"Would you mind taking off your hat in the presence of a lady--with a gun?" Bette Davis in Satan Met a Lady (dir. William Dieterle, 1936).
The second filmed version of The Maltese Falcon is actually a farcical synthesis of that story and Hammett's other hit book-movie crossover, The Thin Man (The Continental Op has never fared as successfully on the screen--someday someone at HBO or somewhere will get it right as a truly hard-boiled cable series). Now the falcon is a ram's horn, and Sam Spade is "Ted Shane," a dapper dick with a barbed outlook. It's alternately painful and amusing to watch. Though the whole is a train wreck, the parts are mostly a delight, especially Marie Wilson as absurdist secretary "Miss Murgatroyd." Wilson's high voice and erratic bodily movements are alarming at first: she always looks like she's about to start crying and go into a seizure. Once you adjust to the strangeness, however, it's endearing. Arthur Treacher, later of Merv Griffin and fish & chips fame, gives good droll in a British variation on the Joel Cairo role, and Alison Skipworth as "Madame Barrabas," the female equivalent of Casper Gutman, is both funny and menacing. William Warren as Shane is probably the biggest misfire. It's not his fault--he does the decadent sophisticate thing quite well. The problem is the very concept of making the Spade-based character a cocktail-sipping clothes horse. There's more than enough farcical potential in the original story, and going that extra step to work in the Thin Man elements just makes a muddle of things.
Now I wish I could find a DVD copy of 1975's The Black Bird, with George Segal as Sam Spade's son. I saw it upon its first theatrical release, and remember it being funny. On the other hand, I was twelve.
Labels: William Dieterle