This is the FIRST movie version of the Hammett novel, now known basically as a footnote to the legendary classic remake in 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart. I watched it because of a Thelma Todd part, which turned out to be a poor reason, as her part is small and without much scope (Mrs. Archer). On the other hand, as a piece of comparative storytelling it was FASCINATING!
In this case, the interesting comparisons are largely to be found in the acting and direction. Both sets of writers wisely realized that the source material was sufficiently strong that it didn’t so much need to be adapted as transcribed.* The screenplays are not identical, but each of them takes about 90% of their plot, and even dialogue, directly from the novel. With so much the same, the differences are starkly highlighted.
The biggest difference is in the character of Sam Spade himself. While Bogart would focus on a cynical world-weariness, Ricardo Cortez spends more time grinning than not. He seemed to me to be saying, “YOU characters may think you’re in a gritty crime novel, but I’M in a romantic sex comedy!” Emphasis on the sex; this pre-Code Spade is a complete slut. He spends a lot more time getting laid (and thinking about getting laid) then Bogart. Our first view of this Spade is in silhouette, through his office door, smooching a VERY satisfied client; he then returns to his inner office and straightens up the disarranged pillows of his sofa. Bogart may have slept with Mrs. Archer, but he gave the impression that it was under duress; Cortez also breaks off with Mrs. Archer, but only because she has become inconvenient, not because he has any objection whatsoever to sleeping with his partner’s wife. Cortez is certainly capable of being tough or serious; he just does so as little as possible.
This lighter-hearted Spade plays excellently well against Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly (this version dispenses with the multiple aliases of the femme fatale). In fact, Daniels is the one actor who I would say did a distinctly better job than their 1941 counterpart. This is no great surprise, as I think Mary Astor is the weakest element of that version. Daniels is more obvious in her duplicity, but also significantly more vivacious and seductive. Cortez’s Spade knows enough not to trust her from the start, but obviously also thinks that she is sufficiently hot that he is more than willing to go along with her for the time being. It’s tawdry, but it makes obvious sense, something that their relationship in the 1941 movie never did for me.
On its own merits, as a pre-Code proto-noir, this is a fine little film. It’s not an enduring classic like the 1941 version, but you knew that.
Of course, having watched two versions, now I’m going to have to go watch the in-between 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis. No doubt I shall report back…
* Kestrell and I refer to these as “gift stories”. As in, “You were given this as a gift; all you had to do was not throw it away.” I’m not always a purist when it comes to adaptations, but when you’re given perfect source material, have the sense to recognize it. Case in point being Treasure Island, which is been filmed a dozen times at least, but only a couple of them had the sense to just tell the story they were given.
- The Maltese Falcon (1931)