Friday, August 28, 2009

The stuff dreams are made of: maltese Falcon Boxed set

What's better than a boxed set of the Maltese Falcon (1941) with extras, a commentary and a documentary? That same boxed set with all three film versions of Dashiell Hammet's novel included. While I mostly blame Tonto for the recent influx of expensive DVDs into my house, I can't deny I do love the extras. This is a rare case in which the extras might be something I actually watch as much if not more than the 1941 version of the film.

The documentary is average, although I did learn that I've pronouncing "Dashiell" wrong all these years. (It should be "da sheel" not "Dash-el") For some reason Henry Rollins is a commentator in it. That guy must have made a deal with devil or something. Never before has a little talent in the arena of punk rock and spoken word been a qualification to comment as to whether Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Sam Spade was the first anti-hero put on film. (He wasn't by the way. See the first two film versions of this story, if you don't believe me.) The commentary too is mind-numbingly pedestrian. Bogart biographer Eric Lax talks in a monotone throughout giving dry facts about the actors on screen. He adds a few nice pieces of trivia, that I wouldn't have known about otherwise such as a poster for an obscure Bogart movie that's in the background when Miles is shot, but otherwise I had to force myself to get through it.

Having been raised on the '41 film, the Maltese Falcon (1931) was really a surprise and a pleasant one at that. With its focus on Sam Spade's sex life, it's naughty and funny as well as gritty. I can't picture Bogart ever being as breezy or as flippant as Ricardo Cortez is as he tidies his office after an afternoon rendezvous with a client, flirts with his secretary, takes a call from one of his girlfriends who happens to be married to his partner and makes goo goo eyes at Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) all before lunch. Daniels is a more street-wise, earthy femme fatale than Mary Astor. I've always respected Astor's acting, but Daniels is the kind of woman that seems like she could lead two or three guys to their doom and still make it to her lunch date without having to retouch her lipstick. Mary Astor projects a far more polished and high-class image, and when she says "I haven't lived a good life; I've been bad" you wonder if it isn't something to do with not matching her china pattern to the table cloth.

At the very least the sleeping arrangement make a lot more sense in the pre-code version. The famous detective wastes no time in shacking up with his client which gives him ample opportunity to search through her stuff to find the falcon as well as protecting her from Gutman's thug, Wilmer. In the '41 version we are expected to believe that Spade's faithful and sharp as a tack assistant, has a blind spot for Miss Wonderly and offers to put her up at her place as a favor to her boss. It's interesting to me that the adultery in all three of the film versions is toned down from the novel. The 31 version makes Iva Archer out to be tremendously unappealing and Sam is clearly regretful of his involvement with her. When Wonderly realizes that the negligee she found in her new lover's apartment belonged to the wife of the man she just murdered, she tears it off and takes a bath, scrubbing herself vigorously with a stiff brush. The film's producers made sure we understood that Ms. Wonderley had a conscience after all, and of course who were they to miss an opportunity to titillate the audience . In Satan Met a Lady, the affair happened before the Archers were married and in the '41 version Bogart breaks things off completely with Iva as soon as Miles is killed. In the novel, Spade is revolted by the his involvement but it is strongly implied that he will go back to her at the end. That was a conclusion that was too brutal even for the Pre-code era. The '31 film ends with Spade visiting Wonderly in jail, asking the prison matron to go easy on her and to send the bill for any little expenses she might incur to him at the DA's office. There is no famous line "the stuff that dreams are made of" and Sam Spade gets made assistant DA!

Satan Met a Lady (1936) is best known to film fans as the movie that precipitated Bette Davis breaking her contract with Warner Brothers. The film's reviews were colored by the chivalric feeling that critics had for Davis who they felt was above the material at hand. And perhaps she was, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the heck out of this quirky comedy. I am probably too big of a fan of screwball comedy, if such a thing is possible. I may be the only person who thinks a screwball bowlderization of The Maltese Falcon is a good idea. Critics, audiences and most of the people involved thought it was a disaster, but I couldn't help but admire the fact that this even got made. On top of that, it's actually quite funny.

The original New York Times review of Satan Met a Lady said that actors behave as if they expect the men in white coats to burst any moment and lock them up for attempting such a travesty. And really is that so different than the subtext of any screwball comedy? Is My Man Godfrey to be faulted for having the brass neck to put the homeless over the rich at a time when the country was nearly at war with itself? So what if a great book is made to look silly and liberties are taken with the plot? It is all in the service of comedy, which is not a noble sacrifice if you ask me. The question is then, is Satan Met a Lady any good as a comedy? I think it is. Warren William plays the Sam Spade stand-in Ted Shayne, the Satan of the title. He is far less tortured than the famous detective and inexplicably eccentric and even bizarre at times. He behaves like a person in a screwball comedy. Perhaps it is this knowing consciousness that they are in a comedy which put audiences off. I suppose the best comedies are those in which people play things straight in screwball situations. That holds to a point. Sooner or later things just get weird. Men in negligees stomp on dowagers' feet. It's bound to happen. Just as its bound to happen that a hard boiled detective will suddenly jump in the air grab onto the door frame and imitate King Kong.

9 comments:

SteveQ said...

Ooh, Ricardo Cortez. The reason "bromance" was invented as a word. He made a couple of other pics you might enjoy...

kda0121 said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who likes Satan Met a Lady. Warren William is terrific as Ted Shayne. It was a delicious turn of the hard boiled story into screwball romp.

The 1931 version of Falcon isn't bad on its own merits. To bad for it that John Huston and Bogie came along and proceeded to out direct an out act their predecessors. You're right about Bebe Daniels, though. She is much more believable than Mary Astor. Too bad the code came in. I liked the frankness and openness of the pre code version.

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