Posts Tagged ‘John Huston’


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson.  152 minutes. ***

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011).  Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Spoiler warnings should go without saying by now, given that this blog earns its bones by contrasting plot minutiae of multiple movies based on the same source material. But a word to the wise is particularly apt here. These films are procedural mysteries, hinging on buried secrets, horrible revelations, unexpected reversals and horrific crimes against women. If you haven’t read the best-seller by author Stieg Larsson…if you haven’t seen either movie adaptation, but plan to indulge in the future and do not wish exposure to surprises, then this current sentence is the place to stop. So stop. Do not come after us with wrath in mind, especially not if you’re an unstable girl with a vengeful streak and a tattoo needle. Be apprised that it’s more or less impossible to compose intelligent commentary about the first installment of this particular franchise without delving, at least briefly, into the sequels, which are also set up here. We won’t be discussing those in nearly the same level of detail, but, again, if you haven’t indulged and wish a radio blackout, you won’t find it on this blog. If you prefer another topic, either go elsewhere or check out this handy-dandy index of all the other fun stuff we’ve talked about in our first year. We promise, we won’t be upset.

Clear on that?

Fine.

So here’s where we stand. Both these movies are based on a worldwide publishing phenomenon, a trilogy of Swedish novels centered on the tangled backstory of one Lisbeth Salander, a troubled girl whose past includes abuse, wrongful imprisonment, cover-ups at the highest levels of government, rape by authority figures, and her own barely repressed rage. She is a dangerous, asocial genius, suspicious but not incapable of friendship or loyalty. She is almost impossible to fully know but possesses such a knack for inspiring reckless loyalty in those who care about her that, by installment #3, the conspiracy of friends intent on saving her from a government  intent on destroying her oddly seems to outnumber the number of people actively involved in that conspiracy. She is a brilliant computer hacker, a talented thief, and a tough fighter, in addition to being a mathematical prodigy and the secretive user of a totally photographic memory.  She is physically petite, aggressively sexual, a chain-smoker, and defiantly off-putting. Some people, like critic Roger Ebert, have ventured that she might have Asperger’s Syndrome, but that’s not a diagnosis we concur with; she may be anti-social, but she’s too good at reading people for that to be a sensible label for her. Let’s just say that she has good reason to distrust people and to keep the number in her inner circle to an absolute minimum.

All three novels also feature one Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing journalist recently convicted of libel. Blomkvist, a clear stand-in for author Stieg Larsson. Larsson was also a crusading journalist, well-known in Sweden for his exposes of white supremacist groups, and the recipient of one of life’s great terrible breaks when he wrote these novels and died in his early forties before any of them were published, thus doomed to never sit on a airplane, anywhere, and see that one person in four was reading one. He incorporated many elements of his own personality, at least as he saw it, into Blomkvist, which may be one reason why even readers who adore Lisbeth find his character too much to take, in that he’s always juggling several women simultaneously and here breaks through the reserve of a hot, moody chick half his age while also maintaining an active, long-standing affair with another woman whose husband honestly doesn’t mind. 

(Characters who exist as authorial self-flattery are not exactly unknown in fiction – the writer M. Night Shyamalan played in Lady In The Water  was easy to peg as his own —  but it took Star Trek fandom to label them properly; they’re Mary Sues. Mary Sue is the young ensign identical to the author who shows up on the Enterprise bridge, is instantly beloved by all the featured players, has affairs with a number of them and is soon acclaimed as an invaluable member of the crew. Mary Sues are wish-fulfillment, to an often embarrassing degree. They can be uncomfortably self-revelatory when they appear in fan-fiction and downright appalling when they appear in professional prose. Blomkvist can be as hard to take as any, and it needs to be said that Larsson seems to have written all three books believing that he was the star attraction, not quite realizing the degree to which Lisbeth should have been; she spends much of Book Three confined to a hospital while Blomkvist and company race about trying to clear her of murder charges. If there’s anything that the scenarists of both the 2009 and 2011 films seemed to have realized right off is that the obsessive recounting of all the women the man gets to fuck – who include even Harriet Vanger, the girl whose supposed murder and subsequent discovery in hiding are the basis of Dragon Tattoo —  really did need to be brought within bearable dimensions or we’ll hate him.)

In any event, the best of the three novels is the one that only hints at Salander’s full backstory and involves her and Blomkvist in a more-or-less self-contained adventure. (Books 2 and 3, and the swedish films based on same, are really one long, convoluted narrative.) Salander and Blomkvist travel different paths that don’t converge until they meet for the first time at the halfway point.

The recently-disgraced Blomkvist accepts a job offer from retired elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger, to investigate the forty-year-old disappearance and apparent murder of one of the only members of his nasty extended family that he doesn’t despise with cause: niece Harriet,who vanished without a trace during a family gathering.    (The rest of the family, with only a few exceptions, is a nasty collection of ex-Nazis, drunks, crazy people, and assorted cads; any of them could have taken Harriet just out of spite.)

As Blomkvist gradually puts together clues establishing a connection between Harriet’s disappearance and a heretofore-unsuspected series of serial killings going back decades, Salander finds herself contending with a nasty new legal guardian, Nils Bjurman, who sees in the legally-but-far-from-actually incompetent Salander a girl he can blackmail for sexual favors.  He even rapes her, which turns out to be a colossally bad move on his part; she not only captures the crime on video, thus providing herself with blackmail material of her very own, but chains him up, sexually violates him,  and marks him forever with a chest tattoo declaring him a sadistic pig and a rapist.
  
Blomkvist and Salander meet, team up, and go after the serial killer together.

It turns out to be Henrik’s nephew and Harriet’s brother, Martin, picking up a vile trade he learned from his father; Harriet, it turns out, is still alive, having fled the madness and abuse of her family.

That’s the basic outline, but the novel is so complex, with so many twisted relationships and so much backstory – not to mention a couple of choice sexual affairs for Blomkvist before Salander decides she wants to make recreational use of him – that the respective screenplay writers had free choice of what plot elements to keep, and what plot elements to discard. (Strictly speaking, the newer of the two films is clearly less a remake of the first, than another approach to the source material.) It is instructive, therefore to note the choices they made and which ones worked better.

One note: the Swedish films were actually edited-down versions of a television miniseries, unseen by us. It is therefore inevitable that the streamlining decisions we reference with regard to the 2009 film, exceed whatever decisions were made for the somewhat more inclusive TV version. Fine. We are only talking, here, about the 2009 theatrical release. And on, at long last, we go.

Noomi

The Casting And The Dramatization of the Central Relationship

Both films feature quality performances in their galaxy of supporting roles, and it would of course be very possible to fill an article longer than even this one with extensive comparisons on a case-by-case basis; we note that the Swedish Film’s rapist Nils Bjurman is a colder and more frightening figure, while the American film’s is a more imposing one in comparison with its petite Salander; we give the edge to  2009’s Sven-Bertil Taube over 2011’s Christopher Plummer in the key role of Henrik Vanger, that rarest of all mystery characters, the likeable and sincere wealthy industrialist who is not implicated in any crimes. (For a more typical specimen of his breed, see John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown.) Plummer is excellent in his role, but Taube is given somewhat better stuff to do, and is in particular more heartbreaking in the scene where he is reunited with his long-missing niece.
  
The casting of the leads is significantly more critical and makes more of a difference.

As Mikael Blomkvist, 2009’s Michael Nyquist and 2011’s Daniel Craig seem equivalent at first glance; they even look a little alike, though Nyquist looks a little lumpier, more of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation, than Craig does. Craig comes with the baggage of multiple action heroes, including James Bond, a past and future incarnation that makes him seem a little more indestructible than Blomkvist should probably be (even if Craig’s Bond was, like Blomkvist, capable of being driven to despairing tears when death seemed imminent.  The first film’s de-emphasis of Blomkvist as prolific cocksman-around-town also goes well with Nyquist’s less-than-Bondian appearance, and the character’s sincere astonishment when Salander leaps into bed with him. Craig can’t be entirely faulted for this, as actors always bring the baggage left over from their past roles, but it’s still there. In the remake, I particularly miss one scene of many from 2009 that establish his human limitations: i.e., when he hesitates at the wheel of their rental car, confessing to Salander that he hasn’t driven since his divorce. That’s the act of a limited man in danger of being over his head. There’s nothing in the 2011 film to keep you from assuming that Blomkvist couldn’t engage in Bondian car chases if he wanted to.

As Lisbeth Salander, 2009’s Noomi Rapace and 2011’s Rooney Mara play the same notes, but with completely different instruments that achieve much different effects.  Rapace has a lean, angular face, which emphasized all of Salander’s savagery; she’s downright fearsome, especially in the scenes where she takes her revenge on Bjurman and hops on her bike to go after the serial-killing Martin. (There is no doubt, in the earlier film, that when she pursues Martin he is in big fucking trouble, and it feels damned good.) By contrast, Rooney Mara has a much softer, baby-faced appearance; she looks smaller, and more vulnerable, more like a person who has made herself what she is as protective coloration, than one who just became that creature naturally after her life’s many traumas. This is nowhere more visible than in the scenes from both movies where Salander is resentfully dragged into her employer’s conference room to answer the client’s questions about Mikael Blomkvist; Rapace’s Salander is bored, resentful, contemptuous of the need to go through these formalities, and perfectly willing to be rude about it. She makes eye contact, angry eye contact.  During the same meeting, saying the same thing, Mara’s Salander is withdrawn, sullen, hiding her features under a hoodie. These are two different attitudes, two different damaged psychologies. Mara’s performance is a good one, but I give the edge to the original film. Salander shouldn’t be shy. She should be downright feral.

Further screenwriting decisions change the dynamic of the two scenes where Salander and Blomkvist make love for the first time. In 2009, Salander surprises Blomkvist by hopping into bed with him, then by leaving for her own bed without any genuine intimacy as soon as the sex is over. (When I saw the film for the first time, a perceptive fellow theatergoer exclaimed, “Man, now he knows what it’s like to be used!”) We should note that this all takes place immediately after Blomkvist has unintentionally alienated her by noticing her photographic memory, and tried to let her know afterward that he admired it. The sex she initiates is not just an expression of her growing attraction to a man whose decency she has come to recognize,  but is also a defiant declaration: You want to get close to me? This is how close you get – and no farther; it means nothing. A thread is introduced: Blomkvist’s attempt to know, really know, this angrily unknowable woman.

By contrast, in 2011, there are no such mixed signals. There is no immediately prior scene where Salander has reason to be mad at him, no moment where he’s been conciliatory. Salander just initiates sex with Blomkvist because it’s about the point in the story where that would normally happen. But it really comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere until the coda. Again, the advantage here belongs to the 2009 film – where it really would have made sense to include the coda, where Salander happens upon Blomkvist strolling with another lover and storms away, feeling betrayed.

Oddly, the 2009 film, which needed it to set up the sequels where she is so furious at him that she refuses to talk to him even in conditions of dire personal need, omits the coda that establishes the reason for her resentment. The 2011 film, where the same moment feels forced, does not.

It’s not quite a wash. The relationship in the 2009 film feels like a dramatic arc. The same relationship in the 2011 film does not. 

The opening credit sequence of the 2011 version (sans titles)

Other Contrasting Storytelling Decisions

In the novel and the 2011 film, it is not Salander who breaks the missing Harriet’s biblical code. It is Blomkvist’s daughter, who comes by for a visit and sees Harriet’s notations for what they are. The original movie omits Blomkvist’s daughter entirely and presents the cracking of that code as more evidence of Salander’s scary competence. I like the splendid irrelevance of such a key clue being broken by a background character who otherwise doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I also admire the storytelling economy of attributing the same epiphany to Salander. In the end, the moment seems to work a smidgen better in the 2009 version.
 
In both films, Salander loses her trusted laptop to a violent incident in the subway. In 2009, she has a nasty and violent encounter with a bunch of drunks; in 2011, she races up an escalator to retrieve her snatched bag a mugger, then slides down the bannister to get away from him. The 2011 scene is a nice bit of physical business. It is not nearly as upsetting as the 2009 scene, which makes it a lesser scene.

The 2009 version relegates Salander’s relationship with her beloved previous legal guardian – who, by suffering a stroke, delivers her into the brutal hands of Bjurman —  to a mere line of dialogue, which burdens the sequels with the need to introduce him later. The 2011 version has three scenes with him, which serve the intended sequels but slow down this installment considerably.

The novel and the 2009 version both give another reason for Henrik Vanger to hire Blomkvist: he actually met the missing Harriet, when he was a young child and she was his babysitter. At least one major clue turns out to be his misunderstanding of his fragmentary memory from that time. I believe it a neat touch. The 2011 version omits this angle entirely, possibly because the makers thought it a bit much. It’s a wash, I think.

The 2009 version omits the Vanger Corporation’s offer to become partners in Blomkvist’s magazine, Millennium. The 2011 version emphasizes it. It’s an important plot point in the novels, but the 2011 movie is just complicated by it. It needed to go.

The 2009 film is better than the 2011 film in establishing just how Blomkvist pieces together sequential photos of Harriet watching a parade, to establish from her reactions that something across the street frightened her. It is also better at establishing how the two investigators establish the pattern of serial killings from past decades.
  
The novel establishes that, once she and Blomkvist find Harriet Vanger, Salander has nothing but contempt for the woman who spent decades in hiding rather than expose her brother as a rapist and serial killer. This happens to be a very legitimate moral point, one that Salander – who burned the primary abuser in her life – could hardly avoid feeling.  (Blomkvist’s subsequent affair with Harriet in this novel and the immediate sequel – of course he has sex with  Harriet – is yet another reason for Salander’s anger over the next two books.) The 2009 version omits Salander’s moral outrage entirely. The 2011 version has her angrily mutter something about Harriet Fucking Vanger but fails to establish just why she’s angry at the lady: a bizarre exercise in alluding to a point but not actually making it.  

Both films are faced with the necessity to dramatize the story’s anti-climax, where after the scary encounter with serial killer Martin Blomkvist must a) discover the missing Harriet still alive, b) engineer a tearful reunion with Uncle Henrik, c) be handed the evidence against the Wennerstrom Corporation. In the 2009 film, he must also report to serve his prison sentence. In the novel, this prison sentence takes place in the middle of the action; in the 2009 movie, after Blomkvist and Salander solve the Harriet Vanger mystery. The 2011 version omits it entirely.

(It’s not bad in a novel to have a character go away for a prison term in the middle of the action; it can be taken care of in a couple of pages, and establish the passage of time. In the 2009 movie, it helps get Blomkvist out of the way while Salander makes heroic efforts of research on his behalf. (And it adds to the effectiveness original film’s far more elegant compression of the backstory, far superior to the 2011 version’s insistence on showing us every step in Salander’s process.) 

The 2009 movie quite rightly paces everything after the encounter with Martin as a final act, but one that flows, inevitably, to the conclusion; the 2011 film gives us way too much and is so narratively lumpy it feels like the series of climaxes that had audiences revolting at the end of The Return Of The King.  It honestly does not work. Only six minutes longer, it feels almost forty minutes longer than that. On the other hand – since in both the novel and the 2009 film Blomkvist flies off to Australia where he locates Harriet Vanger in hiding – it makes precious little sense in the 2009 film to have the prison sentence delayed until after Blomkvist makes this trip; at least, not if you think the Swedish authorities would have something to say about a convicted felon jetting off to the other side of the world before he serves even one day of his sentence. Wouldn’t they prohibit him from traveling internationally until after he served his time?

The 2011 film is oddly discordant in the scenes where Salander, she of the photographic memory, makes a map documenting the movements of the serial killer. She uses thumbnails of the victims, taped to the map. She is the only one using this map, as she does this research. Why does she need it? After all, it has long been established that her memory is infallible. Is it because she knows that there’s an audience out there that requires the reminder?

Finally, both films take it upon themselves to tell us a major part of Lisbeth Salander’s backstory – her torching of her abusive father – that was not revealed until book 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire. The 2009 version presents us with a fragmentary flashback, hinting at deeper secrets; it is a powerful moment. The 2011 version? She casually reveals the secret in answer to a direct question, while in bed with Blomkvist. It’s almost a joke.

Does the 2011 version do anything substantially better than the 2009 version? Well, it benefits from having a director with a more marked touch with visuals. Certainly, the scenes set in winter feel colder, in terms of both temperature and emotional isolation, than anything from the 2009 film. It’s more adroitly edited. But if you want the version that, to this viewer’s mind, boils a long and lumpy novel into an effective, streamlined cinematic thriller…it’s the 2009 film.

And now, the wife enters, angrily gripping a tattoo needle…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson. 152 minutes. **1/2

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011). Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Over the years, I have listened to many people warble on about how great this movie was, and how I just had to see it.  Or, how incredible this or that book was and since I read books, I just had to read it.  Well, I resisted all the Da Vinci nonsense, but succumbed to my curiosity in respect to the topic under discussion here.  Why!?!?

I’ll actually begin with the book.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an international bestseller and now I know the key to a mystery best selling novel.  Write a so-so mystery , not too tough for the average fella and then drop dead(or get killed).  The so called mystery with all the red herrings is just too easy for words.  I had it tied up before Salander makes it to the Vanger enclave.  I continued to plod on for fear that the writer may have a true surprise waiting, but alas, disappointed again!

As for either film, I prefer the 2009 original for its fealty to the book, but the bits left out still really diminish the characters.  The 2011 version seems to dote on the plot bits and diminish the characters.  Neither is satisfying as a visual meal, but either is preferable to an Adam Sandler comedy film fest.

Let’s try to remember, Blomkvist is a horndog , Salander is a psychotic genius and Vanger is a manipulative old man.  These are the meat from which these sandwiches were made, but somehow they are all served stale and cold.

  

 

 

 


When your partner’s killed, you’re supposed to do something about it

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Maltese Falcon aka Dangerous Female (1931). Directed by Roy del Ruth. Written by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. 80 minutes. **

Satan Met A Lady (1936). Directed by William Dieterle. Screenplay by  Henry Blanke, based on “a novel” (note formulation) by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Bette Davis, Warren William, and Arthur Treacher. 74 minutes. *

The Maltese Falcon (1941). Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. 101 minutes. ****

*
This is it, people. This is the tops, the coliseum, the test case, one of two film franchises (the other being The Wizard Of Oz), that provide the strongest counter-argument to the facile kneejerk refrain that remakes always suck. Surprise: sometimes they’re not only better than the films that came before them, but so influential, so iconic and so definitive that any previous attempts to wade in those waters are reduced to trivia-question answers.

That’s literally what happened here. In the face of the classic 1941 version, the mere existence of 1931 and 1936 films based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was considered so bizarre that it was once cited in an installment of Ripley’s Believe Or Not!, alongside the tribes with the twelve-inch earlobes and the guy with the curving four-foot fingernails. That’s where I first heard of the two previous films, years ago; and I still find them treated with the same kind of awed disbelief, most frequently on internet lists of movies that you can’t possibly believe were remakes. Few people retain the information, even though one special DVD set of The Maltese Falcon (1941) includes The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met A Lady (1936) among its extras; a fine buy, though I presume that few people who spend the money on that particular set will make it through both of the two prior versions and that those who do will almost certainly not do so more than once. They’re that inferior to the classic all film buffs remember.

One frequently-cited legend about the classic film’s production claims that John Huston, maker of the final and definitive version, received Dashiell Hammett’s novel as his first directorial assignment and, prior to writing the screenplay, told a secretary at the studio to type up all the book’s dialogue for his reference. Reportedly, she finished the job and placed the stack on his desk, where it sat until a mogul spotted it, read it, and declared it one of the finest screenplays he had ever read.

The story is often used to illustrate the wisdom of “sticking with the book,” instead of just making up any old thing, which the prior versions allegedly hadn’t. The anecdote does have some basis in truth, but is a wild oversimplification of the reasons the 1941 film achieved immortality while the 1931 and 1936 films didn’t. In fact, the 1931 version pretty much stuck to the book too, it even used much of the same dialogue, just as verbatim, for the most part departing from Hammett’s text in only minor ways (as well as some that now strike us as howlers). Even the 1936 version, which improbably played the same essential plot as a screwball comedy, is still capable of startling today in the frequent places where Hammett’s voice, drowning beneath all the tomfoolery, bubbles to the surface for a line or two before being dragged back under. The Huston screenplay is clearly the best, but the story is still there, in both prior cases. Other factors come into play, negatively in the case of the first two and brilliantly in the case of the third.

All three films present us with a private detective, Sam Spade in 1931 and 1941, and Ted Shane in 1936, who is so very good at manipulating the bad guys that he’s never really in any danger. He has a partner that he doesn’t respect very much, and might even hate, who is married to a woman with whom our hero once had a loveless affair – and who would happily resume canoodling with him, were he still at all interested. A beautiful client comes to the office with money, a man she needs tailed, and a cock-and-bull story that both detectives see through at once. Our hero’s partner, intent on making time with a pretty lady, snatches the client and goes off with her, to shadow her suspicious character.

In all three films the partner is subsequently murdered, and our hero isn’t all that broken up about it. He didn’t like the guy. He’s more concerned when he finds himself a prime suspect in the subsequent killing of the likely shooter, the man his client wanted tailed.

Even then our hero doesn’t seem all that worried about being a murder suspect, or concerned that at least one of the cops working the case hates him on principle and would love to see him fry. He asks the pretty client what’s up, finds her frightened and evasive, agrees to continue “helping her,” and in very short order finds himself in the middle of a small crowd of her criminal associates, all of whom are vying for ownership of a legendary priceless artifact that been passed from owner to owner for centuries.

Not only the toughest man in the room but also the smartest, our hero detective plays the various bad guys against one another with nothing but the sheer force of his personality, in what (given the subsequent revelation that he’s almost certainly known who killed his partner since the moment he first laid eyes on the body), amounts the same kind of sadistic pleasure a cat takes in torturing mice.

In the end, the artifact turns out to be a fake, our hero clears his name, and the lady goes to prison for murder.

This  backstory is as contrived a set-up as could possibly be imagined, but that doesn’t matter. As an object of legend, the Maltese Falcon could just as easily be The Lost Ark or The Holy Grail or a really really valuable signed baseball card or even the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction; the obsessive recounting of its backstory provides the sense that these obsessed people have lived with its legend for decades, but frankly would serve the same purpose if the story and the artifact were something else (as they indeed are in Satan Met A Lady).  In story terms, it really is no more than what Alfred Hitchcock would come to call a MacGuffin, the object that is important only in that the it drives the characters in their obsession. What matters is not getting the treasure, but what the characters are willing to do in pursuit of that treasure. And how our hero detective reveals himself while foiling them.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

This first version, which for decades was frequently shown on television as Dangerous Female, can be difficult to watch today, mostly because the performances and characterizations of the John Huston take have so completely colonized our imaginations that any line reading that differs at all from that one is difficult to not see as “off.” Still, it’s faithful enough, so much so that it could be played alongside Huston’s for those interested in a scene-by-scene comparison.

The natural conclusion is that it didn’t work as well, in no small part because it’s not filmed with nearly as much imagination. This is in part because this early in the age of sound, cameras didn’t glide and swoop and follow the actors around as freely as they would only a few years later; they mostly sat in one place and watched what happened, without calling special attention to the story details that merited tighter focus. (This was indeed a regression from the silents of only a couple of years earlier; cameras in those days could make noise while they moved, without anybody worrying about disturbing any important dialogue. Sound pictures had not yet figured out how to compensate.)

But that’s not even the major problem.

The problem is the characterization of Sam Spade.

In the novel, and in all three movie versions, the most startling element of our tough detective’s personality is his utter lack of upset at the news of his partner’s murder. He didn’t like the guy. He had slept with the guy’s wife. He is seemingly unbothered when the guy is killed.

But he honestly doesn’t have to be jolly about it.

You only have to see six seconds of Ricardo Cortez’s performance to see that it’s all wrong. Literally. Six seconds does it.

This Sam Spade is a grinning fool. He flashes his white teeth and projects a deep, off-putting self-satisfaction, communicating not just nonchalance but enjoyment of the events that follow. He betrays no fury. And when he turns in Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), there’s no indication of any passion deeper than amusement. As a result, his story seems to reach little emotional climax, a far cry from the shattering last few minutes filmed by Huston. Nor does this Sam Spade seem to have any internal life; he recites the lines the screenplay requires of him and does the things his Sam Spade is supposed to do, but never seems to be listening to anybody else. He just meets his marks, recites his dialogue, grins a lot, and lets the film run out. The story doesn’t seem to matter.

The arrest of Ruth Wonderly (who in this version never reveals that she’s really named Brigid O’Shaughnessy) has such little affect on screen that another scene is added to compensate for it: Spade visiting his scheming femme fatale in prison to offer her some “good news.” Now, when the private eye responsible for your conviction, who also happens to have been your lover, shows up with “good news,” it just might bode well for your sentence; and the promise brightens Ruth’s day for all of about ten seconds until Spade reveals that he’s now working full-time for the District Attorney’s office!

No wonder another term for Private Detective is “Dick.”

Bogart’s Spade might have done just this to Mary Astor’s Brigid, but it would have been because he was capable of jaw-dropping cruelty and might have wanted to twist the knife a little more. He wouldn’t have done it, as this Spade does, because he’s so blind he actually thinks she might celebrate the turn in his professional fortunes. (As if not content with that cringe-worthy awfulness, the scene gives us even more; Spade leaves the sobbing in her cell and stops by the matron, telling her to make sure Ruth gets “whatever she wants” during her long prison stay – extra food, clothing, etc. – and that the District Attorney’s office will pay for it. In short, he’s such a dick that he makes this gesture of personal kindness…and then sends the city the bill. Eat me, Spade.)

It’s no surprise that this scene takes place nowhere in Hammett’s novel, which indeed ends with Spade shuddering as the widow of his murdered partner Miles Archer is ushered into his office. Many close followers of the character, who appeared in a handful of short stories and no other novel, believe that he survived this passage by a mere matter of minutes, as she was there to shoot him dead. I happen to believe it myself. An ending where Sam Spade sells out to a municipal authority he reviles and sticks the D.A.’s office with the bill for candies for his imprisoned sweetie is not any kind of poetic improvement.

Also ill-advised: a scene at the very beginning, establishing that Spade’s doomed partner Miles Archer (Walter Long) has learned about his wife’s infidelity and is itching to confront Spade about it. This was, I think, there because of fears that the audience might have failed to register the affair otherwise. It’s a bad change. The scowling man who enters the office he shares with Spade would not then be so jolly and blithe about taking Ruth Wonderly on as client…and even if he was, he would surely wait no longer than her departure from the office to bring up what he’s clearly burning to say. You could argue that there is such a confrontation, off-screen. And I can argue that if it happened, it changes the dynamic between the two men completely, and that we need to see it.  Because we don’t see it, I refuse to believe it happened…and that renders hideous the implication that it should. Miles Archer makes a hell of a lot more sense as a guy who has absolutely no idea that his partner Sam Spade has nothing but contempt for him, and has indeed slept with the wife who feels the same way.

What does the film have to recommend it? Recognizing as we must that none of the principal players are as good as the ones Huston later brought to the table, and that the lead is in fact much worse, a few are genuinely praiseworthy.  Dudley Digges is not as formidable a Casper Gutman, in size or in gravitas, as Sydney Greenstreet, but he brings a ridiculousness to Gutman’s treasure hunt that fits the story. There’s a nice running gag involving his infatuation with Spade’s phrase, “Fall Guy,” which he repeats multiple times with awed delight, each time putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. (He also has a hilarious comb-over.) Also notable is the era’s designated supporting creep, Dwight Frye, as the “gunsel,” Wilmer Cook: he doesn’t get nearly enough to do in this version, but his slow burn at Spade’s abuse is one of the best things in this film.

The movie was a minor hit for Warner Brothers, just before the repressive Production Code would have prohibited some of its sexual innuendo and the brief shot of Bebe Daniels in Spade’s bathtub. Only a couple of years later, this mild raciness was enough to prevent the film’s re-release, and pave the way for version number two.

(And, not to put too fine a point on it, we do mean “Number Two.”)


Satan Met A Lady (1936)

About the greatest favor this second  version did posterity is change the name of its private detective from Sam Spade to Ted Shane and the fabulously valuable object everybody wants from the Maltese Falcon to the Horn of Roland. Any resemblance to the original story is painful enough as it is, but any pretense that its hero is actually, literally, the same guy Dashiell Hammett created and Humphrey Bogart transformed into a screen icon is worse than mere irritation; it’s sacrilege. The name change and the disguised MacGuffin insulates us from that, a little. Not enough, but a little.

Even the movie seems to recognize this. It is the only one of the three that doesn’t trumpet its connection to Dashiell Hammett’s well-regarded novel. Instead, the credits say it’s based on “a novel” by Dashiell Hammett. Isn’t that oddly vague? Do you think they were a little sheepish over the changes they had made, the wreckage they had wrought?

In any event, the first of the problems is that Ted Shane is not just jolly, even in the face of his partner’s murder, but downright manic. This is the kind of guy who takes one woman out on a date and asks another to meet him, while in the presence of the first; he proceeds straight from the body of the man he partnered with back to a nightclub for more posh gaiety. Warren William, who plays him, was actually a well-respected actor, but his performance here is mannered, and the character he plays obnoxious beyond belief, to the point that he seems not just self-satisfied but a solipsism; he exists in his own head, with his own musical soundtrack, and his own close-ups, not giving a damn about anything else as long as he can have his fun from one second to the next. Hammett aside, a character like that can work; surely, Groucho Marx made it work. But it’s hard to forget that a man Shane knew died, and he should be taking it at least a little bit seriously. He certainly shouldn’t be doing what he does here, which includes, at one point, reacting to a gun in his face by grabbing a door frame and swinging from it like a monkey, while whooping like a clown.

Bette Davis, the most-remembered of the film’s stars, felt the same way, writing in her autobiography, “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 was suspended because of her attitude and resentfully returned to work three days later. She needn’t have worried. She did, eventually, receive more parts commensurate with her proven ability. But this film does not shine brightly in a career that continued to command memorable roles until she was a very old woman.

The most remarkable thing about her role in the film is that her character seems to recognize, throughout, just how insanely irritating Shane is, and indeed “wins,” in a sense, given that that the confrontation scene takes place on a train and she is able to evade him long enough to surrender herself to a maid in order to deny him the reward. This is a happy ending for her, I guess. It’s bad enough to go to prison for life, but if you have to go to prison for life and know that this putz profited from it, you might as well hang yourself in your cell.

In place of “Fat Man” Casper Gutman, Satan Met A Lady gives us a fat woman, Madame Barrabas (Alison Skipworth), who is here not a scheming art collector surrounded by a bunch of eccentrics and reprobates, but a kind of female super-villain, who Shane describes as well-known to detectives throughout the world. Golly. Shane’s mutually affectionate first conversation with her is really the only time, in the entire movie, that his flirting with every woman in eyesight is as charming as intended. Madame’s alleged worldwide notoriety, discussed at length while she’s petting a kitten, may be the origin of the film cliché that obliges so many evil masterminds to pet their felines while discussing their vile plans. Her version of the “gunsel” Wilmer, Kenneth (Maynard Holmes) is effeminate in a manner entirely different than the character played in 1931 by Dwight Frye and in 1941 by Elisha Cook Jr.; he’s deadly, but he’s also infantile, and is seen at one point cooing over the same cat, utterly lost in his communion with it. Shane abuses this loser by straddling him and pulling his beret down over his face.

The Joel Cairo analogue is an affected briton played by Arthur Treacher (yes, he of the fish and chips). He has a nice bit involving trying to help Shane straighten up his apartment after a thorough search has trashed it, and indeed represents the film’s finest moment as he delivers extended exposition while fussing, obsessively, over a lampshade.

Of course, it’s a sign of the film’s awfulness that this is a high point.

It also needs to be said that for the scene to work at all, Shane must be so incapable of taking anything at all seriously that he cannot express anger even after thugs have invaded his home and trashed all his belongings. The closest we come to feeling sympathy for him, at any point, is concurring with his frustration at just how long it takes Treacher to come to the point. Shane is in this movie, and he’s bored with it.

These are not improvements.

Incidentally, all three movies share the somewhat laughable device of the story’s major developments not only being reported in the newspaper, but displayed in banner headlines on the front page. However, this is the only one that gets around to suggesting that one previous victim of its priceless object’s long and bloody history was, I quote, “a vampire.” (There’s a logical explanation; back then, it was in addition to a word meaning supernatural bloodsucker also a word that could be applied to seductive women. Too bad. An actual  vampire could have only improved this mess.)
  
Bosley Crowther, the critic in residence at the New York Times, ultimately put it best when he wrote, “So disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s incidents, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in constant expectation of seeing a group of uniformed individuals appear suddenly from behind the furniture and take the entire cast into protective custody.”  It was, not surprisingly, a bomb.

Five years passed.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

A screenwriter with no previous directing experience but with ambitions of moving into the boss’s chair got his first assignment, the go-ahead to make the third version of the story in only ten years.

He was so disrespected that the first major star he approached, George Raft, turned it down rather than work with such an untested kid.

He had to go with a guy then high on the B-list, Humphrey Bogart.

But John Huston was the one that finally got it right, the one that not only cemented entire careers but also initiated an entire genre, Film Noir.

Is it just, as legend has it, that his film was made by somebody who finally trusted the story?

No. As we’ve seen, the 1931 version also trusted the story, for the most part; and even the 1936 version followed much of its outline, and used much of its dialogue – admittedly, under a farrago of insane characterizations and clownish behavior, but still closely enough that Hammett’s story could be recognized.

Nor is it just that nebulous quantity, “star power.” To be sure, everybody in the film is perfectly cast, from Bogart as the cynical Spade to Elisha Cook Jr. as the put-upon but still dangerous Wilmer, but  great casts have made shitty movies before, even when trying hard. It may be that the most primal element here is simply understanding the story more. This is most true of the movie’s linchpin, Bogart. This Spade may be cold and dismissive of his late partner’s memory, reacting to a cop’s claim that the poor guy must have had some fine qualities with a bored “I guess”…and he may not wait until after the body’s cold to have the dead man’s name removed from his office door…but unlike the protagonists of the first two versions, he doesn’t actually laugh about it. He clearly knows it’s serious business, even if he’s not enough a hypocrite to pretend that he’s broken up about it.

It’s also worth noting that unlike Ricardo Cortez, who simply speaks his lines and seems to go dead until it’s time for him to emote again, Bogart does something many actors fail to do and listens; he thinks;  he pays attention to what’s going around him and shows moments of dismay, of fury, of wry amusement and even – in the final confrontation with Brigid – of despairing self-recognition, even when it’s not time for him to talk.

Bogart understands the character so well that when Spade comforts a sobbing Mrs. Archer with sweet talk and tells her to go home, it is possible to see not just dishonestly he’s manipulating her, and just how clearly he takes satisfaction in it, but also – behind all that – a thin taste of self-loathing at his own duplicity. All of this was inherent in the story, but it was up to an actor who could inhabit it, and not simply speak the lines, to give it a depth deeper than the surface. It’s the main reason I’d stake this performance against any number of complacent modern-day viewers who have told me, in recent years, that they loathe Bogart because he “couldn’t act” or, at best, “always played the same character;” it’s not true, and perhaps even more than Casablanca, this film is Exhibit A.

Similarly, Mary Astor’s Brigid is not just a liar, but to our eyes a bad liar, somebody Spade can clearly see through and simultaneously just as clearly be intrigued by. The storytelling is so clear that when I saw it for the first time, in a packed college auditorium almost forty years later, the cynical members of my audience laughed derisively at her lame dissembling – thinking it a dated aspect of the movie – and then cheered with delighted recognition when Spade, who was just as unfooled, told her, “You’re good.”

Contemporary censors were concerned about intimations of homosexuality regarding both Cairo and Wilmer (and, by implication, Gutman), enough to tell Huston to play it down. (Indeed, the introduction of the Production Code may be the reason the 1936 Cairo was not an obvious homosexual, but a British twit.) It really isn’t all that important a story element, even if Hammett valued it enough in his original novel to have Spade repeatedly call Wilmer a “gunsel,” which many readers took to mean gun-wielding thug but actually means a younger man kept by an older one. The memo Huston received from the studio advised him to take steps to make sure that Cairo wasn’t so obviously a (forgive me, it’s their word) “pansy.” But the element is still there in Lorre’s performance, and in Elisha Cook’s.

Cook, in particular (who actually shares his character’s last name), inhabits the part of a not-very-formidable punk who probably spent his entire childhood being kicked around, and made himself a killer in order to compensate, but is still preternaturally sensitive to any slight or insult.

There is similar great work from Lorre, of whom no praise is sufficient, and Sydney Greenstreet, who may have been the damnedest movie star of his era. Hell, it’s true of everybody. The cast has no weak links. Everybody understood the characters they were playing; nobody phoned it in.

Just as importantly, the film is brilliantly directed.

This is harder to see, mostly because John Huston’s hand is so unobtrusive. The camera moves more than we notice it does, pulling in to emphasize bits of business, panning to follow characters, finding humor in places like Spade’s disarming of Wilmer in the hotel corridor. It is also always positioned for the greatest possible effect. Nowhere does this present e clearer contrast than in the scene where the two homicide cops show up at Spade’s apartment door and ask to come in, at a moment when Spade would prefer to hide the presence of Brigid and Cairo, inside. In the 1931 version, Spade’s conversation with the cops is a medium shot, filmed from the corridor; it’s just three guys talking. In the 1941 version, it’s a much tighter shot filmed from over Spade’s shoulder, rendering vivid the sense that he’s a barrier preventing those hostile presences from coming in. He looks more threatened by them. And we feel him being more threatened by them.

This command of the film’s visual language extends to often filming the massive Greenstreet from a low angle, thus accentuating his bulk and making him seem more mountain than man. It extends to a mastery of black and white cinematography that slices the screen with shadows and stresses both the precariousness of Spade’s situation and the moral murkiness of the waters he must swim. It finally extends to the final shot, in which he watches Brigid in custody being shuttled down in his building’s elevator, and then, inexorably, takes the stairs to follow her. She’s heading for hell. So is he, only a little bit slower.

Are there flaws? Sure, there are flaws. Every time I see it, I wish that John Huston had resisted prefacing the action with that damned opening text crawl, explaining the history of the Maltese Falcon long before Gutman gets around to explicating it at greater length; it adds nothing, and in fact dilutes a key element of the mystery before we need it explained. (It’s a flaw shared with many science fiction films, that have similar text crawls telling us more than we really need to know up front, for fear that we won’t stick around long enough for the same information to arrive more naturally; see, for instance, Dark City.)  I also deeply wish that if we had to get that opening text, it had been composed by somebody who knew what the hell a comma was for and where not to put it in a sentence. I also think it distinctly odd that Spade can lift Cairo’s handkerchief to his nose and discern the precise scent, without ever taking the cigarette out of his mouth. But, you know? That’s about it. Everything else is as close to magic as movies ever get.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

1931 version, a well-meaning but largely flat adaptation. 1936 version, a jaw-dropping travesty. 1941 version, one of the greatest movies ever made, and clear rebuttal to the argument that remakes always suck.

*

And now, the wife stumbles into the office, carrying a tightly-wrapped bundle from Hong Kong…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Maltese Falcon aka Dangerous Female (1931). Directed by Roy del Ruth. Written by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. 80 minutes. *

Satan Met A Lady (1936). Directed by William Dieterle. Screenplay by Henry Blanke, based on “a novel”(note formulation) by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Bette Davis and Warren William. 74 minutes. *

The Maltese Falcon (1941). Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. 101 minutes. ****

Let me begin by saying I have never read anything by Dashiell Hammett.  Not that I haven’t wanted to, just one of those cases where the stuff just ain’t on the top of my must-read pile.

That said, the 1941 Bogie Maltese Falcon is one of my top 25 films of all time. (Someday I’ll share my full list, but for now content yourselves with knowing that Bogie reappears on the best list more times than any other actor including Spencer Tracy).

So, as we discussed this essay, I was kinda excited to get to see how this classic had been interpreted by two earlier film teams.  

Boyyyy!!!   Oyyyy!    Was I ever sorry.

The first try was a valiant attempt to interpret a pretty murky story.  Nothing horrible for the most part, just no umph, no feeling that anyone involved actually got it.  And sin of all sins!!!!!! They had to go for a softer, gentler ending.  Not altogether happy, but definitely counter to the character development up to that point. So , they blew try numero uno.

Then, some brainiac said, lets make a screwball comedy out of this property.  Ummm… drink much, mister studio guy?    Even I know, a great hardline detective story would be robbed of its power if you lighten it up.  No amount of star power(Bette Davis) could save this shipwreck of a film.  The idea of a comedy is to be funny.  Ok, I get that.  screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, His Gal Friday, I get screwball comedy, just not in Satan Met A Lady.  If by screwball or comedy they meant the detective’s so called antics, then these folks needed to be tied to a chair and made to watch some silent classics of comedy for the stunts and early patter for the script.  Geesh guys,  how wrong can ya go?!

Then, out of options, the real film got made.  No one believed in the cast, director or script, so it was the perfect chance to get it right.  Woo Hoo!!!!  This classic fits the title of classic film noir.  Lighting, staging, camera work  all done to perfection.  The characters acted with restraint and still very much living breathing souls.  No happy clean up, no guy gets girl, no money from heaven…just a tight tale of greed and manipulation in the big city.  Wow!  I can’t see it enough.

So, am I a bit biased in my review. Probably.  Do I care?  Not a whit!  I just say for your own sanity.  Don’t be a completist in this case, just be happy with the 1941 version of this great tale and let the others drop back into the vaults of obscurity forever, never to be missed.