Friday, August 24, 2007

The Maltese, not that one

The fine folks at Warner Home Video did a splendid thing when they released Humphrey Bogart The Signature Collection Vol. 2. Because that collection included one of his seminal roles, the private eye Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), Warners saw fit to include the story’s two previous versions, the 1931 version and the 1936 retread titled “Satan Met a Lady.”

I watched the 1931 version the other night and its not bad. The problem is the 1941 is so entrenched in our consciousness, and is one of the most perfectly cast movies of all time, that its odd to see other actors inhabit these roles and spouting that famous dialogue.

Ricardo Cortez plays Spade in this version, and I don’t like him in the role. Cortez has always been one of my least favorite leading men of the 1930s. I’ve always found him irritatingly smug and superior and that’s how he plays Spade. The rest of the cast is better, with Dudley Digges essaying a fine Casper Gutman and Bebe Daniels a sympathetic femme fatale. Dwight Frye isn’t given much to do as Wilmer Cooke, and an actor unknown to me, Otto Mattieson plays Joel Cairo. They’re all OK, but when these roles are played by, respectively, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Peter Lorre, they come up short.

It’s odd seeing frequent Laurel and Hardy foil Walter Long play the straight role of Miles Archer, Sam’s partner. Thelma Todd plays Archer’s wife who’s enjoying a fling with Spade, and she’s always an enjoyable presence.

It’s a respectable enough movie and if it wasn’t for the 1941 version, it would probably be remembered as a respectable early talkie detective movie. But the 1941 version has relegated it to a curio at best.

The less said about “Satan Met a Lady”, truly one of the worst Warner Bros. films of the 1930s, the better.

Rating for the 1931 “The Maltese Falcon”: Two and a half stars.

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