Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: ‘The Strange Story of the Little Black Bird’

Nearly anyone with an interest in movies has seen John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). (At the very least, they’re familiar with its existence—and probably plan on seeing it “sometime.”) Even those not especially keen on detective fiction recognize the film as one of two absolutely essential Humphrey Bogart pictures (if you don’t know the other one, go stand in the corner and await your letters of transit). The more dedicated have likely even read Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel and are probably aware of the fact that Huston’s film was actually the third version of the story (so much for the idea that all remakes suck). But the number of people who’ve actually seen all three versions is something else again.

Now, I’ve seen all three—though it took years to catch up with them—but it was only with the idea of writing this column that I sat through all three of them in less than 24 hours. For purposes of comparing and contrasting the trio, that’s probably the way to go. For purposes of enertainment, I’d suggest spreading them out a little more.

I should admit that I’ve never completely warmed to the Huston film (more to the point, I think I’ve never really warmed to Huston in general). In my early encounters with it as a child, it always disappointed me somehow. I recognized that it was great filmmaking—or something like it—but I knew I was supposed to be enjoying it more than I was. I’ve waffled back and forth on just how much I like it over the years. I may well waffle again before this is over.

The vague dissatisfaction I felt with the Huston film was almost certainly one of the reasons I was so determined to track down the rarely shown version Roy Del Ruth made in 1931—something that didn’t happen until I found a collector with an old TV print of the film retitled Dangerous Female in the mid-1980s. Being a bit of a contrarian by nature—and a hardcore admirer of early sound films—I was certain that Del Ruth’s film would turn out to be better than the established classic. The truth is that it isn’t, but it has points to recommend it as a very worthy companion piece with occasional advantages over the classic.

The most immediate advantage Del Ruth’s Falcon has over the later film is its lack of a sense of self-importance. Huston’s film feels like a movie made by someone in awe of the source material. It’s approached with the sense of bringing “Dashiell Hammett’s classic” to the screen. And while the book is undeniably a classic of hardboiled detective fiction, the reverence for the material is—for me—a little off-putting in that it takes a work of pulp fiction and sometimes seems to forget the pulp.

The Del Ruth film has the freshness of a less respectful approach. There’s no sense of this being an important work. The feeling is simply that of turning a new popular novel into a movie. The literary critical accolades had yet to settle in. This is simply something Warner Bros. bought as a property to be adapted to the screen. In other words, it’s not approached as particularly special.

The scripting chores were given over to a former title writer for silent movies, Maude Fulton and a brand new screenwriter, Brown Holmes, who did a credible, if not especially spectacular, job of reducing the story to a tight 80 minute story. They follow the book in a reasonably faithful manner. Probably the major actual departure lies in dropping the multiple names of the Bebe Daniels character. In the book and the Huston film she presents herself as Ruth Wonderly, but turns out to be Bridgid O’Shaughnessy. Here, she remains Ruth Wonderly throughout. The rest of the story and the main characters remain intact—more or less.

Apart from the inevitable differences inherent in a film from 1931 and 1941, the largest change—or more properly interpretation—lies in the character of detective Sam Spade, who is here played by Ricardo Cortez. (This article, conicidentally, will appear in Cortez’s 109th birthday.) Cortez was born Jacob Krantz, but he had the fortune of hitting Hollywood at the same time as the Valentino craze. Paramount took one look at his dark good looks and brilliantined hair and changed his name to Ricardo Cortez in the attempt to groom him into another Valentino. It didn’t work out that way, but the Latin lover name stuck.

Cortez’s Spade is very different from Bogie’s approach to the role. It’s at least partly the writing and Del Ruth’s direction, but a lot of the difference simply comes from the Cortez sub-Valentino screen persona. This is Sam Spade as a kind of lounge lizard—a very deliberate womanizer. Where you got the sense that Bogie’s Spade probably drifted into his sexual escapades as much out of ennui as libido, the Cortez version is pretty much a tomcat. The Bogart Spade is morally ambiguous. Cortez is something of a louse.

Of course, the 1931 version was able to be more explicit in terms of Spade’s amatory exploits simply because it was made in 1931—part of that era known as “pre-code,” which simply means it was made before the advent of the Breen Office in 1934. While censorship existed as far back as 1923 and the creation of the Hays Office, it wasn’t strongly enforced till Joseph Breen’s “Production Code” (largely defined by the Catholic Legion of Decency) came into being.

The Maltese Falcon of 1931 benefits from this, leaving no doubt that Spade has been sleeping with his partner’s wife, Iva (Thelma Todd), and quickly falls into the sack with Ruth Wonderley, too. In fact, one completely invented bit of dialogue where Iva catches a glimpse of Ruth in her wrapper in Spade’s apartment—“Who’s that dame wearin’ my kimono?”—gave birth to the title of one of the first books on pre-code movies, The Dame in the Kimono. A scene like that could only be vaguely suggested by 1941. The same is true of a scene of Bebe Daniels in the bath (you never quite see anything, but she’s quite obviously actually nude).

And there’s the matter of the sexual orientation of Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson), Casper Gutman (Dudley Digges) and Wilmer Cook (Dwight Frye). While the effeminate Cairo as played by Peter Lorre in the Huston film is introduced with Spade taking a sniff of the man’s business card and noting the scent on it, “Gardenia! Shew him in!” as a gag, the book offers a more succinct summation, “This guy is queer,” remarks Spade’s secretary. In the original film, this becomes a more elaborate joke played on Spade by his secretary, Effie (Una Merkel). “Sam, it’s a gorgeous new customer!” Effie tells him. “Gorgeous?” asks Spade with undisguised lechery. “A knokout!“she assures him. “Send her right in, honey,” instructs Spade—only to find himself face to to face with the preening Cairo. Oddly, it’s a gag that would have worked better with Bogart, since Cortez is something of a dandy himself. Moreover, Bogart—and Spade—would have seen the joke and been amused by it. Cortez seems annoyed.

The fact that Wilmer is Gutman’s boy-toy is quite clear in the novel and fairly obvious in the 1931 version, but more suggested (naturally) in the Huston film, except for one curious thing that’s essentially an in-joke in itself. Going back to the book, you’ll find Wilmer referred to as “the gunsel” by Spade. According to mystery writer (and creator of Perry Mason) Erle Stanley Gardner this was the result of Hammett having a joke at the expense of Black Mask magazine editor Joseph T. Shaw, whom Hammett disliked intensely. Shaw was something of a moralist, who insisted that nothing vulgar be included in anything the magazine ran (odd, considering the nature of the magazine). In fact, he removed a reference in the serialized version of The Maltese Falcon to someone being “on the gooseberry lay” because he thought it was dirty. (It actually isn’t and is criminal slang for stealing clothes off clotheslines on washday.) But Shaw missed the word “gunsel” altogether.

Hammett used “gunsel” so frequently that Shaw assumed it was underworld argot for a gun-toting hood. In point of fact, the word means catamite and specifically refers to what we’d now, somewhat crudely, call a “bottom.” Oddly, the 1931 Falcon could certainly have gotten away with using the term, but didn’t for whatever reason. Ironically, Shaw’s miscomprehension of the word caused it to drift into common usage in hard-boiled detective fiction, where it came to be taken for, yes, gun-toting hood. By 1941 Huston was able to retain the term in his screenplay and the Breen Office was none the wiser.

In the main, the Del Ruth Falcon is a solid version of the book. Seen today, some things seem a bit off. The falcon itself bears little resemblance to the now famous one in the later film, but that’s merely the fashion of the times, since the 1931 black bird is a dead ringer for the one pictured on both the book, The Strange Story of the Little Black Bird, that Spade finds in Ruth’s apartment and the original cover art of the 1930 publication of the novel.

The real difference, of course, is that we’re now so used to the cast of the Huston film that seeing other actors in the key roles is just a bit awkward. Cortez is no Bogie, but he’s not bad. Bebe Daniels is probably as good as Mary Astor, and Dudley Digges is such an obvious choice from that era for Gutman that he fares best. But Otto Matieson is no Peter Lorre and Dwight Frye’s Wilmer is—like most of Frye’s performances that aren’t in Dracula (1931) or Frankenstein (1931)—pretty awful. But overall, there’s simply a sense that Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr. were simply born to play Spade, Cairo, Gutman and Wilmer. And there’s no getting away from that.

At the same time, it’s clear that Huston himself studied Del Ruth’s film carefully. His version frequently reproduces specific compositions from the earlier film, though it’s hard to deny that he was smart enough to only take the best things from the ‘31 version, and even those he tended to improve upon in the process.

Huston was also smart enough to take nothing from the 1936 version of the story, William Dieterle’s Satan Met a Lady, which is from a screenplay by, once again, Brown Holmes and is merely “based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett.” This version isn’t likely to enter into any argument for being the best Maltese Falcon, though it hands-down takes the title of the strangest adaptation. In fact, it’s a classic case of “what were they thinking?” writ large.

In all honesty, Satan Met a Lady is typically parsmininous thinking on the part of Warner Bros. In 1934 MGM struck gold with W.S. Van Dyke’s film of another Hammett novel, The Thin Man. Almost at once everyone wanted a Thin Man of their own. The formula was simple (on the surface)—create a mystery in the vein of a screwball comedy with heavy-drinking romantic leads who bicker in charming banter. RKO had Star of Midnight (1935) with William Powell (from The Thin Man) and Ginger Rogers. Universal had James Whale’s Remember Last Night? (1935) with Robert Young and Constance Cummings. So what was Warners to do? Well, they owned a Hammett novel, didn’t they? Why not turn it into a screwball comedy-mystery with Bette Davis and Warren William?

Apart from the fact that The Maltese Falcon doesn’t in the least lend itself to this treatment, the idea was, I suppose, perfectly sound. The problem was that Brown Holmes came up with a screenplay that wasn’t very funny and was frequently incomprehensible. The storyline is so muddled at one point that the film cuts to a creeper title that’s supposedly a Sunday supplement in a newspaper, which is designed to clarify the plot (it really doesn’t) and goes on to offer photos (obviously studio headshots) of the principal rogues currently chasing after the film’s version of the Falcon. Nevermind that no one but the rogues and Warren William are even much aware of these folks’ existence, the Sunday paper has them on file!

Someone somewhere along the way (maybe Holmes was just tired of the material?) decided that the Falcon should be turned into “Roland’s Trumpet,” some mythical artifact of a cow horn that’s supposedly filled with jewels. It’s workable, but really there’s precious little romance in a trophy that looks like a powder-horn. Not that being a bejeweled bird would have made that much difference, because the film is basically beyond salvation, except for its sheer strangeness. Perhaps the closest connection it has to the 1931 film lies in the fact that the lamp on the table behind Cortez’s sofa has found its way onto a table in Warren William’s apartment.

It’s not badly made. I really suspect that it was impossible for William Dieterle to make a bad film from this period of his career, but apart from his stylistic flourishes, there’s just not a whole lot to be done with the material. Spade has been transformed into Ted Shayne (William), who sports a strangely wide-brimmed hat, carries a cane and is a thoroughly bad lot. When the film opens, he’s being railroaded out of one town and on his way to more or less fleece another. Unlike Spade, Shayne is an outsider who foists himself on lame private detective Ames (Porter Hall), a former associate who wants no part of Shayne—not in the least because he’s now married to Shayne’s old girlfriend, Astrid (Wini Shaw), who still has the hots for the shifty shamus.

It seems rather rude of Shayne to muscle in on Ames, get reacquainted with his wife and take the case that will soon find Ames a corpse, but that’s the kind of movie it is. Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy has become Valerie Purvis, who’s played by Bette Davis. Miss Davis so recognizes that what she’s in in beneath her that she stalks through the whole thing with a kind of grim determination that lands somewhere between just-get-it-over-with and campy overacting. It’s fun in a weird kind of way, which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s good.

Warren William, on the other hand, appears to have taken the character of Shayne to heart, which is to say that if he isn’t actually drunk throughout the bulk of the movie, he might as well be. Considering the fact that Davis had just won an Oscar the previous year and William had earlier been the studio’s low-rent John Barrymore, their attitudes are not hard to understand. If you were a serious actor and you found yourself having to trade barbs with dizzy dame Marie Wilson in the revamped (as a total scatterbrain) role of Effie, you’d take to drinking and campiness, too. William’s best line in the whole film is “Good thing you’re paying me to listen to this.” It sums up his approach to the entire enterprise.

Joel Cairo is now Anthony Travers (Arthur Treacher), a tall Englishman with a penchant for dry wit (well, it’s at least dry) and drier sherry, who likes to tear up other people’s apartments and offices while searching them. In light of the fact that Arthur Treacher (in his pre-fish and chips days) had only this one screen persona, he comes off about like he always did. On the other hand, there’s a glimmer of inspiration in turning Casper Gutman into a woman, Madame Barabbas, and casting the great Alison Skipworth in the role. In this regard, the film is on surprisingly good footing—and Williams’ interactions with her are actually pretty funny.

The change to a female Gutman, of course, removed having to deal with the male-male relationship of Gutman and Wilmer. Instead, we have Madame Barabbas’ relationship with Kenneth (Maynard Holmes), which frankly feels far more unwholesome than anything in the novel or either other film version of the story. This, I suspect, is due more to the casting of Maynard Holmes with his chubby baby-like features than to anything inherent in the screenplay. Oddly enough, the screenplay—while supremely unfaithful in so many areas—drops back to Hammett’s novel (not used in the first film) to include a bit of dialogue where Shayne returns Kenneth’s gun to Madame Barabbas telling her, “A crippled newsboy took this away from Kenneth on the way over.” (The actual line—“A crippled newsie took them away from him, but I made him give them back”—appears intact in the 1941 film.)

One final note of interest as concerns the misbegotten Satan Met a Lady is the twist put on the film’s climax. In the book and the other two films, the ending—which gives all these an emotional resonance—has Spade turning Wonderly/O’Shaughnessy over to the cops, but not here, though he does try. Perhaps it’s just the fact that nobody turns Bette Davis over, but whatever the reason, Satan has her realize what’s about to happen, ducking into the ladies lounge on a train and arranging to have the black attendant hand her over, so Shayne loses the reward. It’s actually the sort of cold-hearted thing you’d expect from the movie.

And that brings us to the Huston film on 1941. What really is there to say about this Falcon that hasn’t been said? It’s perfectly cast and a monument to film noir moodiness. Huston was wise to bring in Arthur Edeson (who’d also shot Satan Met a Lady) to give him the atmosphere he wanted. Edeson is one of the least appreciated of all “golden age” cinematographers, it seems, yet he was shooting scenes with sets that had ceilings (Frankenstein) ten years before Gregg Toland “created” that approach with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941)—and he does that here, too. Edeson very likely helped to form James Whale’s visual style in the early 30s at Universal, and is almost certainly responsible for the look of Casablanca (1942). I’m willing to bet he has much to do with what The Maltese Falcon looks like, too.

The great thing that Huston brought to his Falcon lay in his going back to the book and picking and choosing all the very best of Hammett, while his predecessors had been less thorough. Now, in doing this, he may, as I’ve said, been just a little too respectful, but on balance he achieved the definitive Maltese Falcon not in the least because he made it truly mythic in a way even the novel didn’t manage. Perhaps the most famous and telling line in the whole Maltese Falcon lore comes at the end of Huston’s film when the black bird is hefted and Spade responds to a query of just what it is by saying, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” The line—legendarily suggested by Bogart—is unique to the film, and, I suspect, is a key element in its ability to linger in the mind of the viewer long after the fact.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: ‘The Strange Story of the Little Black Bird’

  1. ncain

    This is an excellent column, especially for a fan of 20th century hard boiled detective fiction and the films it inspired. I was pleased to see you worked in the story about Hammett’s use of the word “gunsel” in, as it’s amusing and not well known.

    You missed one big difference between the 1931 and 41 versions, though. In the earlier version, when Spade goes to the scene of Archer’s murder he exchanges a few words in Chinese with the only witness. Nothing is made of this until the end, when Spade reveals that his partner’s murder was witnessed by the Chinese man and that Ruth Wonderly did it. Spade knew the whole time that she was guilty and he still seduced her and kept her around and strung her along. When Ruth asks Spade if she loves him in the scene where he confronts her, he says he thinks he does, but the denoument reveals that he was lying.

    Huston’s version and the book are much less explicit on the matter of what Spade knew and when. It’s certaintly possible he knows from the beginning, but it’s also possible he only figures it out later. When Brigid asks the same question and Spade gives the same answer in their final confontation, it seems that Spade really means it when he says he thinks he loves her, and that he is torn about turing her over, but, after all, “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” It give the ending a lot more punch.

  2. Ken Hanke

    You missed one big difference between the 1931 and 41 versions, though. In the earlier version, when Spade goes to the scene of Archer’s murder he exchanges a few words in Chinese with the only witness. Nothing is made of this until the end, when Spade reveals that his partner’s murder was witnessed by the Chinese man and that Ruth Wonderly did it.

    I had meant to address this — even got a screen grab of Spade talking to the Chinese gent, but it was too murky to use — but it somehow got lost in the shuffle. (Well, that an not starting to actually write this until I was left with only three hours in which to do it.) It’s an interesting addition, though it always seemed a little cheesy to me. That Spade speaks Chinese is in itself interesting. Question is — would we all know whodunit if we could translate what’s said?

  3. ncain

    On the whole,I think the 31 version got closer to the true Spade than Huston’s version did. I think you can make a strong argument that Joseph Breen made Sam Spade a hero. I’m not sure that Hammett’s character was a good guy. Unlike Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe is undoubtedly a hero, Hammett’s characters tend to be morally ambiguous. Huston had to obscure the sexual relationship between Spade and Brigid, which is explicit in both the earlier film and the book. He also had to remove the scene where Spade forces Brigid to strip in front of Gutman, Wilmer and Cairo. Spade’s lechery and misogyny go a long way toward dispelling the idea that he’s some sort of existential knight on a lonely crusade for justice.

    And if you want to talk about parts of the 31 film that ring false, how about that final scene where Spade visits Wonderly in prison and tells the matron to be nice to her? It’s an attempt at redeeming Spade’s character and it fails miserably.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I wonder if it’s so much Breen who made Spade into a hero (or quasi-hero) as it’s more the charisma of Bogart that did it. Even without the toning down, Bogart would likely still have come across as a nicer character — if only by virtue of seeming more amused and bemused by the fantasticated antics around him.

    That final scene between Spade and Wonderly in the ’31 Falcon is an oddity no matter how you look at it, because it wants to offer some measure of redemption — or at least humanization — and insists on undermining it at the same time. Notice that although he tells the matron to see that Wonderly gets whatever she wants, he ends up by telling her to send the bills to the district attorney’s office (where he’s been made chief investigator).

    I was interested to see — which had escaped my notice — that although the ’31 film has never been given its own DVD release (because of the Bette Davis name, Satan did get one), all three films now come as a set when you buy the ’41 film. Definitely a bargain.

  5. Ken Hanke

    By the way, it would be interesting (and probably impossible) to get the viewpoint of someone who read the book first and then watched the two films (is there any need to drag the middle one into this except as a curio?). Most of us probably saw the ’41 version and then read the book.

  6. ncain

    No, there is no reason to talk about the middle one. I’ve seen it, and I’m not sure what to make of it. They took Hammett’s description of spade as “A blond Satan” and used it as jumping off point for a bizarre comedy that never really works. If Shayne really was Satan, wouldn’t he have been triumphant in the end? Perhaps someone was trying to make their views on women known with that ending.

    I think it’s fair to say that Bogart’s charisma is another factor in making Spade a hero. In movies it’s often hard to separate stars from the characters they play, and stars are very good at recognizing what fits in with their image. Who could imagine George Clooney or Brad Pitt playing a bad guy? Or Will Smith? It’s the same with Bogart. He was the good guy and he knew it. His audience wanted to see him play a romantic, tormented figure, not an opportunistic scumbag and that’s how he played Spade. Many lines between the two films are similar, if not exactly the same and Bogart could have taken it another way had he chosen to do so.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Perhaps someone was trying to make their views on women known with that ending.

    I suspect it was as close as they could get to a screwball ending, which is a peculiar notion in itself. Maybe the whole enterprise was ahead of its time — and maybe it still is.

    Who could imagine George Clooney or Brad Pitt playing a bad guy? Or Will Smith? It’s the same with Bogart. He was the good guy and he knew it. His audience wanted to see him play a romantic, tormented figure, not an opportunistic scumbag and that’s how he played Spade.

    Well, that’s the interesting thing about Falcon — it’s the film where Bogart established himself as a hero. Yes, he’d played good guys before and occasionally (in B pictures like Isle of Fury and Two Against the World) even heroes, but at the time of Falcon the public perception of him was as a gangster, since the film that really made him was The Petrified Forest in 1936. Prior to that, his career was kind of undistinguished. After that he was closely associated with gangsters — usually as the really nasty, completely amoral gangster as opposed to the sympathetic anti-hero variety (that was reserved for Robinson and Cagney), and in a subordinate role. Falcon really gave Bogart his first solid A picture starring film in hero mode, so it defined (or redefined) what his audience expected from him — and he cemented that Across the Pacific and Casablanca.

  8. Ken Hanke

    A side issue on this topic — has anyone watched the trailer for the ’41 Falcon? It’s available online at the top of the IMDb listing for the movie —

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033870/

    Anyone notice anything quite peculiar about the trailer?

  9. ncain

    The trailer was interesting. I’d never seen it before. When you say peculiar, do you mean that they didn’t try to cast Bogart in a particularly heroic light, instead making him just one of a cast of characters “consumed by their passionate greed for the Maltese Falcon”?

    It certainly lends credence to your assertion that Bogart’s charisma is what made Sam Spade come off as a hero.

  10. Ken Hanke

    When you say peculiar, do you mean that they didn’t try to cast Bogart in a particularly heroic light, instead making him just one of a cast of characters “consumed by their passionate greed for the Maltese Falcon”?

    No, that’s not it. Try it at the 2’03” mark (“Such Strange Drama”). It’s only two seconds long, but…

  11. Justin Souther

    Anyone notice anything quite peculiar about the trailer?

    I was going to say that I’d never realized Darth Vader was in this movie, until I realized it was just some ad the IMDb was running before the trailer.

  12. Ken Hanke

    was going to say that I’d never realized Darth Vader was in this movie, until I realized it was just some ad the IMDb was running before the trailer.

    That’s not quite what I was looking for, no.

  13. ncain

    Is that shadow strangulation a scene I’d recognize from another film if I were more of a movie buff? I don’t recall anything like that in the movie.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Is that shadow strangulation a scene I’d recognize from another film if I were more of a movie buff? I don’t recall anything like that in the movie.

    Exactly. Years ago someone sent me a tape of trailers and this was among them. I was only kind of watching it and suddenly had a “what the hell?” moment out of the corner of my eye. So I backed it up and was more than a little surprised to see the scene where “The Moon Killer” strangles the butler in Doctor X (1932) had somehow made it into the trailer for The Maltese Falcon! Now, it’s not unusual for trailers to contain things that don’t make the final cut. And with older movies it’s very common to find an alternate take used in a trailer, but this is the only instance I can think of where a clip from another, completely unrelated movie ended up in a trailer like this.

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