The Maltese Falcon
First I’ll make a confession. I am a big fan of mystery novels, including the classic hard-boiled ones from the ‘30s and ‘40s. I think Raymond Chandler is one of the great American writers. But I am not a fan of Dashiell Hammett. It’s not that he couldn’t spin a good tale (this is a very good one), I just don’t much like his style of writing. That’s just me. Most mystery fans adore him.
So before there was Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Mary Astor, there was “Ricardo Cortez,” Dudley Digges, Otto Matieson, Dwight Frye, and Bebe Daniels as Samuel Spade, Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, Wilmer Cook (the homosexual gunsel), and Ruth Wonderly, respectively. This was ten years before the John Huston version. Sound was still in its infancy (the sound track here is awful) and no one really knew how to deal with it yet. So the dialogue drags out, with long gaps, and is very stilted. The camera work is leaden, because all the new sound equipment was cumbersome and static. And the acting is a trifle overwrought. This movie has a few good points, but not many. Spade is portrayed as a wise-ass, grinning and sneering, objectionable asshole, the kind of guy who, if I were a cop, I think I would like to knock around a bit just to make his perfect teeth rattle. The one advantage the director, Roy Del Ruth, and screenwriters had here is that this was pre-Code, and they could get away with more innuendo. Such as, in the book Hammett made it quite clear that Wilmer was a “queer.” Here they suggest it pretty plainly. By 1941 they couldn’t do that. This movie is of interest to film buffs, like me. I’m glad I saw it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
A word about Ricardo Cortez, whose name I put in quotes up there. He was born Jacob Krantz in New York City. Part of the reason for his name change was probably because he was a Jew. But the biggest reason is that the studio bosses wanted to cash in on the “Latin lover” craze. Eventually they admitted that he was not actually Spanish. Then they let it be known that he was born in Vienna, so he was still a little foreign and exotic. And the public seemed to accept that. How strange.