Sep 291931
two reels

Ladykiller Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) is pulled into the case of the mysterious black bird by femme fatale Ruth Wonderly (NiBebe Daniels).  After his partner is murdered, he is introduced to a gang of eccentric criminals who have been searching for the statue for years: mastermind Casper Gutman (Dudley Digges), effeminate Dr. Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson), and gunman Wilmer Cook (Dwight Frye).

A pivotal film in the development of Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon is one of the great American Films. But not this one. The justly famed Bogart/Huston version was not the first adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, nor the second (that was the deeply strange Satan Met a Lady, which omitted the black bird in favor of an animal horn).  No, the first rendition was this 1931 exercise in mildly amusing mediocrity.  There’s a lesson here: Never make grand statements about the undesirability of remakes.

Watching this version is not unlike sitting through a production of a neighborhood theater’s Macbeth.  It’s not bad because the material is first rate, but everything is a poor shadow of what it should be.  You can see what a great film this could be (and later, was), but it just isn’t up there on the screen.

Ricardo Cortez plays Sam Spade as if he’s in the first act of a romantic comedy.  With a broad, silent-era smile plastered on his face, this Spade is far from a troubled, Noir anti-hero.  Give him a plucky sidekick and make him learn that deep down, he truly wants to settle down, and you’ve got…wait a minute, that’s what they do.  This The Maltese Falcon has a tacked-on ending that will make you squirm.

OK, so with an inappropriate lead, characterizations that lean away from those in the novel, static camerawork, and questionable editing, this is not the 1941 version.  But few things are.  Taken on its own terms (preferably by people who have never read the book or seen Bogart), it is an enjoyable, light, crime story.  Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer are gratifyingly bizarre villains.  Gutman is nearly a carnival barker while Cairo is suited for any 1940s farce.  Dwight Frye (best known as the insane Renfield in 1931’s Dracula) is almost a match for Elisha Cook ten years later.  NiBebe Daniels and Una Merkel (as Effie, the secretary) are both sexy and alluring, if somewhat generic.

A majority of the script is taken unchanged from the book, but a great deal is missing.  Its eighty-minute running time creates a fast-paced, but slight picture.  If this had been the sole cinematic The Maltese Falcon, no one would remember anything but the novel.

For years this film was only available on VHS under the title Dangerous Female.  It is now part of a three-disk set that includes all three versions.

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