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Dashiell Hammett's most famous detective, Sam Spade, reached the screen forthe first time in 1931, when Warner Bros. picked up the rights to TheMaltese Falcon. It wasn't the first Hammett story to reach the screen.Roadhouse Nights (1930), based on his Red Harvest, andCity Streets (1931) preceded it. But this was the first outing forone of the screen's most unscrupulous hard-boiled dicks. It alsorepresented Spade's only relatively uncensored screen outing.
Dangerous Female (Original title: The Maltese Falcon) was released in the days between the arrival ofsound and the beginning of strict Production Code enforcement, whenHollywood's studios ignored the standards of morality they'd set forthemselves and competed to see who could push the envelope on sex andviolence further. The novel, with its mix of low-life characters on thetrail of a legendary jewel-encrusted bird, seemed perfectly suited for sucha pursuit. Spade has a reputation for seducing female clients and has alsobeen having an affair with his partner's wife. One of his adversaries,Joel Cairo, appears to be gay, while the other, Kaspar Gutman, refersto his lurking assistant, Wilmer, as his "gunsel," prison slang for both ahired gun and a passive homosexual. The one element in Hammett's novelthat would have added an extra kink to both Gutman and Wilmer's characters was cut for the screenand also missing in John Huston's classic 1941 version. Toward the endof the novel, Spade discovers Gutman's daughter, whose body is hideouslyscarred as a result of her sadomasochistic relationship with Wilmer and,some have suggested, her father.
Director Roy Del Ruth's staging, if anything, added to the film's sexualmystique. When Spade's female client spends the night in his apartment, thewriters had Spade say that he would sleep on the couch to appease thecensors. But when the woman wakes up the next morning, there's a clearindentation in the pillow she's not using to suggest where he really slept.The writers added a scene in which Sam, suspecting his client has stolen$1,000, makes her strip. Although her undressing was kept out of camerarange, Spade gets a few articles of feminine clothing thrown in his face.When the head of the Production Code Administration objected to the scene,studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck said that since she never threwher underwear at him the audience would know she wasn't naked. Althoughthe film's gay element was relatively subdued, there's clearlysomething sexual about the way Gutman fondles Wilmer's cheek while settinghim up to take the rap.
Helping Del Ruth play up the story's sexual aspects was a cast thatcombined the attractive with the eccentric. Spade was played as aninveterate womanizer by silent screen heartthrob Ricardo Cortez, who wouldcontinue tempting the studio's leading ladies to stray throughout the early'30s. Bebe Daniels, playing the client later assayed by Mary Astor, hadalso been a silent screen star, starting as Harold Lloyd's leading ladybefore establishing her career as a star of romantic comedies. And as Iva,Del Ruth cast the young Thelma Todd, a brilliant and beautiful comediennewhose career would be cut short by her mysterious murder. Bringing up theeccentric side were Dudley Digges, a stage actor noted for his appearancesin Eugene O'Neill's plays, as Gutman, although he was too slim to benicknamed "The Fat Man" in this version. As Wilmer, Del Ruth cast DwightFrye, an expert at hysterics who had starred as Renfield in the originalDracula (1931) and would later play the hunchbacked assistant inFrankenstein (1931).
The Maltese Falcon earned solid reviews and did well at the boxoffice, but its shelf life was limited. Four years after its release,threats of national boycotts of "bad movies" inspired the studios to acceptstrict Production Code enforcement under the decidedly tough Joe Breen.Warners submitted the film for Breen's approval so they could reissue it,but were turned down flat. In his opinion, there was no way they could make itinto an acceptable picture. Instead, Warners remade it as Satan Met aLady (1936), a film so rotten it inspired leading lady Bette Davis to attempta walk-out on her contract. It would take writer-director John Huston tocreate a version that maintained the original's flavor while appeasing thecensors. When his film became a hit, Warners simply stuck the earlierversion in a vault. Decades later, the original version was deemedsuitable for television, but to avoid confusion with Huston's picture, thetitle was changed to Dangerous Female.
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Maude Fulton, Lucien Hubbard, Brown Holmes
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Cinematography: William Rees
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Score: Leo F. ForbsteinPrincipal Cast: Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderley), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade),Dudley Digges (Kaspar Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), J. FarrellMacDonald (Polhouse), Otto Matieson (Joel Cairo), Dwight Frye (WilmerCook), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer).
BW-79m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
In the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon, detective Sam Spade investigates the theft of a priceless statue.back to top