Stream On: the problematic Sam Spade and a flock of Maltese Falcons, part one

By on April 20, 2023

Is Sam Spade the ne plus ultra of hardboiled detectives? Ex-Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett wrote, in his introduction to the 1935 edition of his 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon, “Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.” Hollywood adapted the novel twice before the 1941 John Huston blockbuster, which I’ll take a look at next time.


/Amazon /Streaming /Clip /🍅71%🍿50% /1931 /Pre-code

The Maltese Falcon is the story of private detective Sam Spade and the deadly crooks he encounters who are searching for a priceless historical artifact (or MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock called it—a plot device: “The MacGuffin is the thing that [everyone is] after, but the audience doesn’t care.”).

This first movie version is definitely interesting, but a victim of the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code, aka the “Hays code,” after Will Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which attempted to enforce morality in Hollywood’s movies from 1934 to 1968 when it gave up the ghost in the face of the “swinging ’sixties.” Out of circulation since 1935, Dangerous Female resurfaced then.

In the credits we recognize some names from the Marx Brothers’ early comedies!—Una Merkel and Thelma Todd, notably, but it’s a noir, all right. While it lacks the taut direction of John Huston’s film, Hammett’s novel is well represented, especially a subtext from the novel that was merely hinted at in the 1941 version.

The subtext is that Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) is an amoral and promiscuous skirt-chaser. Characters leer at one another and there are plenty of smoldering looks and more between Spade and pretty much every female in the movie, including his client Brigid O’Shaunessy (Bebe Daniels), his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva, and Sam’s secretary, Effie.

(The novel ends with—not a spoiler—“The corridor-door’s knob rattled. Effie Perrine turned quickly and went into the outer office, shutting the door behind her. When she came in again she shut it behind her. She said in a small flat voice: ‘Iva is here.’ Spade nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, and shivered. ‘Well, send her in,’” signaling perhaps a reckoning for Sam.) But Spade’s profound cynicism adds punch to his ultimate decision regarding the punishment of the guilty party in the novel and film.

In all, it’s a fine little movie: quite noirish, with solid performances (even if 1941’s cast blew them out of the water) and good direction. But because of a strange, tacked-on epilogue—and the omission of the Huston version’s famous last line (which actually wasn’t in the novel), I give it 3½ out of five TV’s. 📺📺📺.5


/Amazon /Streaming /Trailer /🍿22% /1936 /Passed

“This is no snipe hunt!” (Ted Shane)

Which brings us to Satan Met a Lady, in part a reaction to the Hays Code verdict on Dangerous Female—it was Warner Brothers’ attempt to release a family friendly version of The Maltese Falcon. As the title might suggest, Satan Met a Lady is a comedy, and a screwball one at that.

While Dangerous Female was quite good, Satan Met a Lady might have been quite bad. Star Bette Davis, upset that she was being forced to film “junk” after completing a prestige project like The Petrified Forest, failed to report to the set. “I was so distressed by the whole tone of the script and the vapidity of my part that I marched up to Mr. Warner’s office and demanded that I be given work that was commensurate with my proven ability,” she later recalled in her autobiography, The Lonely Life. “I was promised wonderful things if only I would do this film.” She was suspended on December 3, and angry and resentful but in need of her salary, she reported to work three days later.

Well, bless her heart! The movie grew on me, and in a good way—very much unlike a wart or a carbuncle. It’s what “Monty Python and the Maltese Falcon” might have been, forty years later. The screenplay was by Brown Holmes (Dangerous Female), who had a great name, by the way, and the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson (The Maltese Falcon, 1941). Porter Hall (The Thin Man) has a fun turn as the associate of the “Sam Spade” character, here named Ted Shane (a delightfully skeevy Warren William, the “king of pre-Code,” who was the first actor to play Perry Mason, in a black cowboy hat), and when Bette Davis first appeared as Valery Purvis, the “Brigid O’Shaughnessy” role, I couldn’t help thinking that she would have made a fine Brigid in a serious film. Alas and alack!

Everyone seemed to have a grand time making Satan Met a Lady. Marie Wilson is deliriously good as Shane’s secretary, Miss Murgatroyd. Bette Davis even put on a brave face. So where’s the love? I’m giving it 4 out of 5 TV’s—I liked it!📺📺📺📺

Next time: John Huston’s masterpiece.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers.

Comments are closed.