Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Summer of Darkness: The Maltese Falcons

Anyone who complains about the recent trend towards sequels and remakes as if it's proof of Hollywood's newfound lack of original ideas needs to bone up on their history. This is nothing new; films have been remade almost from the beginning, and often at a much faster pace than we have today. I mean, the Robocop remake at least waited nearly two decades before staining the world with its presence. It might surprise those critics I refer to above to learn that one of the most famous classic films of all times is, in fact, a remake. The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart in the lead role, wasn't even the first remake of that story. It was the third filmed version within ten years.

The first film was made in 1931 and features a lot of the stuff you would expect in a pre-code picture. A bit more sexual innuendo, some direct references to Casper Gutman's homosexuality, and a stronger air of seediness. The biggest difference of all for fans of the 1941 version is in the character of Sam Spade himself. Ricardo Cortez plays Sam Spade as a grinning hyena of a man, laughing at the misery he inflicts on others and treating every murder and betrayal as a joke for his own personal amusement. He's a hard man to root for, and he's introduced to the film more as a gigolo than a private detective. The very first shot is of a woman exiting his office and straightening her stockings before leaving. Spade exits, with that douchey grin of his, and asks his secretary if there are any more clients visiting that day. He then returns to his office, where the sex must have been acrobatic. Furniture is toppled, pictures have been knocked from the walls, cushions have been flung from the couch. Our hero, everybody.

Spade in this film is much more manipulative and deceitful, as well. He's unbelievably callous about the death of his partner, a good-natured slob unaware that his wife has been carrying on an affair with Spade. He does many of the same things the character does in later versions of the film, but here it just feels cruel and douchey. By the end of the film, when Ruth Wonderly is pleading with Sam to not turn her in for murder, because she loves him, she's not lying. The actress play it as completely sincere, and she's destroyed by the fact that Sam turns her in. That's understandable, and maybe the one ethical thing Sam Spade does in the entire film, but it's ruined by the very next scene where he visit her in prison to gloat about the big promotion he got by sending her to jail, all with that shit-eating grin plastered on his face as he crows to a woman who loves him that he's just profited from her eventual death. We also get the reveal that Spade knew Wonderly had killed his partner, had actual proof that would have sent her to jail, from the very beginning. In retrospect it makes it look like he hid this information so that he could make some money off the woman, get her into bed, and make her fall in love with him before he could send her to prison. And since he very clearly did not care about his partner, nor Ruth, this just seems like needless cruelty. Ricardo Cortez's version of Sam Spade truck me like film noir version of one of the characters on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; completely uncaring about the damage he inflicts because hey, it always works out OK for him. A character who finds himself charming while he coasts through life inflicting horrible damage to everyone around him.

Don't you just want to punch him?

In 1936 the studio wanted to rerelease the film to theatres, but was stopped by the production code censors who balked at the sexuality and violence of the film. And so a remake was mounted, one that would be approved by the stricter censors, and one that would stray immensely from the source material in both content and tone, Many major plot details were changed, and the film was retitled Satan Met a Lady(a reference to the book's description of Sam Spade as looking like 'a blonde Satan'), but the story remains largely the same. It's still about a private detective(who here becomes Ted Shane) whose partner is killed, leading him to become embroiled in a hunt for a mythical object(which in this film is a Ram's Horn filled with jewels) involving three distinct parties scheming against each other. The Casper Gutman character is now played by a woman, which removes the homosexual subtext from the character in favor of a more oedipal reading.

The most important change, though, is one of tone. Satan Met a Lady is more of a screwball romantic comedy than a proper film noir, and the characters frequently engage in ridiculous scenes of wacky comedy. The scene where Ted Shane comes home to find his apartment ransacked by one of the treasure hunters is played for laughs, as the two trade droll witticisms while sharing a drink and casually destroying more of the apartment. Warren William turns the hardboiled detective in a dashing, witty gadabout. More Nick Charles than Sam Spade. He handles everything with unruffled, deadpan humor, a smile always playing on his lips. And surprisingly, this all works. Satan Met a Lady is light on its feet and humorous throughout, despite including all of the betrayals and murders familiar to the story. It may not be a classic destined to survive through the ages, but it's a surprisingly fun little movie that probably deserves more attention.

Bette Davis is there, too.

And then we come to the version everyone thinks of when they think of The Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, 'the stuff that dreams are made of.' This is the film all the previous version had been leading up to, the movie that nailed it completely and made the prospect of any future remakes unnecessary.  This version was so successful that if you were to read a Sam Spade story, you'd probably picture Humphrey Bogart even though the text explicitly describes him as someone who looks nothing like Bogart. It saved Bogart from the B pictures and dramas he had been making, inspired a working partnership between Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet that would last over 9 films, and announced John Huston as a major name in American film, despite this being his directorial debut.

This version of The Maltese Falcon brings back some of the meanness of the Sam Spade character, though Bogart's charisma is able to soften the blow a little bit. He's a little more laid back, a little more understanding of human nature, and his smile isn't quite so irritating. He still sends a woman who loves him to jail, but in this film he does so for moral reasons, not selfish ones. His actions- playing along with the femme fatale, playing the various groups against each other, even lying to the police and others- all come from his attempt to avenge the murder of his partner at the beginning of the film. A man he didn't like, a man whose wife he was having an affair with, but a man he owed a debt to. He's not a great guy, but we get the impression that he has a moral code and lives accordingly. The earlier pre-code version, who committed many of the same sins, did not seem to have any sort of code or care for anyone else.

Everything in this film is on point. Every member of the cast is perfect, every camera angle and bit of dialogue hits exactly the right note. Take Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, and effemanite(in the novel he was gay) man who hires Sam Spade at gunpoint. He is frequently the butt of Spade's abuse both verbal and physical, and while he occassionally rises to anger, he treats much of this with exasperated acceptance. Such as when Spade knocks him out, and Cairo comes to and simply walks to a mirror to clean himself up. Or Sydney Greenstreet, who had a hypnotic manner of speaking, low and confidential but also with a rapid machine gun rate. It might take a few listens to truly grasp what he's saying at times. But that's true of the plot as well; it may not make complete sense on an initial viewing, but that isn't a problem. The joy of the film is in how it's presented, how it moves along, how it's acted.

Volumes of critical writing have been devoted to this film, and I find I don't have a whole lot to add. It's a great film, hands down, and deserves it's reputation among film buffs. Every viewing is as fresh as the first.

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