Posts Tagged ‘Peter Lorre’


Keep Your Mouth Shut, Or Say Goodbye to the Kid

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. **

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

You and your family are on holiday abroad. You are intent on having a good time and minding your own business, but a mortally wounded secret agent warns you of an assassination plot threatening the stability of the entire world. Naturally, you resolve to tell the authorities…but before you can the bad guys kidnap your child and threaten murder if you ever tell the police what you know. All you have left is your own resources, your own determination to get that child back…and an imminent rendezvous at a concert in  London’s Royal Albert Hall, where an assassin’s bullet has been scheduled to coincide with a climactic clash of cymbals.

This is the dilemma that faces the protagonists of the only story Alfred Hitchcock ever saw fit to revisit, the two Men Who Knew Too Much; two very different films similar in plot outline and much more than “similar” in the Albert Hall sequences that mark the high points of both, but which are in other ways quite different. Hitch himself told Francois Truffaut that the first film was the work of a talented amateur and that the second was the work of a seasoned professional; he is not wrong about that, even though both are second-tier work, missing the subtext and psychological richness that mark the best of the suspense master’s output. It’s safe to say that without the master’s name on it, the first would now be totally forgotten if not the presence of the great character actor, Peter Lorre; and that the second, fun as it is, would likely not be remembered all that much more. (Sorry; even as lightweight Hitch goes, it’s certainly no North by Northwest.) But as far as originals and remakes go, they make a deeply instructive pair, because a side-by-side comparison demonstrates the best possible reason to make a remake in the first place: i.e. fixing what was, initially, wanting.

Lorre

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) presents us with Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best), a British couple on vacation in St. Moritz. Jill is a competitive-level skeet-shooting champion; she misses her shot here, but her skill is established, and anybody who wants to know whether this will eventually be a story point should recall the maxim once posed by Anton Chekhov. The first thing worth noting here is that while kids in jeopardy are a long-standing tradition in movies, kids in jeopardy can be annoying when they almost die stupidly, and Betty gets on our crap list right away when she chases a weiner dog – which we take to be hers, though it is never seen again – onto a ski-jump slope, and comes within a few feet of being mowed down by a skier in competition. (Given Hitch’s later fame for staging elaborate and persuasive set-pieces, it’s worth noting that the near-accident is presented as unconvincingly a product of stock footage, a reaction shot, and the editing room, as anything you are ever likely to see in a Hitchcock film ever again; this in part because it’s a low-budget film from the very early days of sound, and in part because Hitch was, as he later admitted, still learning his craft). 

It is also worth noting that Bob and Jill feel like place-holders instead of characters. We are invited to root for them because the camera is on them, not because either one of them does anything to make us fall in love. Bob pulls what is allegedly a neat trick involving his daughter’s knitting, which he hooks onto the tux of a man dancing with Jill, so it unravels during the waltz and tangles everybody on the dance floor in twine…but the moment is pure movie hokum; it’s impossible to believe that the dancers would all fail to notice that this was happening, for as long as they do. And there is absolutely no sense, aside from the natural assumption, that this couple has any real affection for their child, until that child is kidnapped; there simply isn’t any real chemistry between spouses or between parents and child.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that even by the standards of the era, where some actors seemed to have used their cigarettes as substitutes for actually giving a performance, it’s downright cringe-worthy to see star Banks take a deep drag and deliver his next line with a big, white cloud of toxicity puffed directly into his little girl’s face, at what amounts to point-blank range. Betty doesn’t seem to mind much. The actress, Nova Pilbeam, retired from show biz only a few years later but is is apparently still alive, her iron constitution providing a terrific defense against second-hand smoke.)

The subsequent assassination of the secret agent makes little sense even by the flexible physics of Hitchcock movies. The bullet, evidently fired by a sniper outside the building, cracks a window, its trajectory carrying it over a very crowded dance floor with other bodies in every direction, and then manages to hit the secret agent in the chest even though – I cannot possibly stress this enough – even though he is at the moment dancing with Jill and any bullet striking him in that spot would have had to go through her first. It is in short such a magic bullet that the one responsible for hitting President Kennedy and Governor John Connolly is revealed as a muggle bullet by comparison. We will forgive the happenstance that has it piercing the agent’s chest UNDER his tuxedo without making a hole in that tuxedo; the logic of bullet holes was extremely loose at this point in film history, and if we started to complain about that one we’d have to complain about all the others and would probably be here all day. Still, the moment doesn’t work at all.

Following Betty’s subsequent kidnapping by the bad guys, the action moves to London, where in between bouts of dramatic cigarette smoking, Bob decides to investigate the assassination plot himself, and (because this movie is only 75 minutes long), finds the conspirators right away, through a visit to a creepy dentist. There is some goofy nonsense involving a “Church of the Sun,” which manages to hypnotize Betty’s monocled twit of an Uncle, but for our purposes the important part has to do with Bob’s almost immediate capture by the bad guys, who have him in custody and ENTIRELY ineffective for most of the rest of the film.  Led by droopy-eyed, cigarette-smoking Peter Lorre – they naturally spend this time blowing smoke in his face. (Lorre’s filmic output consists of many great films like M and Casablanca and The Mask of Dimitrios and The Maltese Falcon and Mad Love and Arsenic and Old Lace where he gave performances by, you know, brilliant acting, and a couple of others like this one and the tv version of Casino Royale where he substituted his cigarette; he is profoundly creepy here as always, but really, the cigarette is being asked to do far too much of the work.)

The climax is an all-out assault by cops where Bob accomplishes almost nothing – the very model of the ineffective hero.  (Jill’s skeet-shooting does come into play, however, a twist telegraphed for almost the entire length of the movie that nevertheless got outright applause at the one repertory theatre showing where I saw it, years ago.)

Is there anything to recommend the film to earn it its unlikely reputation as a classic? Well, yes; the Albert Hall sequence, where the leadup to an attempted assassination is set against a classical music piece, while Jill sits helplessly in the audience. It is a remarkably effective and suspenseful interlude, the one thing here that would lead any viewer to think that this young Hitchcock fellow might indeed have a future. But even there, there’s an astonishing gap in logic. The point is made, following the non-fatal shooting of the foreign dignitary, that the concert resumes after a slight delay, even though the assassin has not yet been caught. This is a line of unnecessary passing dialogue that doesn’t really affect the plot at all, but…umm, what? Does this follow any real-world behavior you recognize?

But that brings us to the remake, which is in very small part an exercise in brilliantly re-staging that scene and providing it with a surrounding story that is somewhat more worthy of it.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The second The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is separated from the first by two decades, a generation’s worth of technical advances, a clearly superior budget, and the increased clout of its superstar director. Make no mistake: it is still not a great film. Hitchcock did make other great films in this decade, among them the other James Stewart vehicles Vertigo and Rear Window;  this was merely a solid thrill ride, with little in the way of resonance beyond the doings on screen. (And even as such, not nearly as fun as North by Northwest.) But as a story, it works substantially better, for a number of reasons.

To start with, it’s visually far more sumptuous. The black-and-white cinematography of the original is not particularly special, except in moments. The 1956 film is never less than gorgeous, even during scenes set in Morocco that clearly employ rear-screen projection and other artifices easy to discern by a sophisticated modern eye.

It’s also better storytelling. It actually takes time to get us to know its two leads, Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart, Doris Day), an American doctor and his somewhat retired stage actress wife. We learn that they have an easy familiarity, that Jo has a somewhat more refined bullshit sensor than Ben, and that Ben has an amiable awkwardness about him, here shown in his discomfort with Moroccan table manners, that instantly humanizes him and makes him more than a generic thriller hero.

Doris Day gets a lot of crap for her performance as Jo, and particularly for her two renditions of her signature song “Que Sera, Sera,” – a ditty that strikes many modern ears like nails on a blackboard – but, your opinion of the song aside, look at how it’s used as storytelling. We see Jo singing the song while making the bed for her son Hank…who happily joins in to sing a verse on his own. There is strong story value in this moment. You know at once that she’s sung this song for her son many times, and that he takes an uncomplicated, unembarrassed joy in singing it with her. An entire childhood is sketched in with this one unremarkable demonstration of a parent/child relationship. The song comes up again – irritating its detractors still further – at the climax, when Jo uses an impromptu embassy party performance to signal her captive son that she is in the building and looking for him; it is also pure hokum, but it is hokum based on character, a climax that is therefore infinitely more satisfying than the one in the original, where the lair of the villains is stormed by police and Bob Lawrence accomplishes little before being knocked out beyond freeing  his daughter from a locked room.
    
The gradual entrapment of Ben and Jo into the espionage plot is a lot better established than in the original. In this version, it turns out that spy Louis Bernard sought out the McKennas because he has reason to believe a vacationing couple might be involved in the assassination plot he’s investigating. As it happens, he has mistaken the pair for the actual culprits, the Draytons…who in turn note how familiar the Mckennas are with Bernard and assume that they’re associated with him.  It’s a wildly unfortunate series of coincidences that gets the McKennas in trouble, but then coincidences are perfectly fine as plot devices when they make matters worse. They’re only unacceptable when they make matters better. The net that gradually draws around the McKennas in the first half hour of the film is a perfectly acceptable evocation of the capriciousness of fate, and works quite well at setting up the conflict – best of all during the scene where a mortally wounded Bernard, who’s disguised as a street arab, staggers through a crowded market toward the man he knows to be a doctor, who will not be able to help him. The moment where his false brown skin color comes off Stewart’s hands is downright horrifying in its subtext: a visually compelling cue for the danger being passed from one man to another.

Every element of the story is improved. In the original, when Jill finds out that her daughter has been kidnapped, she turns away, dazed; she looks downright stoned, and it’s such a terribly designed scene that it’s difficult to empathize with her. In the 1956 scene, physician Ben tells Jo that he has something to tell her, which he will only impart if she does what he says and takes a pill he has offered her. It is a sedative, which he has prescribed to lessen her shock. Even with the sedative, she is downright hysterical. The scene speaks on more than one level: Ben’s cold-blooded practicality in a crisis, Jo’s tremendous love for her son, the size of the hole that’s just been ripped in their lives.

The plot even works better when the movie moves to London. In the original, when Ben decides to go after the kidnappers himself, the piece of paper he has picked up from the dying spy leads him directly to a dentist affiliated with their conspiracy. The dentist may be creepy, and Bob’s encounter with him effective enough, but the lead still seems too easy; almost spoon-fed. The remake addresses this by sending Ben on a wild goose chase to confront a hapless taxidermist named Ambrose Chapell, who clearly knows nothing of the conspiracy…when he should be visiting a house of worship named Ambrose Chapel, instead. It’s a funny, frustrating, and suspenseful interlude, raising the possibility that Ben’s independent investigation might end before it begins. Best of all, it defuses what would otherwise be an overpowering sense that everything here happens just a little too conveniently.

The set piece at Royal Albert Hall is largely a shot-by-shot remake of its counterpart in the prior film, but even it works better, in part because Hitchcock plays more visual tricks, among them visual tracking of the musical notation as the orchestra proceeds toward the fatal crash of cymbals. It is lusher, more visually enchanting, scarier, and in part even funnier (thanks to the special attention paid to the guy whose job in that orchestra is to sit there quietly, bored out of his mind, until the time comes to bang those cymbals together).  You may note that Bernard Herrmann, the composer whose famous scores included the famous one for Psycho, plays the conductor – and is even identified on-screen as himself, a bit of meta-humor that he likely appreciated.

We will also note that the scene has been improved dramatically, as well. In the original, Jill silently pieces together the assassination to come while sitting in one of the seats; here, Jo stands at the rear of the auditorium, clearly not part of the audience, her discomfort palpable until it becomes unbearable and she is left silently weeping, utterly lost over what to do. You may, like many, hate the two performances of “Que Sera, Sera,” and indeed it’s not unfair to call Day a mediocre actress at best, but she still acts the living hell out of this particular scene. In a career that was largely dominated by lightweight comedies of no particular memorability – and which she ultimately walked away from in disgust, following horrific mismanagement of her finances and her thespic options by a manager/husband who was either totally oblivious to her desires or downright contemptuous of them – these are likely the best few minutes she would ever have on film.

James Stewart made four movies for Hitchcock, two of which are all-time classics and none of which are less than interesting. (Even the worst one, Rope, is a fascinating experiment, that rises to greatness at several moments.) His The Man Who Knew Too Much occupies a position somewhere in the middle. It’s a solid, nuanced, movie-star performance of a good man forced to rise to an untenable occasion over stakes that affect him deeply. There’s a reason why Stewart’s place among the immortals is as linked to Hitchcock’s fame as it is to the direction of Frank Capra and Anthony Mann; his work for Hitchcock, even in this film where he played the most straightforward character of the quartet, helped give him the impact of a star who could express inner darkness while still projecting basic decency.

This was no small thing.

The Crash Of Cymbals

Hitchcock said it to best: The first film is the work of a talented amateur. It shows genius in spots, but is otherwise not very good. The second film is the work of a professional at the peak of his craft – not his best work of the period, but never less than assured.

And now, the wife prepares to shriek from the cheap seats…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. *

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

I was actually looking forward to seeing a Hitchcock film I had yet to see.

Adam and I, early in our relationship, took a trip to Universal Studios and had to see the special effects exhibit  framed around the works of Sir Alfred. We entered the hall with about a hundred fellow visitors and perused the photos and films names about the room.  Adam and I began happily checking off the films we had seen and making note of those we hadn’t.  Most of the crowd just mulled about waiting for something to happen.  After all this was Universal and a special effects exhibit, so I guess they were waiting for someone to pop up and yell BOO!  Nope, a guide came out and began asking folks how many of the listed films they had seen.   Never had I been so bothered by silence as then.  Only one other couple in that room had even remembered seeing at least 3 of the master’s works.  As for Adam and I , we stopped counting somewhere around 12 films, with many more yet to go, realizing we had seen more by far than most others in that place.  We sat wondering why these folks had come to see this particular exhibit if they had no clue about these films.  The Hitchcock tour closed a few months later to be replaced by some cartoon-related attraction, but Adam and I miss it to this day. (Especially when we use our Bates Motel towel set).

Ahh, but on to the films.

I understand why Hitchcock felt an absolute need to right this wrong in his career.  The early version (1934) was clearly made by a filmmaker constrained by budget and his own learning curve. The characters are absurd, exhibiting a lack of warmth I can only attribute to poor scripting and worse acting.  We get to meet a disappearing dachshund who nearly causes the death of the soon to be kidnapped “child”,  a mother conveniently a champion skeet shooter, a poor maligned father who takes abuse with a cheerful smile, and a group of friends and who don’t question why a child who has been travelling with her parents and pet must suddenly stop and visit an never before heard of aunt in a different country. 

Next, we deal with the lack of reality in both the shooting and the sudden angst of the parents.  The shot rings out, the spy slumps over to whisper those needed clues, and dies without a hole in his dinner jacket or blood spreading out anywhere.  Come on, even in the 30s a death was a death.  And, now suddenly, when the kid disappears(and the dog, but no one mentions this), the parents get all upset, when earlier they would have gladly bundled her off to the nearest boarding school or convent.  PUHLEEZE!  These parents early on show all the warmth of a pair of wet shoes and only daddy shares a childlike joke with his daughter, more like a friend than parent.

So, I quickly gave up hope that this (I cant use “old” cause the film was released the year my mom was born and she’ll be annoyed by the old word) first version would resolve in a logical or satisfying manner, and I was right.  The cops can’t shoot straight and are afraid to take a kill shot.  They are more interested in the residents of the homes they take over than the killers firing at them.  And, of course, it all falls on skeet champ mama to save the day, after ineffective daddy gets all the leg work done.  Last I checked shooting skeet is waaayyy different than offing a human through an open window, who also happens to be holding another human shield in front.

Now let me get on to the musically irritating, but eminently better 1956 version.

I was born in the early 1960s, therefore “Que Sera Sera”  was sung and played around the house a LOT.  Did I learn to despise it?  YES!  Do I still cringe when I hear it?  YES!  Has anyone actually analyzed the message handed out by this little ditty?  Obviously not really, or maybe this ear worm is the reason for all the ills suffered by the baby boomers and Gen-Xers..  After all, the song does say just roll over and accept whatever happens, and that does seem to be the problem we face.  So I guess I can blame part of the woes of the world, since the 1960s, on the effect that the placement of this one song , in one film, had on the world.  But, Don’t blame Doris Day, she was just the delivery system for this ennui bomb.

In this version we have a more believable family group.  Older, doctor husband, hot, young musical theater star wife and precocious spoiled child.  There is actually a semblance of familial feelings seen from the start.  This said, when the fan gets hit, the couple who worries about arranging for a sitter in the hotel for their 8 year old child while they attend a local restaurant, have no qualms turning said child over to a couple who amount to total strangers who happen to share the bond of a common language.  Ummm..??? Maybe this comes from a jaded sense of the 80’s  and children on milk cartons, but I remember my folks cancelling plans, rather than leave me with an unknown sitter.  Same time frame, better parenting?  Maybe?

Then, these caring, loving parents refuse the help of professionals in the mistaken belief they only they, with no expertise, can rescue their child.  OK.  Right!  The film follows the same pattern from here as the original, but the red herrings and set ups are MUCH better, but still, that damn song is the key, or is it?  By the time daddy doc finds the kid, the song is over and the bad lady kidnapper is helping the kid get away.  Happy ending, with a glib last line, as is the trademark of all the good Hitchcockian films, but kinda unsatisfying on multiple viewings.  Now, North By Northwest, so much more fun!


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.


An author’s intent, an actor’s fragile ego, a genial shambles and cruelty to testicles 

*

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, and Orson Welles. 131 minutes. ** 1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, and Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. *** 1/2.

Other Known Versions: Seen by us but not reviewed for this essay, “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

*

The James Bond films have become so cemented in their formula for success that their various inevitable ingredients sometimes make them seem less like individual stories than the same story, told and retold with only a few particulars changed. Such elements as the enemy stronghold that blows up in the action climax, the empty badinage with poor pining Miss Moneypenny, the give-and-take with his weapons master Q, the ordering of a martini (shaken not stirred), the final scene where Bond ignores a congratulatory message from his superiors in order to pursue celebratory sex with the rescued lady of the day, the McGuffin that often involves hijacked nuclear weaponry, and (most relevant to today’s examples), the gambling match with the villain where Bond beats the bad guy at the game he is enough of a cad to cheat at, are such series mainstays that they all appear, with only minimal variation, in most of the franchise’s outings. It’s more surprising, overall, when a Bond film chooses to omit one, let alone several.

Sometimes, the newest Bond film seemed less a separate entity than a de facto remake of the Bond film before it (as with The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker).

Under the circumstances, any talk of remakes seems so superfluous that it’s almost startling to note that the series has already known two complete sets.

One involved a twisted saga of the disputed rights to Bond and his supporting cast,  some of whom were concocted by a screenwriter who wrote a spec script for Ian Fleming. A couple of rancorous major court cases led to a settlement that ultimately deprived the main movie series of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the recurring villain who had dominated the Sean Connery era and who became the model for the Austin Powers villain, Dr. Evil. It was this very situation that led to Thunderball being remade, also with Connery, as Never Say Never Again.

The same consortium responsible for that one, hoarding its one treasure like a certain ex-hobbit mutated into Gollum by years of exposure to the ring of power, later tried to make the same basic story a third time, with yet another Bond reprising his role. They didn’t get backing again, but you really can’t blame them for trying.

And then there’s this, relic born of the one Bond novel adapted for television before the movie series, the same one that Howard Hawks once considered filming with Cary Grant. (‘Twas not to be, but seriously, consider Cary Grant as James Bond, and sigh.)

Casino Royale, which was not included in the package deal procured by the Broccoli family, was first filmed in 1954 as a not especially-distinguished episode of a TV anthology series, featuring an American “Jimmy” Bond who needed to win a card game against a Le Chiffre affiliated with french socialists. Copies of that production were lost for decades, but were eventually located and released on VHS (where this reviewer saw it, though it was also included as a DVD extra with the 1967 version).  I can report that it features Barry Nelson as a not-especially charismatic Bond and Peter Lorre as a Le Chiffre who doesn’t lend the play much more than his bored presence. It does, however, hew to the premise of Ian Fleming’s first Bond story, which has the super secret agent obliged to prevent the bad guy from winning a game of Baccarat that will replenish the funds he has embezzled from the Soviets.

(Thus leading to the pithy observation that while other Bond villains had grandiose ambitions, like extorting billions with nuclear terrorism, cornering the world heroin market, starting World War III, or wiping out most of humanity in order to establish a despotic rule over the survivors, this guy is motivated by nothing more than getting his hands caught in the till. In all filmed versions of Casino Royale,  Le Chiffre’s poor money management has gotten him into debt with the wrong people and he wants only to cover his own ass. It’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. In essence, he’s a somewhat more competent version of William H. Macy’s put-upon car dealer from Fargo.)

As in Ian Fleming’s novel, Bond wins the game, only to find himself captured, tied to a chair, and tortured at length by Le Chiffre: a scene that figures prominently in both the movie versions to follow, and which features something relatively rare in the Bond films: 007 completely helpless, and almost broken. It is one of the few scenes that make it into both the 1967 and 2006 versions, a key point of congruence in two productions that are otherwise as different from one another as two motion pictures can be.

The 1967 Version: A Genial Shambles

When the sixties spy craze was at its absolute peak and Bond in particular was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, possessing the rights to a Bond novel not procured by the Brocollis represented a grand opportunity that the makers of the spoof wished to exploit in grand style. They made all the smart opening moves, first by distinguishing their version from the series starring Sean Connery by deciding in advance by planning a farce with only limited fidelity to the Fleming novel. They also cast David Niven, Fleming’s own original choice as the best possible actor to play his character, and in one of the lead female roles Ursula Andress, who had made a splash (ha-ha) as the hot girl in the swimsuit emerging from Bahamian waters in Dr. No, and who is here given dialogue directly referencing her fate in that original film.

They had an explanation for the differences in their Bond written into the screenplay. Their Bond is an aging gentleman, retired from spying, dedicated to a vow of celibacy, and utterly resentful of his namesake replacement, who he calls “that sexual acrobat who leaves a trail of dead beautiful women like so many blown roses behind him.” It turns out that Niven’s Bond was such a force for good that the Brits and their various allies thought that the absence of a James Bond, any James Bond, so destabilizing to the world order that somebody named Bond had to remain active at all times.

This happens to be the exact same theory that some fans still embrace to explain the periodic replacement of the leading men in the regular series. That’s right. James Bond as Job Title was invented here, and it certainly beats the somewhat geekier theory, also popular, that James Bond is a Time Lord who stays young by “regenerating” like the protagonist of Doctor Who.

Circumstances compel him to take over the job previously held by M (here played by John Huston, who isn’t around for long), and support a training program that installs other Bond surrogates in trouble spots throughout the world. Beyond that, the plot defies description, largely because there isn’t one. This Casino Royale wanders all over the map, with plotlines initiated and then dropped, important characters introduced and then dropped, and the many scenes of sixties sexual innuendo (with entire mobs of sixties beautiful women) interposed with scenes that not only fail to make sense but were apparently never intended to make sense. Any attempt to describe the story will inevitably arrive at the phrase, “for no reason whatsoever.” Much of it is very funny, though it needs to be said that a lot of it is just as irritatingly tiresome.

If its contempt for coherent narrative reminds modern-day viewers of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, another film that (somewhat more successfully) feels like it was being made up on the fly, be apprised that one of the 1967 Casino Royale’s early sequences, involving the determinedly chaste Bond’s unnerving night at a castle populated entirely by aggressive young women in heat, was cited by the Pythons a s a direct inspiration for their use of pretty much the identical situation in their film, where the sweaty celibate was played by Michael Palin and the name of the edifice became Castle Anthrax.

It is difficult to tell how much of the chaotic plotting was originally intended, but one of the factors that contributed to it was a very troubled production, caused in no small part by conflict between Peter Sellers (here playing one of the replacement Bonds, a card player whose real name is Evelyn Tremble) and Orson Welles (here playing Le Chiffre). Sellers, who was never the easiest man to work with, took an instant dislike to Welles, exacerbated when Princess Margaret visited the set and fawned over Welles while ignoring Sellers. (It didn’t help that Sellers had just been trying to impress one and all with detailed stories of his friendship with the woman.) Welles responded in kind, deriding Sellers as an amateur.

Sellers was also desperately upset that Casino Royale was a silly comedy, as he’d wanted to play Bond straight – as is evident during the baccarat scene, where much of Tremble’s baiting of Le Chiffre could almost be transposed to a serious Bond film without alteration. As for Welles, it appears to have been his idea to have Le Chiffre regularly stop the game to perform elaborate stage magic at the table – again, for no reason whatsoever — behavior that would less than kindly looked upon at pretty much every casino I’ve ever known. It fits here only because nothing else in sight makes sense.

The two men ultimately refused to act in any scenes together, a snit that the film covered by pretty much never showing Sellers and Welles in the same shot at the same time, even during the card game. Their direct conversations at the gaming table are conveyed by close-ups and the backs of heads. Later, the “torture” of the faux-Bond by Le Chiffre is conducted with Le Chiffre an absent figure mocking the Sellers character by remote control, and torturing by methods that include (what seems to be) a wood-chipper in his chair and an orchestrated hallucination that includes marching men in kilts and a cameo appearance by Peter O’Toole, for (all together now) no reason whatsoever.

Eventually Sellers was either fired or allowed to storm off the set for good, with most of his scenes unfilmed. This included a great deal of necessary connecting material, which is a key reason why he rushes off to rescue Vesper Lynd and is next seen unconscious as Le Chiffre’s prisoner, with no actual scene where he is caught; he refused to film one. A number of his other scenes, including the one where he treats Ursula Andress’s leg as a piano keyboard, and the one where he hops into a race car, were not scripted parts of the film, but joking around on the set, reshaped as narrative.

One early cut of the film actually resorted to using a cardboard cutout of him during the climax, to cover his absence; it was replaced with other junk footage.

So the shamblicious nature of the narrative, ultimately filmed by six different directors and written by a small army of astoundingly distinguished film writers who seem to have been working during production to shape a film that had already spiraled out of control, was in large part a desperate improvisation, to cover for a star who was originally supposed to be a much more substantial player, and was unavailable for much of his intended screen time. What remains is, to an unclear extent, a film stitched together out of spare parts and desperate improvisation as the folks behind the production gave up on any pretense that any of this could ever make sense, even within the context of a silly comedy.

Some of the pieces are insanely brilliant, among them an extended sequence which has Mata Bond (the daughter of Bond and Mata Hari, played with substantial comic chops and what seems to be deep personal enjoyment by Joanna Pettet), on assignment in Berlin running around gloomy German Expressionist sets while still (for no reason whatsoever) wearing the same jewel-encrusted indian dancing costume she was introduced as wearing in an ashram (or whatever) several scenes earlier. Some are messed up, like Mata subsequently changing her accent and personality for no reason whatsoever. Some are just strange, like Sellers dressing up as Adolf Hitler for no reason whatsoever.  And some are just insane, as in the big action climax where old-west cowboys and indians invade the casino for no reason whatsoever, George Raft (who got star billing for less than sixty seconds on screen) shows up and dies for no reason whatsoever, a murdered character played by William Holden is revealed to have faked his death for no reason whatsoever, the Frankenstein monster shows up for no reason whatsoever, a chimp grins at the camera for no reason whatsoever, and main bad guy Woody Allen – who has been fed a nuclear potion – hiccups his way to the massive explosion that kills everybody for no reason whatsoever.

The movie is a mess, but a genial one, dull at times but hilarious at others. It was popular enough to emerge as the third biggest hit of its year.

And its fidelity to the source material amounts to this: A guy using the name of James Bond plays a game of baccarat with a guy named Le Chiffre to prevent him from replacing embezzled funds. Le Chiffre retaliates by kidnapping the girl, Vesper Lynd. Bond is captured trying to rescue Lynd and endures a brief interval of testicle torture (here presented in the most cartoonish manner imaginable).  Then Le Chiffre is killed, which only seems to resolve everything, leading to a false ending before the other shoe drops and the action resumes.

The 2006 Version: Bond Bleeds

The makers of the mainstream James Bond movies finally acquired the rights to Casino Royale in 1999, midway through Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the title role.

Of Brosnan, who is not material to today’s discussion, let’s be content to say that he’s proven himself a terrific actor, better than the material he was given as 007 usually merited. The World Is Not Enough was likely his best Bondian outing, although, as usual, your mileage may vary.

The problem was not his, really. The problem was that the cartoonish heroics of the sixties Bond had ceased to impress in an era when other film franchises could compete with and wildly surpass the Bond movies in terms of wild action, sexual intrigue, and over-the-top violence. Worse, the Bond films had become so formulaic that other filmmakers had realized that they could do just as well with characters of their own creation, in films that were otherwise note-by-note recreations; and not in the manner that the imitators of the 1960s managed to present their own raft of respectable but second-tier Bonds, but with outings that easily matched the Bond films in extravagance of action. When James Cameron has made True Lies  and Vin Diesel has been in XXX and Tom Cruise has a thriving Mission: Impossible franchise and Matt Damon has the same with his Jason Bourne movies and Bruce Willis can boast the multiple variations of Die Hard, a James Bond movie no longer qualifies as an event just by showing up; it has to excel, to make us care about it, or it’s just redundant.

The people behind the franchise have been accused of “Bourning Up” the Bond films – this being an actual understood reference now – but the truth is more simple than that. With the 2006 Casino Royale, they stripped the character to his essence, removed the gadgetry, tortured quips and descents into campiness that now render some of the earlier incarnations all but unwatchable, and devoted serious thought as to what makes this guy tick and why anybody would give a damn about anything that happens to him. It re-started the series with a pre-credit sequence detailing Bond’s first kills for the 00 branch, which were not made to look jokey and lighthearted but instead ugly, brutal and sordid. One of them is a thug beaten to a bloody pulp in a bathroom, the other is a traitor shot dead while sitting in a desk chair; there is nothing at all glamorous about either of these kills, nothing to match the comfortable distance of that moment in Moonraker where an ambulance employed in a chase scene speeds past three separate billboards hawking commercial products that helped to underwrite the film.

It is only after the usual title song that we get the over-the-top action sequence that usually begins a Bond film. This one’s a parkour chase in Madagascar, set in and around a construction site where Bond pursues a terrorist-for-hire. This tour-de-force, the reviewer’s personal favorite action sequence in any of the Bond films, is to put it mildly not at all free of silliness; it employs, for instance, Roger Ebert’s famous fallacy of the climbing killer, the guy whose attempts to get away amount to scaling an edifice from which he will eventually have to climb down. It is, much of the time, silly of the heroes to even bother to chase them.  What redeems the sequence is its sheer bravura, the terrorist’s mad ricocheting off walls and girders, and Bond’s success at equaling him with blunt force and superior cleverness. If Buster Keaton had choreographed a Bond chase, it would be this one.

The set piece leads to a bad end for the terrorist and Bond in trouble with M for disgracing British Intelligence, from there to another action sequence in Miami that is almost as spectacular, and from there to the murder of a woman Bond had just callously seduced and abandoned in order to follow a lead. M (Judi Dench, who joined the series during Brosnan’s tenure and is another fine addition) back-handedly praises Bond for not caring, and he actually doesn’t seem to: but the moment is sufficiently well-written and performed to make it clear that Bond is not unaware of the human cost.

That brings him to Casino Royale, the introduction of Vesper Lynd, and the poker game played against Le Chiffre (who, here, is a banker for terrorists, who has invested heavily in the fallout from the act of terrorism Bond foils in Miami). At which point the film does something remarkable for the series, which is to say slow down; it spends almost an hour in the deepening of the relationship between Bond and Lynd and in intrigue at or surrounding the game.

The sexual tension between Bond and Lynd is remarkably adult, for the series, which at its worst saw Roger Moore seducing women half his age with no more than a raised eyebrow and a moron double intendre. By contrast, Lynd and Bond are presented as a pair of intensely guarded people, who acknowledge their mutual attraction right up front but also see through one another with a depth that keeps either from wanting personal involvement. His moment of compassion for her, during a moment of post-traumatic personal vulnerability, feels more real than anything that happened in some prior decades of the series.

The film’s Le Chiffre is not entirely devoid of Bondian silliness either; he has a “malformation of the tear duct” that occasionally causes him to weep blood, a physical condition with absolutely no referent in medical science, given that the integral nature of human anatomy is that any wound that bleeds will eventually scab. It’s there to make him look less than human. In truth, though, his nastiness does not exempt him from human vulnerability, brilliantly revealed during one scene where he and his lover are confronted in their hotel room by assassins sent by one of the terrorist leaders whose funds he misspent. Le Chiffre is reduced to a weeping, terrified mess, helpless as a knife is brandished against a woman he may or may not love, but at least likes enough to sleep with. This does not stop him from reverting to murderous type after he returns to the poker table, or has Bond strapped to that chair, but it gives him a depth no James Bond villain has had, before or since. The man may deserve to die, by the logic of the series, but it’s impossible not to understand that he knows he’s drowning.

His subsequent torture of the captured Bond is also more graphic, more genuinely painful, than anything ever seen in the series before. There is no gimmicky threatened castration of the impeccably dressed hero by laser, as in Goldfinger; no civilized gourmet meal before fight to the death, as in The Man With the Golden Gun.  (Brosnan’s Bond was captured by, and tortured by, the North Koreans for a full year, but his ordeal is shown during the usual a jazzy credits sequence, and has all the emotional impact of a music video.) Le Chiffre just tells the shivering, naked, helpless, and terrified  Bond – brilliantly played by Craig — that there’s  simply no point in  sophisticated torture techniques when it’s downright easy to cause a man more pain than he can possibly stand.  And then he whips Bond’s bare testicles with a knot tied in a heavy rope. There are no saucy quips, no insouciant gestures of defiance; like Le Chiffre only a few scenes earlier, Bond is quickly reduced to a despairing shell.

Following Bond’s subsequent deliverance from that predicament, his long recovery and his decision to abandon his secret agent ways for a life spent with Vesper – who in this context represents more than just a woman he loves, but an actual route back to humanity – makes perfect sense.

This is not the only time the movie Bond ever genuinely loved a woman for what promised to be longer than the interval between one mission and the next; the Bond played by George Lazenby loved, married, and tragically lost Tracy, the leading lady of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The difference, in retrospect, is that it’s a little hard now to see why that Bond fell for Tracy when he’d easily abandoned so many who were just as formidable. It’s easy to see why Craig’s Bond makes the decision he makes in Casino Royale. He’s been hurt, this time, more than he’s ever been hurt before. He already cared for the lady. His heart is open.

That it goes badly, indeed tragically, is just as inevitable. The series does need to continue, after all. But in this context it feels even worse when he angrily sums up his loss by telling M, “The bitch is dead.” At that point, something has clearly died in him too. It’s an emotional origin story, so much beyond the usual Bond material that it almost feels like a different genre. That it was immediately followed by Quantum Of Solace, which sought to continue the story but was because of many failings (not least among them an incompetent approach to its action scenes), one of the worst films of the entire series…a heady statement for anybody who’s seen Moonraker…is not its fault.

As for Craig, this much needs to be said. He is clearly not the most distinguished actor to have played Bond. That would still be David Niven. Nor is he the most iconic. That would still be Sean Connery. But, aided by a screenplay that demands it of him, he gives the all-time finest performance as Bond, ever: but for the few flashes the other actors have been allowed, it is pretty much the only time that the character on screen was ever recognizably and consistently a human being affected and scarred by his violent world. Contrasted with some of the campier outings in the past, it’s understating the case to say that it’s barely recognizable as being about the same character, and more accurate to say that it barely seems to belong to the same genre.

Intelligence Analysis

The 1967 film: an insane, out-of-control farce that, at its best moments, lampoons the silliness of the Bond universe about as well as any film possibly could. It’s more talent than usually appears on screen at the same time, all the more fascinating for the misfire. The 2006 version: a serious take on the same material that contains the best action sequence in the franchise’s fifty-year history, and as close a look into the soul of Bond as we’re ever likely to see. The two movies together: an object lesson on the best way to take a character seriously, and the best way not to.

*

And now, the wife chooses to accept her mission…

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles. 131 minutes. **1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. ***

Other Known Versions: “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

Let me get this out of the way first thing.  The 2006 film is a better movie in every way possible, but I still love the 1967 Casino Royale oh so  much more.

Now, I have the hard part, answering the why of the above statement.

The earlier CR is not prettier, grittier, or even close to good story telling.  There are plots and characters left spinning in all directions, and a nonsensical ending that just is. But for all these flaws, it makes me laugh.  Not rolling on the floor holding my belly and crying, just giggles and chuckles that last over the next few hours and days as I remember the silliness.  Yes, even in my middle years, I still crack up over the insanity of the kitchen sink melee and the game of toss.

I could debate over the David Niven vs Daniel Craig, but both are great Bonds.  Craig reinvigorates 007 as a man of action and decisiveness with little humanity or warmth.  Niven plays Bond as a man hurt by his choices, yet emboldened by those same events.  Could Niven have been a good JBond playing it straight?  I believe so, but that market was never tapped since a certain Mr. Connery was busy playing the horn dog version.

Both films attempt to tell a pretty thin tale and both succeed in very different ways.

Villainwise, well come on guys, its Orson Welles playing cards, magic and drugs.  The torture of the mind, so much more elegant than multiple slams to the nads.  Neither is actually much of a baddie.  Both versions are just Ponzi schemers trying to make up losses before they are lost too.  Should I care what happens to these guys?  Not like the old world domination tactics of say Dr. No.  So I say who cares that they get offed before the final scenes?

So, where is the big difference that tilts me back to childhood?  Ahhh…the music.  Burt Bacharach combining with Herb Alpert.  This is what a band parent’s nightmares are made of. I played this stuff day and night for years and claimed I was practicing.  5 years of trumpet solos , guitar riffs, piano banging, and various other attempts usually drifting into some part of this film’s music.  Well, my folks could only blame themselves for letting me see CR so many times.  The theme song is eminently hummable, and the big hit “The Look Of Love”  was heard for years on AM radio (and many weddings I’m sure).  I still love that terrible little mindworm of a theme.

OK, I’ve said it, this film is a childhood fave and as a high school brass playing geek, I adored the soundtrack (and still do!).  Is it a better film deserving of all the praise I can heap upon it.  Hell no!  Its just sheer fun and I will adore it evermore. (But, don’t forget how good the 2006 film is either).