown on television, it now seems a curious hybrid of the old-fashioned Philo Vance-style mystery and the new hardboiled genre.
Warner’s first mistake probably was assigning the picture to house director Roy Del Ruth, who never really put his own brand on a film. Had they given the job to somebody else on the lot, say Bill Wellman, who did The Public Enemy, also in 1931, the film might have sizzled like Hammett’s novel. Del Ruth’s film seems uncommonly slow today. The people walk through rooms slowly and speak their lines carefully, as if they’re afraid the microphone couldn’t keep up with them if they talked any faster. It lacks snap.
The second mistake was casting Latin lover type Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. Cortez, whose real name was Jake Kranz, was groomed in the Valentino mold when he came into pictures in the silent era. He delivered his lines big and always appeared as if he were posing for the camera with fresh pomade on his hair. Hammett’s Sam Spade had a long, bony jaw, and a hooked nose, and “looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.” Cortez had too much the air of the gentleman about him. In one scene, Spade even wears a silk dressing gown! He’s so mainstream that at the film’s climax he’s offered a regular job with the San Francisco Police Department. That’s heresy.
Equally problematic was the casting of Bebe Daniels as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale. Daniels was a silent screen actress best known for comedies and the 1929 musical Rio Rita. Daniels gave the impression she’d never done anything wicked in her life while the part calls for a dish who’s been using her looks to manipulate men for years.
The 1931 version isn’t seen much anymore outside cable network late shows. Its stilted staging and performances immediately give it away as an early talkie without special distinction.
Some critics feel the 1931 version is more faithful to the book than the two later versions. It isn’t. Here’s one case in point: Miss Wonderly, the mysterious client who first hires Spade, never gets around to revealing her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
When the 1931 Falcon failed to corral moviegoers into theaters, Warner Bros., realized they had bungled the job. They had wisely obtained remake rights, so they decided to try again in 1936, hoping to tap into the booming market they’d created in the early 1930s for rapid-fire urban comedies. Again, though, the remake was problematic. First, they gave the writing job to Brown Holmes, one of the screenwriters who had botched the adaptation of Hammett’s novel the first time around. They told him to change a few names and locales, punch up the female part so it could become a “star vehicle” for Bette Davis, current queen of the Warner lot, and turn it into a sort of mystery- comedy like rival studio MGM’s recent hit, The Thin Man, which was derived from another Hammett novel.
The result was called Satan Met a Lady. It has no Sam Spade or Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Instead, it has debonair Warren William as a lawyer named Ted Shayne coming back to his old firm—and taking it over after his partner is killed. He couldn’t care less about the death of his partner, but he’s quite taken by a mysterious young client, Valerie Purvis, played by Bette Davis, who leads him into the hunt for another valuable artifact—not a statuette of a falcon, but rather a “trumpet” that’s supposed to be filled with priceless jewels.
Satan Met a Lady (1936) was an extremely loose adaptation of Hammett’s novel which starred Warren William (center) and Bette Davis. Alison Skipworth (far right) played “Madam Barabbas,” a character which replaced Hammett’s original Casper Gutman.
Director William Dieterle clearly bears no responsibility for the wreckage of Hammett’s classic novel that takes place in this dreadful movie. Actually, he deserves some credit for making it go by quickly while Bette Davis bats her eyes relentlessly at Warren William. In fact, the famous Bette Davis eyes are about the only reason to watch this film.
Warren William, who resembled John Barrymore, was the moustache-wearing sort of leading man people associated with gentleman detectives. He had, in fact, played effete sleuth Philo Vance on screen after William Powell left the role. He also starred as Perry Mason in the miserable series of films Warner made about Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous criminal lawyer in the 1930s. After Satan Met a Lady, he went on to play The Lone Wolf in a series of films about the thief/sleuth.
Among the many changes Satan Met a Lady makes to Hammett’s story: the charmingly evil Casper Gutman is transformed into a woman, played without much charm by character actress Alison Skipworth, best remembered for her many screen run-ins with W.C. Fields. Another problem is the casting of a very young Marie Wilson (My Friend Irma) as the secretary. Wilson plays her as such an airhead that it’s a wonder she doesn’t float to the ceiling in every scene.
If some of the casting in the first two film versions seems bad, I concede that both also had some casting gems. I would argue that Bette Davis could have played Brigid in all three films and held her own with the other actresses. Those who know Davis only as the grotesque old witch of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? might be surprised to see how cute and sexy she could be back in the 1930s. She also was a formidable actress with her first Academy Award (for Warner’s 1935 Dangerous) already in hand.
The minor casting in the 1931 version was very interesting, too. Una Merkel, probably best remembered today for the comic moms she played in later movies and TV shows, was entertainingly sassy as secretary Effie Perrine.
They also picked the perfect actor to play The Fat Man’s punk gunman, Wilmer, in the 1931 version: Dwight Frye, a character actor who that same year played Renfield, the insane disciple of Bela Lugosi in Universal’s Dracula. Frye, who died young at 44, was the perfect Wilmer, a role that needs to be played slightly off center, but with a true look of murder in the eye. Frye had that nailed.
One can only imagine what Dashiell Hammett thought of the first two versions of his most famous novel. He can’t have been fond of them, but he was working in Hollywood himself in those days, adapting other people’s books and knocking out a few originals, so he surely couldn’t have been too surprised by Warner’s treatment of his book.
However, Bette Davis’ opinion of Satan Met a Lady is well-documented. She called it “one of the worst turkeys I ever made.”
Nobody has ever had reason to say anything like that about the third version of the Falcon, which John Huston wrote and directed for release by Warner Bros. in 1941. In fact, film critic-historian Leonard Maltin has called Huston’s version the definitive private eye picture. Most critics agree—and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences nominated the film for best picture of 1941, Huston for best screenplay and Sydney Greenstreet, who played Kasper Gutman, for best supporting actor.
The third take of The Maltese Falcon came about because Huston demanded the chance to direct if Warner renewed his screenwriting contract. The studio definitely wanted to keep this young man happy—Huston had just been Oscar-nominated for his work on the original screenplay of Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) and had also turned in first-rate scripts for Sergeant York and High Sierra, two of their biggest 1941 pictures.
In his 1997 book Who the Devil Made It, writer-director Peter Bogdanovich quotes film director Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not) as saying he originally was going to direct the third version of the Falcon, but persuaded Huston to make it his first directing job instead. Huston told the story differently in his 1980 memoir An Open Book, omitting any reference to Hawks, saying he decided to do the remake because the book had never before been properly filmed.
It’s more likely Warner Bros. offered the untested director a list of story properties it already owned from which to choose his first directing job. Whatever happened, it certainly was a blessing that Huston chose The Maltese Falcon. His screenplay follows the book closely, although it leaves out the same material the earlier screenplays had omitted, such as the character of Gutman’s daughter, who has a significant role in the novel.
The next good thing that happened to Huston was actor George Raft’s decision to turn down the role of Sam Spade, which he’d been offered by the studio. Raft’s career was on the wane and, despite his real-life affinity for underworld figures, he could not have brought the worldly, sardonic attitude to the role that came with the hiring of second choice Humphrey Bogart.
Conventional wisdom said Bogart was too small and too homely to play Spade. So much for conventional wisdom. He brought a weary cynicism to the role that the earlier actors couldn’t begin to conjure up.
Bogart also brought something else to the gumshoe character that improved upon Hammett’s concept: nobility. In the novel, you’re left wondering if Spade isn’t just a selfish man; unwilling to play the sap for the sexy Brigid because it’s not a good career move. Bogart plays the part as if Spade is doing the right thing in sending her over, not just for himself, but for his fellow man as well.
Bogart’s Spade also isn’t the sexist lout of the earlier films, particularly in his treatment of his secretary. He doesn’t sleep with Brigid, though he does in the book and in the 1931 film, and he’s much more respectful to her when she first shows up as a client without portfolio.
What Bogart is, though, is tough. He’s the only Spade that we actually see rolling his own smokes, as he does in the novel. And when he starts picking on poor Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), you can really tell Wilmer is never going to get the drop on Spade, not on his best day. (The stunt, so accurately described in the book, where Spade slips behind Wilmer and pulls his overcoat down over his gun hands, is perfectly executed by Bogart in the 1941 movie.) And when he kisses Brigid off, you suspect he’s had her number all along.
Huston’s supporting cast is also near flawless. Peter Lorre is the definitive Joel Cairo, quite clearly homosexual, though you couldn’t say so in movies in 1941. Lorre’s Cairo is a gutsy little guy. He puts Spade to a lot of trouble before he gets beat.
Kasper Gutman: You're a close-mouthed man?
Sam Spade: Nah, I like to talk.
KG: Better and better. I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. [sits back] Now, sir. We'll talk, if you like. I'll tell you right out, I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.
SS: Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?
Sydney Greenstreet, who at the age of 61 made his film debut in the 1941 Falcon, was an instant smash hit. His good-natured but sinister Kasper (spelled Casper in the novel) Gutman is now so iconic that scores of characters have been modeled on him over the years. Hammett created the character, but Greenstreet makes it almost impossible to imagine another actor in the role.
Elisha Cook’s Wilmer is also masterful. The poor actor was so typecast by the way Sam Spade handled him in 1941 that he spent the rest of his acting career as a nervous little twit, expecting the worst from every leading man—and usually getting it.
Then there’s Mary Astor, who won an Oscar that same year for her supporting role to Bette Davis in The Great Lie. In real life, Astor had the reputation of being a hot number, especially after her “secret diary” was made public in a scandalous trial, revealing her to be much less the lady than she usually appeared on screen. In other words, she was born to play Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
Warner gave the fledgling director the usual “gangster flick” budget of around $300,000, plus a shooting schedule of six weeks.
John Huston fused all these marvelous elements into a fast-paced, exciting film in which the bizarre characters all seemed perfectly natural speaking the lines that mostly were Hammett’s original dialogue. By shooting the film with a much darker, more stylish look, Huston made The Maltese Falcon into a film worthy of comparison to the famous book.
The film propelled Bogart to full stardom and launched his reputation as the movies’ first great anti-hero, a reputation he cemented two years later as Rick in Warner’s Casablanca.
Huston became Hollywood’s hottest young director and Warner kept busy trying to find ways to re-team Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet and the others in one picture after another all through the war years.
Ironically, Dashiell Hammett’s publisher, Knopf, had sold all film rights to Warner, including remakes and sequels, for $8,500 in 1930, so Hammett received nothing from the most famous version of his film. Still, he was widely known to have loved the Huston film and frequently told friends, “they finally got it right.”
Like the novel itself, the place of John Huston’s Maltese Falcon is firmly set in history. Basil Wright, in his 1974 film history The Long View, wrote, “The Maltese Falcon set the pattern for nearly all the crime films of the subsequent twenty years with its matter-of-fact acceptance of the inner as well as the outer brutalities of the criminal world.”
Will there be more film versions of the Falcon? With today’s studios always on the prowl for classics to remake, how could there not be? So, here’s my suggestion on how to make one that’s fresh, exciting and relevant for the youngsters who dominate the ticket-buying marketplace today: Why not show us what none of the previous versions did—the fate of Casper Gutman’s young daughter?
In the novel, Sam Spade finds her severely doped-up in a hotel room. After she comes to, she skips out and never is heard from again. I’m haunted by the notion of what it must have been like to be The Fat Man’s kid. Did he drag her around the world with him on his hunt for the black bird, involving her in all the murders, thefts and other intrigue? If Warner still wants to get the most out of its investment, isn’t it time for Maltese Falcon II: Revenge of the Fat Man’s Daughter?
Ron Miller is the former national president of the Television Critics Assn. He’s the editor and founder of www.thecolumnists.com, where he writes the Dark Corridors mystery pages.