The Maltese Falcon
1931 & 1941 versions
 
Bebe Daniels
The 1941 remake of The Maltese Falcon is the most celebrated version of this film. Every review rates it highly, and it is generally acknowledged to be the film that made the careers of John Huston, the director, and Humphrey Bogart, who played the gumshoe Sam Spade. It is also hyped-up as the first Film Noir, and the version of the Maltese Falcon that is closest to Dashiell Hammett's novel. But these last two statements should be treated with the caution.

The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon gave John Huston's his first chance at directing. He was 40 years old and he probably knew that if he failed he might never get another chance. And if that had happened, the Maltese Falcon would probably have been cut down and issued as a B film. The studio had little to lose. It was just going to be another low-cost remake.

Everything was against Huston. He had been lumbered with an aging second-rank actor, Bogart; a fading actress Mary Astor who was quite unsuitable to play a vamp; a beginner Sydney Greenstreet; Peter Lorre who was type-cast as the same psychotic type he had always played since he starred in Fritz Lang's 'M' in the 1920s; and a plot which was ridiculously old-fashioned, with it's fanciful history of the Black Bird, and talk of Constantinople, Hong Kong, the 'Russian', etc.

But there was worse. The story had been filmed twice before in the last decade: The Maltese Falcon (1931, AKA Dangerous Female , dir. Roy del Ruth, with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez) and Satan Met A Lady (1936, dir. William Dieterle, with Bette Davis and Warren William).

Nor did the studio intend to waste money on a new script. Despite what Huston was to claim later, the script used in 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon was the same as that used in 1931. All the crackling dialogue that the 1941 version is noted for is in the 1931 version, word for word.

What is miraculous is that Huston pulled it off so beautifully and created a film perfectly in tune with the mood of the times. The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon is not Film Noir as is so often claimed. There isn't the disturbing psychological tension that you get in the classic Film Noir from 1944 on. Neither is it the sleazy world of Dashiell Hammett - where's the sex element?

Huston recasts the story in the early 1940s mould where the hard-boiled hero was king. Huston adds little touches to build up Bogart's tough-guy persona. Bogart takes guns away from the gunsel (which is unnecessary to the plot), and Huston also adds a typical hard-boiled scene in a hotel lobby.

Nor can Bogart be allowed to appear as sleazy as Sam Spade was in the original book, so his affair with his partner's wife is played down - in fact in typical 1940s misogynist-fashion poor Iva gets all the blame! Neither does our hero strip-search Miss Wonderly as he does in 1931.

In the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade's secretary Effie (Una Merkel) comes across as a believable character, but in 1941 she has been turned into a 1940s cliché. She is no longer a vulnerable teenage secretary for Sam Spade to paw, but a 'pal' who rolls cigarettes for him. This is to become part of Bogart's persona. In The Big Sleep a young female taxi driver is eager to give out her phone number to this middle-aged man, and another young woman closes her bookshop early just to get the chance to drink hard liquor with him - believable, it ain't!

But it is to Huston's credit that he created all this and made such a superb 1940s-style film. There are only a few respects in which the 1941 The Maltese Falcon fails, and those are due to the changes Huston was forced to make to the 1931 script. For example, to suit Bogart's persona he has to live in a 'modern' high-rise building with elevators, not an old fashioned apartment block - and that precludes the fire escape by which Joel Cairo sneaks into Sam Spade's apartment in the 1931 version. The scene in the 1941 version lacks the logic of the 1931 version.

There are other incidents in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon that don't make too much sense. Sam Spade takes money from Miss Wonderley, and in the 1941 version it isn't clear what it's for. But we are under no illusions in the 1931 version - Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) is going to pocket it. Neither are we under any illusions about Miss Wonderley (Bebe Daniels). When Sam Spade has left we see her take what she claims to be her last bill and adds it to the hefty roll she carries clamped to her thigh by a garter.

These are only minor incongruities, but a major one occurs when in the 1941 version Miss Wonderly says to Sam Spade "But I thought you loved me, Sam!" A thoughtful viewer might wonder how that came about. They have only seen each other a few times, and probably for less than an hour in total. The answer is a missing episode which the censors would never have passed in 1941.

In Hammett's novel, Sam Spade is a cheap gumshoe with his mind only on money and sex. The opening sequence of the 1931 The Maltese Falcon hits this spot on. Sam Spade and his partner's wife, Iva, are saying goodbye outside the door to his office, and Iva straightens her stocking. Sam Spade goes back into his office. He stoops to pick up cushions from the floor and puts them back on the sofa. It's not clear if they fell or were placed there. But Spade is not done yet. Effie enters and as she passes him Spade grabs her hand and gives her a come on look - one of his big sleazy grins. And Effie doesn't look too unwilling.

But this is only a foretaste. In the 1931 scene that was expunged from the 1941 version, Sam Spade and Miss Wonderley spend the night together at Sam Spade's apartment. But he gets up early while she is still asleep, steals her keys from her purse, and then goes and ransacks her apartment. This is the nearest either version gets to film noir. It's night, with stark contrasts of black and white - very German expressionistic - and the intruder goes about his business with cold professionalism. Nothing is left undisturbed, even the carpets are pulled up. At the finish the room is a shambles.

The film cuts to when Sam Spade returns to his apartment, arriving with groceries as if he has been out shopping for breakfast. Later when a horrified Miss Wonderley sees the wreck of her apartment, he is very consoling: he'll help her sort out the mess.

There are also major differences between the endings of the novel and the two films. In Hammett's original story Sam Spade's secretary Effie is horrified at Spade's cavalier manner when he hands over his lover Miss Wonderley to the police. She can see the logic of it, but she cannot come to terms with his actions. '...but don't touch me, Sam', she says brokenly, as if she doesn't want to be contaminated.

This is very different to the 1941 ending, which no doubt was rewritten to suit the heroic ideals expected by the American cinema-going public of the time. Here Sam Spade's motive is the standard 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do', with no hint of the cynicism Hammett envisaged. The impact on Effie is omittted.

This should be contrasted to the 1931 ending. Although it does not follow Hammett's text - the subtleties of which were probably unfilmable - it is closer to the mood of the novel. An extra scene is added. Sam Spade visits Wonderley in prison, and we see he has profitted by his actions - he is now employed as an assistant D.A. and he has left his grubby office behind. However as they talk something Wonderley says hits home. Just for an instant a look crosses his face - did he do the right thing? Did she really love him? But the moment passes and then the old sleazy grin is quickly back in place.

The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon is a great film, but it's not the best version of the Maltese Falcon. That has to be the 1931 version. The story has better inner logic, Sam Spade is more like the character Hammett envisaged, and when you compare the Miss Wonderlys, Mary Astor couldn't hold a candle to Bebe Daniels.