Much better than I'd expected. Everyone knows that the 1941
Bogart Maltese Falcon is supposed to be the good one, which might seem to imply that the 1931 and 1936
versions are curiosities of only academic interest. Not so. Admittedly I haven't seen the 1936
one yet, but this is a very faithful adaptation that goes further than the 1941
film, makes more sense and is far from being overshadowed in the acting department.
The most important thing to note is that being a 1931 film, it's pre-Code. The only reason Warner Brothers made the 1936
remakes in the first place was that the Production Code Office wouldn't allow a re-release of the "lewd" original. What's more, you can see their point. This is filthy even by pre-Code standards. Ricardo Cortez's Sam Spade practically goes around with his trousers around his ankles, leering over everything in a skirt and sleeping with most of them. The first time we see him, he's coming out of his office with a woman who's straightening her stockings. He gets into more trouble trying to juggle his women than he does with people trying to shoot him.
Meanwhile Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly gets strip-searched (offscreen), takes a rather interesting bath (onscreen) and openly seduces Cortez in an attempt to buy his loyalty. She's in his bed afterwards and everything. The only downside of all this is that even though it could perhaps be argued that the film's trying not to ignore the homosexuality in the novel, given its occasional use of language like "boyfriend", "gorgeous" and "sweetheart", they're being so understated and allusive that it might as well not be there given that all the rest of the sexuality has been pumped up to eleven.
The consequence of all this is that the plot suddenly works. Dialogue and even plot points from the 1941
film suddenly made sense for the first time when I watched this version. Put the two side by side and you'll realise how bowdlerised the later one is. That's a classic movie, but nonetheless it's still been censored to the point where Bogart's actions don't always make sense, e.g. he simply takes Mary Astor's word that she's not hiding any money, instead of making her strip naked. Here however we have a genuinely greedy and callous Sam Spade, which fits Dashiell Hammett's plot so much better that it's just not true. Better still, he's up against a proper femme fatale in Bebe Daniels, who's as trustworthy as a rattlesnake but, y'know, you still would.
The 1931 film only has one problem, but it's a screamer. It's called Ricardo Cortez.
Great Scott, he's horrible. Put Bogart in here and you'd have a film clearly better than the 1941
remake, despite the lack of Greenstreet, Lorre and Cook Jr, but Cortez torpedoes it. In fairness I like the way he's such a bastard, for instance making me laugh with his "thanks" in response to an offer of condolences. This is a Sam Spade who fits into this story. I also quite like him when he stops preening himself, usually over a woman, and instead gets down to business. However he can't stop doing this creepy fake grin that would embarrass an amateur dramatics troupe, while he's about as tough as Bogart's little finger and he's unconvincing in the love stuff at the end with Daniels. He's awful, frankly. 95% of everything that's wrong with this movie is his fault, with the remaining 5% being a policeman who seems to have wandered in from a school play.
Once you've got past him, though, everyone else is great. Bebe Daniels is the clearest improvement, showing more acting range (and flesh) than Mary Astor as well as being a much better fit for the character. There are moments where you might think she's being wooden, but keep watching. She's doing it deliberately. Her character is herself putting on an act. Daniels is in fact shifting between different levels of performance with impressive clarity, while at the same time also being dangerous and sexy. Dudley Digges is no Sydney Greenstreet, sadly, but he's still really good within the constraints of a script that at first is merely using him for info-dump purposes and then shortly afterwards makes him look stupid. Otto Matieson is as good as Peter Lorre. Then you've got Walter Long, who's much more weighty and watchable than I'd been expecting in the minor role of Miles Archer.
What I particularly love though is the Elisha Cook Jr. role, even though it's so small in comparison with the remake that for a while I thought they'd cut him out. What redeems it is the casting of one of my favourite actors: Dwight Frye, aka. "the Man with the Thousand-Watt Stare". He specialised in mentally unbalanced characters. I first noticed him in Tod Browning's Dracula
and I see he had an unusually big role in The Vampire Bat
(1933), which will have to go on my must-watch list. He died of a heart attack at the age of only 44, incidentally, which is a crying shame since I'd have torn down the walls to see him still around and working in the 1970s.
Then there's the epilogue. It's unnecessary and a bit odd, but it's hardly the "happily ever after" ending I'd for some reason been led to expect. If this is a happy ending, then presumably so would be giving someone 10p for a cup of tea after shooting a hole in his stomach.
This film really surprised me. All that sex and attitude makes its more famous remake look like a cargo-cult imitation when it comes to the storyline, although Huston's a better director than Roy Del Ruth and the 1941
version feels more dangerous. 1931 is a breezier, more streamlined take on the material. Occasionally this trips it up, so for instance it feels more contrived that the dying captain turns up at Sam's offices, but on the other hand I really like the 1931 version of the scene where the police walk in on Spade, Cairo and Wonderly. It's both more surprising and funnier.
The cast are the biggest difference, though. Cortez stinks, but almost everyone else is impressive even if the male villains are clearly less iconic. It's certainly worth seeing, if only for an entire dimension of the film being done properly. Bebe Daniels is a blast and even Cortez manages in his annoying way to capture something Bogart didn't. There's something I like about this Sam Spade.