Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

If you're like me, you might not have known off-hand that there was a Falcon that pre-dated the 1941 classic starring Humphrey Bogart. Both are based on the book by Dashielle Hammett and feature the hard-hitting Sam Spade as our hero. A lot of the dialogue is the same in both movies, almost as though, for the second film, director John Huston merely copied the screenplay of the original and then modified it to put his personal stamp on it.

The 1931 version was shown recently on TCM during Thelma Todd day--she played the wife of Spade's partner, much too small a role for her, in my opinion. It was nice, though, to be able to catch this film and, naturally compare it to the later one. Spade was played by Ricardo Cortez, who, despite his name was born in Austria and raised in Brooklyn. His hard-boiled detective was more obviously interested in the ladies than Bogart's, and a lot less, well, hard-boiled. He made it from Point A to Point B, but his character lacked the ominous growl that Bogart had, substituting instead a jaunty air that was a distracting difference. Maybe it's because I've seen the 1941 version so many times, and have an affectionate regard for its stars (Bogart, Greenstreet, Astor, Lorre) that has made me truly appreciative of their performances, but it seems that the stars of the 1931 version lacked sparkle. The pacing of the average movie in that era was a bit slower compared to 10 years later, too.

Of interest though is Cortez, he of the Latin name and jaunty air (pictured here). I have not read the original novel, so I have no insight into whose portrayal of Sam Spade was closer to Hammett's intent, but seeing him as more of a playboy and actually less of an effective investigator was interesting. Cortez also put in a one-time stint as Perry Mason in the 1936 film The Case of the Black Cat, to which I feel justified saying, he's no Raymond Burr. I would like to see Cortez in a role that doesn't already "belong" to someone else, because he isn't a bad actor.

The lovely Una Merkel played Spade's faithful secretary, and this version differs from the 1941 in that it was pretty obvious here that Effie had a definite thing for Spade, who rarely turned away an interested female.

If you're a big fan of film noir and old mystery/crime dramas, this Falcon is worth a look, but be warned: if you've seen the Bogart film, you WILL draw some comparisons, and it might not be the stuff that dreams are made of.

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