Bette DavisWini ShawMarie WilsonArthur Treacher
Satan Met a Lady
Remake of: The Maltese Falcon (1931)
Medium: film
Year: 1936
Director: William Dieterle
Writer: Brown Holmes, Dashiell Hammett
Keywords: The Maltese Falcon, detective, remake
Country: USA
Actor: Bette Davis, Warren William, Alison Skipworth, Arthur Treacher, Marie Wilson, Wini Shaw, Porter Hall, Olin Howland, Charles C. Wilson, Maynard Holmes
Format: 74 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 2 April 2010
Goodness me. I've just discovered a fourth Maltese Falcon movie. It's called Target: Harry (1969), but unfortunately it's directed by Roger Corman and so I think I might have reached the limits of my completism. Well, it's not as if I'd been planning to rush out and buy spoofs and sequels like The Black Bird (1975).
Getting back on-topic, this is the second of the three Warner Bros versions. The filthy 1931 original was never going to fly in a Production Code era, so the Warners remade it in a lighter style and renamed it Satan Met a Lady. (Why?) It looks as if they were trying to copy the success of The Thin Man, which was another movie adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett detective novel and did such good business that it ended up getting five sequels and a 1950s TV series. I hear good things about those films. They're witty and light-hearted. This one's trying to copy that formula without worrying too much about being faithful, which at least helps it stand out from the two Maltese Falcon films that are actually called The Maltese Falcon.
To tell the truth, I like the fact that it's taking more liberties with Hammett. We have two pretty straight adaptations already, so why not ring the changes? They've even changed the lead character's name's from Sam Spade to Ted Shane. Admittedly I'd say that for me this is the weakest of the three, but it's not horrendously so and I only reached that conclusion by realising that this is the one I'm least likely to want to rewatch. The underlying story's the same as the others, obviously, and I quite like the cast.
The clear standout is Marie Wilson as the secretary, although apparently she played this kind of role all the time. Her character is stupid. Dazzlingly stupid. These days, she might get called handicapped or something. In her first scene, she's asked how to spell her name and has to think about it. At first I assumed the point of that had been that she'd been caught out pretending to be someone else, but in fact she really is that thick. However it also soon becomes clear that Wilson (rather than her character) is highly intelligent and capable of finding all kinds of cute and surprising readings for completely ordinary dialogue. Occasionally she pushes it too far, yes, but she gets away with it because she's one of those actors who can sell the kind of over-the-top performance that would sink almost any of her peers. She's easily the best reason to watch this film, despite the fact that her character is strictly a supporting player and could be cut out of the film without really changing anything. I even looked up quotes of hers. "Show business has been very good to me and I'm not complaining, but some day I just wish someone would offer me a different kind of role. My closest friends admit that whenever they tell someone they know me they have to convince them that I'm really not dumb. To tell you the truth I think people are disappointed that I'm not." Apparently she had a stunning figure, by the way, although she's not showing it here. She's also Mary Quite Contrary in the 1934 Laurel and Hardy Babes in Toyland.
Then you've got Spade (ahem) himself, Warren William. I can't pretend I was wild about him, but that's mostly because they've kept the slimy lounge lizard aspect of Ricardo Cortez in 1931. It's just that we're in the Production Code era now and so he can't have sex. If I'd been in a worse mood, I'd now be calling him smug or annoying. However that said, William is clearly a more accomplished actor than Cortez and all things considered, I actually think he does rather well here. He made me laugh with his reactions when people thought he'd murdered his partner, for instance. He's in control of his performance, knows what he's doing with the comedy and occasionally finds a way of playing a beat that convinced me more than either Cortez or Bogart with the same material. Maybe he'd be better known if he hadn't died in 1948? His other roles include Julius Caesar in Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra and d'Artagnan in James Whale's The Man in the Iron Mask,you know.
Those two were my first response to the question of "what do I like best about this film?" Wilson is terrific by any standard, while William is a solid leading man and a clear improvement on Cortez in 1931. However focusing on them is to do some respectable supporting players a disservice. I had a lot of fun with Arthur Treacher as a delightfully Jeeves-like bad guy, while Alison Skipworth gives us an unexpected new take on the Sydney Greenstreet role. They're not scary villains, but they're not meant to be. My favourite innovation of this movie is the fun it's having trashing hotel rooms, especially with Treacher going so far as to apologise to his victim afterwards. This is while he's standing amid a holocaust of shredded furniture.
Bette Davis is only okay, though. She won't make you poke your eyes out, but equally you'd never guess that she was going to become a Hollywood legend either. Our tutor at drama school made us watch Bette Davis in Little Foxes as a model of screen acting and that's only from 1941. Something funny's going on here. Somehow I doubt she grew that much in only five years. Sure enough, it turns out that Davis thought the film was junk and at first refused even to appear on 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." Warner responded by putting her on suspension. Three days later she turned up to work, but somehow I don't think she was putting her heart and soul into it. What's on screen is an actress who's no worse than anyone else in the film and capable of delivering dialogue, but certainly not showing greatness either. I'm not wild about how she delivers that final speech to William either, by the way.
Davis's most malignant effect on the film came during post-production, oddly enough. There are two versions of the film: (a) the original 74-minute version edited by Max Parker which until the 2006 DVD had never been released commercially and (b) the 66-minute version edited by Warren Low, which is the one that eventually hit cinemas. Bette Davis complained to Jack Warner about the movie, who in turn told Low to cut back on everyone's scenes except Davis's. I haven't seen the cut version, but I have no trouble in believing that the longer one works better.
The story needn't concern us too much. It's still basically the same plot, although they've improvised on it and changed stuff around for laughs. There's no real suspense, but that's okay. The tone's light-hearted enough that for a while I was wondering if we were still even going to have murders, since it was starting to look as if that might feel out of place amid the frivolity. Fortunately we do and the film makes it work. Of course there are silly bits, such as any scene with Marie Wilson, a certain Italian accent and the bit where our hero has a little gunfight after the police have shown up. However it all bubbles along in a jolly, happy way, or at any rate as jolly and happy as you can be with a slightly reprehensible lead character who'd make feminists spontaneously combust. I shouldn't think I'll ever watch it again, but it's entertaining enough for its purpose. "I was just standing here and zip, she went in."