Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Maltese Falcon

I wonder if it's even fair to review this movie. There is no way I can be objective. It is impossible to watch this film, or even discuss it, without comparing it to John Huston's far superior 1941 version. That’s not to say this is a bad film. No, it is certainly passable. It just suffers by standing in the shadow of a true classic. Of course, without the benefit of Huston's version, this film would probably be largely forgotten; it's as if Huston's film transforms this from run-of-the-mill mystery to a slightly more interesting curiosity.

The film is pretty faithful to Dashiell Hammett's book, which makes the comparisons to the latter adaptation all the more obvious. Much of the dialogue is the same, so then what makes this film different? Two things, really: casting, and by extension, the performances.

Ricardo Cortez is no Humphrey Bogart. When he says, near the end, "sure, I'll have some bad nights" as he's contemplating turning his girl over to the cops, he lacks the brooding intensity of Bogart and you wonder if he really means it. Cortez’s whole performance is almost diametrically opposed to Bogart's turn as Sam Spade. He's not the imposing tough guy that Bogart is. Cortez saunters through the film, smirk on his face, with the cockiness of a guy who knows he gets laid more than anyone else in the room.

Any hint of impropriety was excised from Huston's film, while the Spade here seems to have become a private eye for the sole purpose of getting tail. He's banging his clients, his secretary and even his partner's wife. There is no ambiguity in Spade and Wonderly's relationship this time around: as she lies in post-coital slumber, Spade sneaks out of their bed to rummage through her things.

This version is a full twenty minutes shorter, so some elements had to be excised, but generally, the story is the same. This leaves little room for surprises, though there is some anticipation in seeing how the various actors will choose to tackle their roles or how the director will stage certain scenes. But for the most part, it's unremarkable. Though, Otto Matieson makes a respectable Joel Cairo, and it’s nice to see Thelma Todd and Dwight Frye in supporting roles.

And the chemistry between Cortez and Daniels? More or less nonexistent. As I mentioned earlier, when Spade is talking about turning Wonderly in, there is true desperation in Bogart's and Astor's performances. Cortez and Daniels, on the other hand, aren’t quite convincing as lovers trapped in their quagmire of dishonesty, greed, and mistrust. This is, ultimately, why the film doesn't work.

Still, I'd recommend this film to fans of Huston's version. If nothing else, it's an interesting look at a rough draft of a cinema classic.

Directed by Roy Del Ruth • Not Rated • 1931 • 80 minutes

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