Posts Tagged ‘The Maltese Falcon’


 

gaslight poster

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Gaslight aka Angel Street, The Murder in Thorton Street,  A Strange Case Of Murder  (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard.  84 minutes. ** 1/2

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston.  Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

So here we have yet another stake through the heart of the oft-repeated premise that “Remakes Always Suck.”

This also serves as eloquent argument against the premise that remakes are coming closer together, today, than they ever have before. We’ve already covered the three versions of THE MALTESE FALCON made within ten years, the last of which was the only great one; and, only slightly less dramatic, three versions of THE THREE MUSKETEERS made within thirteen years, of which only the last one can be legitimately argued to have gotten the story anywhere close to right. The movies under discussion this time out, made only four years apart, may seem an extreme class, but a couple of the Musketeer movies were that adjacent, and the Falcon movies were almost as much so. Still, four years is an unusually narrow gap. It may not be our all-time record – that would be two POSEIDON ADVENTURE movies made a year apart –but it’s close.

Both films are based on the 1938 play set in the Victorian era about the cad of a husband who, to keep his wife from realizing that he’s a con man searching the attic of their London home for priceless jewels, sets about deliberately driving her insane – or, more accurately, convincing her and the world that she is insane, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. If this seems an unlikely premise, please keep in mind that much of what occurs here presents a genuinely sophisticated understanding of the dynamic between some emotionally abusive husbands and their terrorized wives. In the real world, the household becomes a closed system, where the wife is cut off from any possible reality check on the part of friends and family who might be able to halt her disintegration; she is made to believe that everything that happens is her fault; she is offered little moments of affection and reward that are just as cruelly withdrawn, in a manner designed to make her feel that the blame for the loss is her own. Pathetically grateful for any indication of kindness, as her self-esteem is reduced not just to zero but to negative numbers, a woman in this position can be made to believe the most ridiculous premises, even those that contradict the evidence of her own senses. In 1940 and 1944, the premise might have seemed over the top; today we’ve seen and recognized too many real-world examples where exactly this form of abuse was made to work, and the saddest truth associated with either movie is, frankly, that when each movie’s independent investigator arrives to tell the heroine that she’s not insane and that her husband’s merely been twisting her perceptions to make  her think so, the ladies in question are, if anything, restored to sanity more easily than most. Witness the oft-seen moment from any number of domestic abuse cases, where the wives with the freshly broken nose and the freshly fat lip refuses to press charges, insisting to cops that the bullying subhuman who did it is “a good man.” Of course, the premise that a woman might have the right to defy her husband, or even walk out on him if he treats her poorly enough, was still sufficiently radical at the time these movies were made – let alone the time being written about – that the play hedges its bets somewhat, revealing in its final movements that the cad has another wife and child off in another country, and that our heroine is therefore not actually his wife,  and is therefore free to react as his treatment of her should have been enough to dictate.

The two movies are not identical. Though based on the same play, and including some nearly identical scenes, there are substantial differences between them, down to the plot level. The 1940 version is much more faithful to the play; the 1944 version changes many of the particulars, in large part to better showcase and protect its stars.

Gaslight (1940): Not Really About Her

The 1940 film, half an hour shorter, begins with a shadowy figure sneaking up behind a sweet little old lady, Alice Barlow (who’s embroidering a pious sampler, just to make sure we get the dastardly nature of the crime), and strangling her. Years later, the two upper floors of her now-abandoned home are sealed off, and the rest of the home renovated for new tenants:  Paul and Bella Madden (Walbrook and Wyngard, respectively), who pull up in a carriage, and at very first sight are recognizable to us as not the happiest of couples. Bella looks haunted, almost spacey. Paul seems stiff and resentful around her. There is no clear sign of even theoretical affection between them.

Clearly, he has already started to break her down, to make her the malleable thing he wants her to be. One immediate effect of this is that she is immediately removed from the role of protagonist; that position is taken by B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell), a retired detective who worked on the old lady’s murder case and whose suspicions are rekindled now that the house is occupied again. Rough is an older man, and a rather roly-poly one, so any question of actual sexual chemistry between him and Bella, in the latter scenes, is negated. The suspense lies in whether he can get the goods on Paul, and rescue Bella, before the damage done to her is irreversible.

We further learn, from a visiting relative who is denied permission to see Bella, that she has always been a frail person whose health has always been in question. There has never been any strength in her, never any personal will aside from the will she borrows from those who take care of her. We first meet her when she’s already reduced by her husband’s treatment of her and we therefore have no idea what kind of person she could be, if treated with genuine love or kindness. We feel sorry for her, but that’s about as far as it goes, and as far as it’s ever permitted to go.

The revelation, before long, that Paul is the murdered woman’s ne’er-do-well nephew, and that his beastly decision to drive his wife mad began with her discovery of a letter that he sees as possible evidence against him, further removes her from the center of this, her own story. It really has nothing to do with her. She saw something she should not have seen. Before that point she was just a woman who didn’t realize she was the victim of a bigamist. At some point, he either actually liked her or thought she would be useful cover to have around; we honestly don’t know, nor are we given enough evidence to know.

We find out in both movies that Paul’s nightly disappearances from his home are cover, to re-enter the home through the attic by first cutting into a nearby abandoned building, so he can search for the jewels he’s been after all along. In the 1940 film, the explanation for what he does when he leaves at night comes fairly early, to both us and detective Rough. Also in 1940, the sexual chemistry between him and the sinister young maid is explored to a much greater degree than what we’ll get a mere four years later; he actually indicates to her that when his wife is locked up in the asylum, the two of them will be free to rumpty-dumpty, and in fact takes her on an extended date to a show at a London music hall, which doesn’t add as much as to the story as the screen time would seem to indicate but does permit the film to include an extended high-kick dance number, which was considered an absolute good, once upon a time.

The climax reveals that the mind-bogglingly valuable rubies the whole thing has been about, all along, were all hidden in Bella’s locket, which defies plausibility, as the locket is about the size of her thumb and the jewels would all have to be the size of periods on a printed page. It’s hard to credit those as valuable rubies. Those are the chips removed from valuable rubies when the jeweler cuts them into a pleasing shape.

Still, once Detective Rough tells her what’s up, both apart from her husband’s presence and while he’s there fuming to hear it, Bella’s confrontation with her exposed “husband” is a powerful one, in which the weak, fragile, shattered wife actually does look like she’s about to stab him with the knife in her hand, out of sheer loathing. One advantage of not really knowing her character beforehand is that we honestly don’t know what she’s going to do; she is revealed for the first time in those scenes, and it’s a powerful moment. The film is beautifully shot and furnished with sumptuous sets, and though neither quality is quite as magnificent as what we’ll get a few short years later, it ain’t nothing, either. It’s not a bad film. It’s actually a pretty good one, better as a predecessor to its particular classic than the first Maltese Falcon  was to the Humphrey Bogart version. But few people would remember it today, or have any real reason to see it,  if not for its position as footnote to what would shortly follow a few short years later.

 

 

Gaslight (1944): Beware The Attack of Pretentious Gallic Smoothies

The 1944 version – which is, let’s say right off, to an order of magnitude a greater feast for the eyes – offers us a lot more, in the way of substantive changes, than just the introduction of far more charismatic actors.

To start with, the victim of the original murder is not a sweet little old lady making pious samplers. She’s a world-famous opera singer, renowned throughout the world, and the owner of jewels that were bestowed upon her by a smitten crowned head of state; it therefore becomes much more believable that the jewels are priceless enough to have been worth all the to-do made about them. (She doesn’t appear in the story as a character, but we see a portrait of her, and can tell that she was still relatively young and beautiful when killed; and on top of this her character helps inform that of her niece Paula (Bergman), who is here presented as a girl who has substantial singing talent of her very own, who foolishly gives up her ambitions when she falls in love with her future “husband” Gregory.)  Gregory (Boyer) a piano player who once accompanied Paula’s aunt, has pretensions of a great future as a composer, but we soon learn that he really doesn’t have much to offer in that line; he is a non-talent, who is in evil ambitions subverts a girl who, we are made to believe, is a much grander one.

None of this is critical to the plot, but note how well all of it moves the endangered wife to the forefront. In the original, he owns the house and really doesn’t need her around while he searches it; he just begins his campaign to drive her mad because she’s seen an incriminating letter and he was treating her like crap anyway. In this version, she’s the inheritor of the house. He needs her to gain access to it, and so he uses his wiles to first deprive her of her ambitions and then of her property and then of her freedom of movement and then of her sanity; it’s a much greater series of betrayals, and it’s all focused on a girl we know. We may first meet her when she’s a traumatized teen being removed from her aunt’s house in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder, but by the time we catch up with her again on the continent, she’s far away from that tragedy and, though clearly still traumatized by it, a formidable young woman with substantial potential (if not in music, then at least for attaining happiness). We see, in her radiance, the depth of the love she thinks she’s found, in Gregory…and Bergman sells this feeling so substantially, so perfectly, that she’s substantially more beautiful in these scenes  than she was in her earlier hit Casablanca. And she’s not exactly a crone in Casablanca.

Charles Boyer’s acting style has not aged as well, alas – he was a pretentious gallic smoothie then, when that was a good thing, and that has only gotten worse as most screen acting has evolved in more naturalistic directions – but that actually rebounds to the movie’s benefit. Occasionally, a flawed performance is precisely the right kind of flawed performance. For instance, McCauley Culkin was not half the actor his co-star Elijah Wood was, when they played together in The Good Son, a thriller about a murderous, sociopathic child…but the limitations to his affect, and the general off-ness of his line readings, only furthered the impression that his character was a little monster only mimicking the proper emotional responses in order to seem properly human.  Much the same thing occurs whenever Tony Curtis played a con man, pretending at sophistication; the pretense was transparent, and rightly so. There about a million similar examples. To our modern eyes, Boyer is affected and corny…but exactly the kind of untrustworthy guy who might impress a naïve young girl who doesn’t know any better. It is a perfect twist on the material.

With this chemistry, Boyer playing Gregory as the most romantic, smooth-talking sharpie alive, and the first signs of trouble appearing as Gregory insisting to his lady love that of all the possible places where they can now settle, he wants a small house on a London Square exactly like the one that Paula has steadfastly avoided since her childhood trauma…the arrival at the house where most of the action takes place now plays a lot differently. Paula is apprehensive, but believes that she can be happy there; Gregory is clearly manipulating her and just beginning his transformation from eloquent romantic to control-freak, but she is not yet a doormat; she has every reason to believe that she might be happy. Her character begins from a place a lot different than the character from the first film. In this remake, we know her well and like her before she ever enters the house with her creep of a husband. She has a character  that can be broken down. And so it plays at a much higher level when he acts downright unhinged, during a tourist visit to the Tower London; when he starts hiding household objects and leading her to believe that she has stolen them; when he encourages her to believe that she has had memory lapses; when this movie’s sinister young maid (a teen Angela Lansbury, in her movie debut), bullies her out of her plans to leave the house and go for a walk. It hurts to see this vivacious, beautiful, talented young girl having the life sucked out of her. It hurts less to see the same thing happen to somebody who’s already a doormat.

Paula’s connection to music also adds to another key moment of the story. Both films include a scene where the husband consents to her attendance at a high-society party that includes a piano recital, only to cruelly accuse her of stealing the watch which he has hidden away in her handbag, and drive her from the room in tears. In the 1940 version, there is no special reason to believe that Bella is enjoying anything more sophisticated than the rare opportunity to be seen out in public. She seems profoundly uncomfortable, even in her seat.  In 1944, it’s music. It transports Paula. Bergman is able to indicate that her character feels joy at the sound – and the cruelty of then robbing it from her is profoundly underlined.

In this film, there is no indication that Gregory’s dalliance with the nasty young maid goes any further than flirting on his part and yearning on hers; perhaps, despite clear evidence that the husband is a heel in other ways, 1944 Hollywood didn’t want to hinge too much of the story on that hard-sell, adultery. It’s a loss, even if the removal of the dance-hall sequence is a dramatic plus in that it doesn’t take us away from the main story at a point where it honestly doesn’t need to bleed tension.

(The smaller role doesn’t stop young Angela Lansbury, a teenager at the time and still a name performer today, from nailing what she’s given.  She says in an interview among the extras on the DVD set that includes both movies that she was very kindly treated by everybody – which she notes isn’t always the case, for actors of any age, and good luck in particular for the young girl enjoying her first big break.)

The revelation that Gregory is sneaking back into the house after leaving at night takes place a lot later in the story than in the 1940 version, and the solution to the mystery of the missing jewels is much more sensible and therefore much more satisfying. Paula’s confrontation with her securely bound husband, once he’s been exposed, is a killer-diller; after two hours of being reduced to an emotional invalid, she now gets to expel all of her anger and betrayal, and though there’s never any real sense, as in 1940, that she might kill him, the sudden return of the girl who’s been robbed from herself is the story’s heart, and Bergman nails it in one of the great sequences of her career. She won the Academy Award for the part, deservedly.

But the best of the story’s improvements to the play may be the most “Hollywood”; i.e., instead of giving us a fat old retired detective who swoops in to solve the case just to show he can, we get Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), a Scotland yard functionary who also, persuasively, serves as possible future romantic interest for Paula.  He’s accused by another character of being in love with her. He very likely is. There is no reasonable way, even at movie-melodrama speed, for her to reciprocate. She only has a few minutes freed of the influence of her “husband.” But it is clear at the end that she is letting her rescuer into her life, and that at bare minimum she has found a friend who will be a positive presence in her days, to counter the loss of the monster who tried to destroy her. This is also more satisfying, if less realistic, than the heroine of the original getting nothing more than the opportunity to breathe fresh air. Cotton, who often played profoundly decent men, serves that function well here, though it needs to be noted that he could radiate evil when he needed to; see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Gaslight was the seventh full-length film of his career, all made in a three-year period, and was astonishingly his fifth great one. Nor was he finished with greatness for the decade; The Third Man was still to come.

This is, by the way, one of those occasional stories that adds to the English language; “Gaslighting” somebody has become a slang term for a pattern of psychological torture designed to get them to doubt their reality, and ultimately get them to blame themselves for their own abuse. It is therefore worth noting that when I recently mentioned on-line that I’d seen this movie for the very first time, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction editor and notable scamp Gordon van Gelder immediately insisted that my memory was failing me and that we’d seen it together. It took me hours to twig to what he was doing. Thanks a lot, Gordon.

The Incriminating Papers

1940 version: a reasonably effective melodrama, marred by remote characters and too narrow an arc for its leading lady. 1944 version: an all-time classic.

*

And now, the wife remembers it differently…!

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Gaslight aka A Strange Case Of Murder (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard. 84 minutes. ***

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston. Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

This is one of those times when I agree with Adam on the ratings of these films.  Both films are well made and for the most part well acted.  But neither one really blew me away.

I had seen the 1944 version a few times while growing up and always felt that the heroine was just too much of a pushover.  I mean first they bundle her off to get her away from London and the murder scene.  Then, some guy she’s only recently met  is allowed to take over running her life and takes her back to the murder house.  Then, some guy she doesn’t even know is allowed to convince her that not only is she not going mad, but her loving husband is nothing more than a murderer and thief.  Talk about a pushover!  And, this is the heroine we are supposed to root for?

I never knew of the existence of the 1940 version or the play until we stumbled across the listing on the cable barker.

I found the 1940 storyline much more satisfying, but constrained by the boundaries set by the stage play. It had a bit more feel of reality when a former police officer recognizes a suspect from a past case, and takes the case open again.  I mean isn’t this what COLD CASE is based on?

I guess I need to spoil everything if I want to state my major gripe with the story.  Guy meets girl/wins girl/moves with girl to supposedly strange (to him) place/begins controlling every aspect of girl’s life/begins convincing her she is going insane/is found out by third party and destroyed all in time to save girls sanity and life! The very idea of a murder occurring and the criminal being so obsessed as to hatch this convoluted plot to get his hands on the property.  It boggles the itty bitty grey cells.  And yet, the 1944 film, following these basic storylines, is considered by many to be a minor masterpiece.

Both films are very set bound and claustrophobic, which intensifies the drama.  The earlier version, just didn’t have the budget or directorial talent to pull off what the 1944 film did.

The Gaslight of 1944 had Ingrid Bergman playing weak with a steel core  and Charles Boyer playing slick and cruel.  One deserved all the praise heaped on her, the other wellll, not so much. Boyer’s stilted stylization in this film was really just an unease with acting in English and unfamiliarity with his co-star nd director. His later roles where he evinced a sly charm, came after much more time had passed and he was more a part of the American movie community.  But here, playing the foreign fella, well, the stiffness comes off as cruelty and “foreigner “ standoffishness.

Both films are well worth the time invested in their watching.  Neither is more, or less, than the set piece it was meant to be.  The earliest a good attempt at interpreting the play, the latter and lush film remembered for one of many roles of an incredible actresses career.

 


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.