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The Maltese Falcon (1931)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Otto Matieson, Dwight Frye

Written By: Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes, Dashiell Hammett (novel) Directed By: Roy Del Ruth

The Short Version

Before Huston, before Bogart, there was a first time around.

It’s not a bad first try…

But it’s not the stuff that dreams are made of.

There’s some risqué stuff to be seen, thanks to a date prior to the Hays Code being enforced.

For any Film Noir fan, this take on The Maltese Falcon needn’t be the best to be worth the effort.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

GROCERY STORE JACK.

It can be really good until you develop a palette; then it’s just “not bad.”


Pairs Well With...

HOUSE WHISKEY.

It’ll do for getting loaded on the couch after your partner’s been gunned down, but if you actually want to feel anything during the experience, you’ll need to reach for something from a higher shelf.

“Who’s that dame wearing my kimono?”


Watching the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is an experience similar to watching a good high school production of an outstanding Broadway musical.  If this is the only version you’ve seen, it’s engrossing and quite enjoyable.  (Great story, too… which, really, is the main thing that makes it enjoyable.)  But once you see the main event with the perfect cast guided by the master director, it’s hard for more than moments of that other attempt to remain, because the level of class and talent on display in said main event is just so much greater.

No, this, the first film version out of the can after Dashiell Hammett’s definitive noir novel came off the presses, may not be the stuff that dreams are made of, but…

It’s the stuff of interesting beginnings.  Whether or not it is truly Film Noir is up to you.

Even and indeed especially among genre fans, the definition of Noir can be open to debate.  That this film’s source material – Hammett’s novel – is not just Noir but is indeed definitive literary Noir is beyond question, but once a camera becomes involved, the game changes.  For me, the story is not enough to grant something the label of Noir; atmosphere is also essential.  Hammett’s prose has atmosphere in spades (ahem), but print and film are two different things.  When the camera rolls, actors’ performances, cinematography, and direction must be also considered, and for my money, this take on The Maltese Falcon just doesn’t catch “that” atmosphere.  An old fashioned detective story filmed on black and white stock, sure, but Noir… eh…

It starts with the efforts of director Roy Del Ruth, whose work here sets the tone for that of nearly everyone else under his authority and which very firmly falls under the heading of “not bad.”  Technically speaking, he does what he needs to do, and makes sure that everyone else does, too, but with the exception of one very specific type of scene – we’ll get to it – there is just zero spark here; no flash of inspiration, no hint of something deeper behind the moving of characters and the reading of lines… no atmosphere.  It is, indeed, a largely pedestrian effort.  Competent, yes, but hardly the artistic stroke necessary to make something truly Noir.

It’s doesn’t help that our allegedly hardboiled hero comes across more like a used car salesman than he does a sly private detective.  Ricardo Cortez (The Case of the Black Cat) spends almost the entire film speaking through a ridiculously phony grin that’s barely on the human side of rictus, regardless of what’s happening around him, with the net effect being that he appears to be utterly clueless as to what his character’s really about (aside from skirt chasing) and that his guess at how to approach any given scene is nearly always off kilter at best.  His range for most of the picture is somewhere between “flat” and “shallow,” so that when the time comes for Sam Spade to maybe, just maybe, have a sincere bout of emotional response, it’s simply impossible to believe… save for the scene where the police find our hero drunk.  There, in that one moment of letting go, Cortez manages to catch something, but it goes away as soon as Spade becomes sober again, never more to be seen.  Pity, that.

The rest of the cast fares somewhat better.  Though their efforts are hampered by largely uninspired direction that often makes scenes appear more as recitations than performances, each actor nonetheless manages to make some kind of positive mark on his or her character.  Nothing happens to make any of the players truly stand out for future consideration – save, no surprise, for Universal horror legend Dwight Frye (The Bride of Frankenstein), who threatens to steal scenes even from his place back in the third string – but each character does become a distinct person with some hint of an additional layer that the audience doesn’t see.  The performances beyond that of the leading man are, down the line, not bad; indeed, taken on their own, some might even be called good… for a day or two.  Much longer, though, and they quickly fade from memory, much like the high school musical mentioned earlier.

That just doesn’t happen with real Noir.  Reading the words and showing beautiful establishing shots of a pre-Golden Gate San Francisco just aren’t enough.  The lines may come from Hammett’s book, the plot and the characters may come from Hammett’s book, and both may be surprisingly faithful in their translations, but when all is said and done, as is so often the case when Hollywood reaches into literature, the movie just doesn’t capture the spirit of the book, or its genre…

Save for one small detail that the Noir of the Golden Age could not capture in so blatant a fashion because it was forbidden to do so.  This take on The Maltese Falcon predates enforcement of the infamous Hays Code – Hollywood’s attempt at moralizing self-censorship to keep the government away – and, interestingly enough, the sexually charged scenes that would surely have been forbidden just a short time later also happen to be the only ones that director Roy Del Ruth really seems interested in sinking his teeth into.

The film opens with our lecherous hero bidding a physical farewell to a bare-limbed beauty whose face and figure never make it into frame but whose recent “business” at Spade & Archer is more than obvious.  Indeed, if there was any doubt, the next scene shows Spade returning to his office and cleaning up tossed pillows and the sort of general discord that simply cannot be mistaken for anything but the aftermath of sex on the couch.  Par for the course in this century, sure, but in 1931?  Wow; and the director does all he can to heighten the suggestion of afterglow, loading the moment with all of the intangible atmospherics that would be missing from the rest of the picture… save for two scenes later on featuring Spade and our femme fatale, Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels, 42nd Street).  The first is the lead-in to their own couch Olympics (followed up by several shots of the lady in Spade’s bed – scandalous, I say), and the second involves Spade demanding that Wonderly strip naked to prove that she hasn’t stolen from him.  While there is no actual nudity in these scenes, their already suggestive nature is given a major sexual charge by the director, who once again has chosen to become artistically awake.  If you remember anything from this version of The Maltese Falcon several weeks on, I guarantee that these “scenes of sensuality” (to borrow modern MPAA parlance) will be the standout moments.

If one elects to uphold a standard of rewarding the greatest amount of effort presented by all parties involved, they certainly deserve to be.

For self-proclaimed students of classic cinema in general and Film Noir in particular, these scenes alone would be worth the price of admission, despite the fact that the rest of the picture does not live up to the standard set by them.  Indeed, the very fact that it doesn’t live up to those standards – or the overall standards of the genre to which it aspires – are what make this movie especially interesting for followers of Noir, for this is perhaps the best example one can offer of how one can start from an absolutely definitive classic as a foundation and end up with a very different result.  It’s also a study in why finding the right director and the right cast are absolutely essential to the successful translation of any story from the printed page onto film.

Bottom line, had this been the only version of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” ever filmed, it would stand as a passably good picture, driven almost entirely by the strength of its story.  But the fact is that it’s not, and if you’re only going to take the time to see one version of this story, you should see the one that was made ten years later.  But for those who are truly interested in classic cinema history and/or the nuances of Noir, The Maltese Falcon is certainly worth a look should the opportunity present itself, not just despite but indeed because of its flaws.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2013


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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