Comparative Review of the three “Maltese Falcon” movies
This essay contains SPOILERS!
Directed by Roy Del Ruth The Maltese Falcon (1931) (aka Dangerous Female (1931)) was the first film adapted from the Dashiell Hammett (Watch on the Rhine (1943)) novel of the same name (copyrighted in 1930 & renewed in 1957). It is a very good film with Richard Cortez in the role of detective Sam Spade Walter Long as Spade’s partner Miles Archer Una Merkel as their secretary Effie Perrine Thelma Todd as Archer’s wife Iva Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly (the femme fatale) Otto Matieson as the Levantine Dr. Joel Cairo Dudley Digges as the “Fat Man” Casper Gutman Dwight Frye as the diminutive “assassin” Wilmer Cook and the police Sergeant (J. Farrell MacDonald) & Lieutenant (Robert Elliott).
The second film was Satan Met a Lady (1936) directed by William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola (1938)) diverges the most from the source material and has Warren William as Ted Shayne (Spade) Porter Hall as the detective Ames (Spade’s “partner”) Marie Wilson as Miss Murgatroyd (the firm’s secretary) Wini Shaw as Ames’ wife Astrid Bette Davis as Valerie Purvis (the femme fatale) Arthur Treacher as the Englishman Anthony Travers (Cairo role) Alison Skipworth as Madame Barabbas (Gutman role) Maynard Holmes (uncredited) as Kenneth who’s also Barabbas’ son (Cook role) and the police Sergeant (Olin Howland) & Lieutenant (Charles Wilson).
The third and perhaps best known version is The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer Lee Patrick as Effie Perine (the correct spelling from the book) Gladys George as Archer’s wife Iva Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy (the femme fatale and the name used in the book) Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo (who is not titled Dr. in the book either) Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman (spelled with a C in the book) Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook (also referred to as “the boy” throughout the book) and the police detective (Ward Bond) & Lieutenant (Barton MacLane). This is also unquestionably the best of the three films proving that a remake can be better than the original.
The story opens in San Francisco at a private investigation agency whose case backlog is empty and the cases it has handled have been as exciting as “finding a lost dog”. That all changes when a “knock out” of a woman (our femme fatale) enters the firm. She tells Spade/Shayne (our protagonist heretofore referred to as Spade) that she needs to find her sister whose been “seduced” away from her family in New York by a man named Thursby (Davis’ femme fatale says she was jilted and that she’s looking for another man named Farrell). When Archer/Ames (Archer for the rest of this essay) joins them she says that she’s arranged to meet with Thursby/Farrell that evening. With cash in hand ($100 for each partner received greedily) she hires the agency to tail him to her sister and at her request Archer agrees to handle the job personally. This seemingly simple job costs him his life leading Spade to become a suspect in his partner’s murder by the police. They implicate Spade because of his hasty departure from the crime scene (without even looking at the body) his lie when he said he’d called his partner’s sudden widow (he had his secretary do it) and the fact that Thursby whom he’d told them his partner was tailing is found dead that same night. Though Spade’s fast talking skill (& relationship with the lower ranked police officer) will enable him to (at least temporarily) satisfy them the police will visit him again when Archer’s jealous (of the femme fatale she sees entering Spade’s apartment) wife makes them suspect an adulterous relationship between the two.
Spade meets with the femme fatale who’s aware of the murder(s). Frightened she asks him to help her. Spade admits that he and his partner didn’t really believe her story but they did believe her money. Even though she is evasive and he believes that she’s lying he agrees to help her and keep her name from the police. He takes what he thinks is all her money ($500) and leaves. As Spade investigates he learns of a missing historical object from history (a bejeweled falcon statuette in two of the films a pig’s horn filled with jewels in the other) that is missing. He then becomes acquainted with others through their interest in locating the object. The first person is Cairo. In the first & third films Cairo offers Space $5000 if he can locate the object and then insists (with a gun) on searching Spade’s office for it. Spade easily removes Cairo’s gun from him examines the contents of his wallet and pockets the cash. Then Spade gives Cairo back his gun only to be “held up” again by Cairo who then searches the office without further resistance since Spade’s already been paid. In the second film it’s a bit more comical. Spade arrives at his apartment to find that it’s been ransacked. Travers who’s done the same to his office locking the secretary in a closet then arrives admitting what he’s done and has a similar conversation. Of course Spade is quicker on the draw than Cairo and the whole bit is played rather comically.
Through the course of Spade’s investigation he’ll notice that he’s being tailed by Cook/Kenneth. This hired gun character is also no match for the quicker Spade who can easily disarm him but will eventually lead him to the kingpin Gutman/Barabbas character. It’s this Gutman character that tells Spade the history of the object and some idea of its great value; he/she will also become the third person to pay Spade for locating it (either $25000 now with $25000 after it’s sold or 10% of its sale price – estimated to be $1000000). Spade also learns that all three parties know each other and that the other two had learned of the object through Gutman because he had hired them too before they betrayed him. The object will arrive from Hong Kong on a ship (La Paloma) which will be burned by the Gutman & Cook characters. Even though Cook will kill the ship’s Captain Spade will get the object from him before the others can. In the first & third films Spade will put the object out of reach. Later he’ll have Effie retrieve it bringing it to his apartment where all the interested & non-trusting parties have spent the night. In the second film he’ll get the object at the dock before the others who are also there and then negotiate with them.
In each of the films Spade discusses with Gutman et al the need to have a fall guy for the police for the three (Archer Thursby and La Paloma’s Captain) murders. Each time they settle on the Cook character though he’ll later escape in films 1 & 3. In film 2 the police are also at the dock which shortens things a bit and it’s the femme fatale escapes. Also in all three films the Gutman character will have only $10000 to give Spade before they learn the object is a fake and the money is taken back from him (only Greenstreet’s Gutman gives Spade $1000 for his trouble just as Hammett’s does in the book). Gutman will surmise that the replica must have been created by the Russian who must have suspected its value from Gutman’s negotiations with him. In films 1 & 3 (and the book) Gutman & Cairo will go off together planning to try and locate the object once again. In film 2 already at the dock the police catch everyone except the femme fatale. However in all three films it’s Spade though he’s initially tempted by her charms to do otherwise who hands the femme fatale over to the police as the responsible party for his partner’s murder.
The differences between the first and third films are largely in their execution. The second film however diverges greatly and resembles a comedy more than a drama at times. It is unclear as to whether the over-the-top performances by Davis and William are intentional or not. In fact its beginning shows William’s “Spade” being thrown out of another town and returning to his ex-“partner”’s office only because he’d sent a client his way. Also in this film Spade recognizes Barabbas (Gutman) as an infamous character known to the police. Plus it is interesting that the Gutman character played in this version is a woman because while the Cook character is referred to by Gutman as “like my own son” in the other two films that same character (Kenneth) actually IS Barabbas’ son.
Huston’s film is 20 minutes or more longer than the previous adaptations and it differs from the first two in that doesn’t portray the detective agency as one without viable clients (nor does Hammett’s novel) at its beginning. This third film also shows the partner’s sharing and an office with Spade (vs. having separate ones in the other two) and downplays somewhat the “love” relationship between Spade and his partner’s wife. One reason for its length is the fact that Huston has chosen to show us scenes which were only mentioned or alluded to in the first films – Archer being shot Spade phoning Effie and asking her to call his partner’s wife etc. AND the scene at the end (& a few of the others) with Spade deciding whether to turn in the femme fatale or not is particularly wordy in this one. Of course this one ends with the classic line (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest not Hammett’s novel) “the stuff dreams are made of” (unless you count Ward Bond’s “huh?”) whereas film 1 ends with Spade visiting the femme fatale in prison and film 2 ends with him turning her over to the police. The book’s final scene back at Spade’s office has him summing up the case for his secretary when his partner’s ex-wife arrives.