Dangerous Female aka The Maltese Falcon
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Dashiell Hammett's most famous detective, Sam Spade, reached the screen for the first time in 1931, when Warner Bros. picked up the rights to The Maltese Falcon. It wasn't the first Hammett story to reach the screen. Roadhouse Nights (1930), based on his Red Harvest, and City Streets (1931) preceded it. But this was the first outing for one of the screen's most unscrupulous hard-boiled dicks. It also represented Spade's only relatively uncensored screen outing.
Dangerous Female (Original title: The Maltese Falcon) was released in the days between the arrival of sound and the beginning of strict Production Code enforcement, when Hollywood's studios ignored the standards of morality they'd set for themselves and competed to see who could push the envelope on sex and violence further. The novel, with its mix of low-life characters on the trail of a legendary jewel-encrusted bird, seemed perfectly suited for such a pursuit. Spade has a reputation for seducing female clients and has also been having an affair with his partner's wife. One of his adversaries, Joel Cairo, appears to be gay, while the other, Kaspar Gutman, refers to his lurking assistant, Wilmer, as his "gunsel," prison slang for both a hired gun and a passive homosexual. The one element in Hammett's novel that would have added an extra kink to both Gutman and Wilmer's characters was cut for the screen and also missing in John Huston's classic 1941 version. Toward the end of the novel, Spade discovers Gutman's daughter, whose body is hideously scarred 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 sexual mystique. When Spade's female client spends the night in his apartment, the writers had Spade say that he would sleep on the couch to appease the censors. But when the woman wakes up the next morning, there's a clear indentation 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 camera range, 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 threw her underwear at him the audience would know she wasn't naked. Although the film's gay element was relatively subdued, there's clearly something sexual about the way Gutman fondles Wilmer's cheek while setting him up to take the rap.
Helping Del Ruth play up the story's sexual aspects was a cast that combined the attractive with the eccentric. Spade was played as an inveterate womanizer by silent screen heartthrob Ricardo Cortez, who would continue tempting the studio's leading ladies to stray throughout the early '30s. Bebe Daniels, playing the client later assayed by Mary Astor, had also been a silent screen star, starting as Harold Lloyd's leading lady before establishing her career as a star of romantic comedies. And as Iva, Del Ruth cast the young Thelma Todd, a brilliant and beautiful comedienne whose career would be cut short by her mysterious murder. Bringing up the eccentric side were Dudley Digges, a stage actor noted for his appearances in Eugene O'Neill's plays, as Gutman, although he was too slim to be nicknamed "The Fat Man" in this version. As Wilmer, Del Ruth cast Dwight Frye, an expert at hysterics who had starred as Renfield in the original Dracula (1931) and would later play the hunchbacked assistant in Frankenstein (1931).
The Maltese Falcon earned solid reviews and did well at the box office, but its shelf life was limited. Four years after its release, threats of national boycotts of "bad movies" inspired the studios to accept strict 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 it into an acceptable picture. Instead, Warners remade it as Satan Met a Lady (1936), a film so rotten it inspired leading lady Bette Davis to attempt a walk-out on her contract. It would take writer-director John Huston to create a version that maintained the original's flavor while appeasing the censors. When his film became a hit, Warners simply stuck the earlier version in a vault. Decades later, the original version was deemed suitable for television, but to avoid confusion with Huston's picture, the title 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. Forbstein Principal Cast: Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderley), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Kaspar Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), J. Farrell MacDonald (Polhouse), Otto Matieson (Joel Cairo), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer).
BW-79m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller