Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Film Review: The Maltese Falcon

"The Maltese Falcon"  *** (out of ****)

Not so fast! It's not "The Maltese Falcon" you are thinking of. This is the 1931 film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel directed by Roy Del Ruth starring Richard Cortez and Bebe Daniels.

Of course when film lovers hear "The Maltese Falcon" they think of the 1941 version directed by John Huston (his directorial debut) starring Humphrey Bogart. That version is great. A classic. But, I thought it would be interesting to review this version instead, if, for any other reason, it is rare and is a curiosity piece.

The danger in discussing this movie as well as seeing it, is most people have seen the Humphrey Bogart version first and will compare this movie to that one. If you do that, many will say this 1931 isn't as good. That's a mistake. I know it's difficult, but, try not to think of the other version. Watch this movie on its own merits. Accept the actors in these roles. If you are able to do that then this version is entertaining and not without its own charm.

Richard Cortez plays detective Samuel Spade who runs an agency with this partner, Miles Archer (Walter Long, a familiar face to Laurel & Hardy fans. Long would play the "heavy" against them). One day a woman, Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels, best know for her role in the musical "42nd Street" (1933), she comes into their office with a story about her sister who has run off with a man she fears is holding her hostage. She would like Spade or Archer to trail the man in order to find her sister. Spade and Archer are skeptical of her story but when she offers to pay them two hundred dollars for the job, they agree.

Meeting Ruth turns out to be the worst thing that can happen to the detectives. Later that night Archer is killed, which is convenient for Spade, who was fooling around with Archer's wife, Iva (Thelma Todd). Archer was killed following the man Ruth told them about. Who killed Archer? Adding more mystery to the situation Ruth admits she lied about having a sister and wanted the men to scare this secret man.

The plot thickens when Sr. Cairo (Otto Matieson) and Casper Gutman (Dudley Diggos) enter the picture. They both inform Spade of a "black bird" they are searching for which they believe Spade is in possession of. It is a valuable statute which Spade suspects Ruth has and is the real reason she wanted his help.

As detective stories of the 1930s go, there were also Philo Vance stories such as "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933) and a little later the "Thin Man" series, "The Maltese Falcon" is worth watching. Because it was made in 1931 it is "pre-code", a time when movies were able to get away with more sexually suggestive material. The first scene in the movie shows a woman walking out of Spade's office. The camera go in for a close up of her legs as she adjust her stockings. Another scene shows Ruth taking a bath. It is implied she has slept with Spade. And it is implied Spade has or had a relationship with his secretary, Effie (Una Merkel). Some have even suggested there are homosexual undertones, though I reject that notion.

Though I wouldn't call "The Maltese Falcon" a great movie. Some of it has to do with the director Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth was a good studio director churning out several movies a year. He is mostly known for the musicals he directed such as "Kid Millions" (1934) with Eddie Cantor and "Happy Landing" (1938) with Sonja Henie. He also directed a Joel McCrea comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940)  and he directed another "pre-code" goodie, "Blonde Crazy" (1931) with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. But I don't think he was the right director for this. He doesn't get the most out of this material. He doesn't create much suspense or get much out of his actors. He doesn't have a great artistic eye, which is why I prefer his lighter fare.

Cortez and Daniels are good together but I didn't feel chemistry between them. You don't really believe the two are in love with each other.

What viewers will like about this movie is a suggestive sexual nature of it. I have heard some say Cortez was better in this role than Bogart because his character is more ruthless whereas Boagrt was more sensitive. I didn't see it that way. I think Bogart was a better actor than Cortez and was more interesting to watch on-screen. Maybe if "The Maltese Falcon" had better, more famous actors I might have enjoyed it more.

Still, the movie has its own charms. It is not a waste of time. It is a quaint detective story with little suspense and decent acting.

[Interesting Note: In order to avoid confusion with the 1941 version, the movie was re-titled "The Dangerous Female". If you are looking to buy the movie search both titles.]