The Maltese Falcon, starring Bebe Daniels, Richard Cortez, Warner Brothers, 1931
Well it is possible for even a devoted actor Humphrey Bogart and crime novelist Dashiell Hammett aficionado to learn something new. For many years I had assumed that the 1941 hard-nosed Bogie as Sam Spade version of The Maltese Falcon was the original screen version of Hammett’s crime noir classic. Then an acquaintance, the old time radical journalist Josh Breslin whose by-line for half the progressive press and alternate vision journals in this country for the past forty years that some readers may know, informed me that an older version (or rather versions existed). That discovery however had to go unchecked until the age of the Internet. Now I have found the film via a very helpful lead from Wikipedia. Kudos.
Of course after reading Hammett’s crime novel countless times (if for no other reason than that great dialogue even after the plot line wore thin) and viewing the 1941 Bogie version almost as many times certain prejudices were bound to show up. The key is the role of Sam Spade as the world weary scrappy avenger of his partner’s murder while “in the line of duty”. If for no other reason than for professional pride. And the well-known plot line, basically murder and mayhem by parties known and unknown searching for a bid, “the stuff of dreams,” is what let’s Sam save the day, his professional pride, and his rough-hewn sense of justice.
The 1931 Spade (played by handsome Richard Cortez) is less concerned with those gritty issues, more brazenly cynical, and much more of a womanizer than Bogie’s Spade (although he is not immune, temporality at least, to femme fatale charms). That as I found out was a result of the change in what was deemed acceptable to the general audience (the so-called Production Code). In the 1931 version it is clear, very clear, why Spade is ready to chase after windmills for the femme fatale (played Bebe Daniels). Sexual tension and adventure were rife. In the 1941 version I was always wondering what there was about Mary Astor (after all she didn’t seem Bogie’s type on the face of it) that made him all that intrepid. It was never spelled out. Now I know. No question though, despite that new information, that Bogie’s Spade is the cinematic standard and Hammett would agree.