You know what’s a really good detective movie with a swell lot of thieves, a quick talking private eye, and a black bird? (And a not so good one?)

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In a span of ten years, Hollywood had produced three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). First in 1931, next in 1936, and finally in 1941. It’s the 1941 version that most people think of when this classic story is mentioned. And with good reason. It’s the best.

OK, full disclosure. I haven’t seen the 1936 version. That one is titled Satan Met A Lady which stars Bette Davis and, from what I can tell, it’s not very highly thought of. It’s also only very loosely based on the book. Hell, they even changed Sam Spade’s name! For shame!

The 1931 version is a bit slow and stagey. The actors deliver their lines rather like they aren’t sure they should be speaking. However, Una Merkel as Effie Perine, Sam Spade’s girl Friday, does add some nice sass to the picture. And the picture was made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, so it could be a little more blatant with its suggestions of sexual relations between characters.

The introduction of Spade, lecherously played by the handsome Ricardo Cortez, is quite eyebrow raising. He is seen bidding farewell to a woman, whose face we never see, at the door of his and his partner’s offices. The woman adjusts her stockings just as she takes her leave. Spade, after sexually harassing Effie for a quick couple of minutes, returns to his private office and straightens up the couch. Eyebrows raised.

Another Pre-Code aspect of this version comes when it more closely follows the book in the scene in which Spade needs to determine if Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), his deceptive client and love interest, had stolen a thousand dollar bill. Spade demands that she disrobe in front of him so he can be sure she doesn’t have it. In the 1941 version, the detective takes her at her word that she hadn’t stolen it.

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Sam leching on Effie.

The main problem with this version is Cortez. He’s too handsome. Too much like Rudolph Valentino and too much of a dandy to be a hard-bitten gumshoe. And, I know the film intended to make certain the audience knows he’s a ladies’ man, but Cortez is way too creepy. The way he looks at virtually every woman in this movie isn’t merely to undress them with his eyes, it’s meant to give the message to the woman that, sooner or later, he’ll be having sex with her. It’s hard to imagine women of the 1931 movie-going public finding that attractive.

Perhaps, they didn’t, because the film did not do very well at the box office. That is probably why just five years later it was remade as that Bette Davis vehicle. However, that didn’t do very well either. And I didn’t see it, so I can’t say anymore about that film.

Then came the definitive version in 1941. Considered Hollywood’s first film noir, it was written and directed by first-time director John Huston and stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. This one got it right. Bogart is fantastic as the confident, tough, smart, and ruggedly handsome private eye. He’s been around and seen a few things in his time. He’s a ladies’ man, all right, and subject to the sexist behavior of the day, but he’s no creep. I can understand his appeal to women. He’s the men want to be him and women want to be with him kind of character Hollywood produces from time to time.

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The tale is a bit hard to follow on first viewing, but that doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyment. The characters are so fascinating and the actors are all top-notch. This film is just crammed with great character actors. There’s Mary Astor as Miss Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Sidney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, and, of course, Peter Lorre and his amazing portrayal of Joel Cairo (more on that character in the upcoming aside). Even the secondary characters have terrific actors in the parts, which includes the good cop/bad cop team portrayed by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick as the ever-reliable Effine Perine, and Elisha Cook Jr as Wilmer, Gutman’s young, tough-talking bodyguard. If ever a movie had the perfect casting, this one is it.

And now a short aside…

In the book, Hammett makes it clear that Cairo is gay. In fact, there are strong suggestions that Gutman is also gay and Wilmer is his kept boy toy. This brings up an interesting difference between the 1931 Pre-Code era version and the 1941 Code era version. The 1931 picture barely hinted at the homosexuality of Cairo and doesn’t make any hint regarding Gutman’s and Wilmer’s (other than as a figurative father and son) relationship, while 1941’s version was filled with subtle and maybe not-so-subtle hints about Cairo’s sexuality as well as Gutman’s and Wilmer’s sexual relationship.

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If you can’t see the phallic nature of that handle, you have a far less dirty mind than I.

Both versions make note of Cairo’s scented business card, but in Huston’s story it’s more emphasized. There’s also the moment of Cairo suggestively placing the phallic-looking handle of his umbrella to his lips as he attempts to find out if Spade has the Black Bird. Huston dropped other hints, including the very subtle gesture of Spade removing his hat as Cairo is led into his office. You see, in those days, a gentleman always removed his hat when a lady entered the room.

The hint about Gutman and Wilmer comes when Spade refers to the young tough as a gunsel. Sure, most everyone thought he meant the boy was a gunman, which is what the word came to mean. But when Hammett needed to replace the word catamite in the serialized version of his novel, he chose gunsel which, in the old days for even the 1930s, meant the same thing: A young man kept for homosexual purposes.

Short aside over, now back to the blog…

If the cast isn’t enough for you, there’s the crisp dialog. So well written by Huston, although his source material was pretty damn good. (Yes, I read it!) These characters just flow with such quotable lines as: “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” “A crippled newsie took ’em away from him. I made him give ’em back.” “You’re a good man, sister.” And that’s just Sam Spade! Then there’s the signature line from the film: “The… uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” Damn! So good!

And there’s the pacing, the cinematography, and the score. I tell ya, this is a damn near perfect movie. Maybe if the plot were easier to follow in the first viewing it would be perfect, but, come to think of it, maybe not. It might just be that the fact you can come back to the movie again and again and it gets better and better that makes it damn near perfect.

Over 1,140 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the plot!

Well, I’ll nutshell it for you: A “swell lot of thieves” will stop at nothing; not theft, not double-crossings, not secret alliances, not sexual favors, not even murder, to get their hands on the Black Bird, a small, black enamel statue of a falcon that could be worth millions. Caught up in the middle of it all is private detective Sam Spade, who, while under suspicion of murder, is determined to make sense of it and clear his name.

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If you only watch one version of The Maltese Falcon, you’d better make it the 1941 version.

It is my all time favorite film!

Update 9-5-18: I have recently listened to the audiobook of The Maltese Falcon and noticed two things (other than it being excellent). 1) Virtually all that excellent dialogue in the film was taken right from the novel. There were some changes here and there, but for the most part it was Hammett’s words not Huston’s, except the film’s final line. That was Huston’s. 2) The book, at least to me, wasn’t as explicit about Cairo’s sexual preference as I remembered.

Packing Peanuts!

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Images used under Fair Use.

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3 thoughts on “You know what’s a really good detective movie with a swell lot of thieves, a quick talking private eye, and a black bird? (And a not so good one?)

  1. One of the finest films ever made. I have a Maltese Falcon statue on my mantle.

  2. I’ve seen the 1941 version a couple of times, and it definitely is a good movie. I had already read the novel beforehand, so I had no trouble following the plot.

    I have always appreciated the twist ending, finding it profoundly philosophical in its insight into how “wealth” and “value” are things of a very subjective nature that are assigned to things by human beings.

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