Film noir for Black Friday

Reel Time
Dale Hill

            Here it is Black Friday, and what’s that all about? I mean, it’s the official start of the (commercial at least) Christmas season, but doesn’t it sound all gloomy and ominous and who needs it? I know it wasn’t part of the traditional vocabulary when I was growing up.

            Turns out the Philadelphia Police Department invented the term in the early 60s, when they got massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores were mobbed. By the 80s the term had spread through the culture, but it had no hold on me.

            Since I think it’s a vile phrase that describes a miserable activity, I refuse to take part in the mayhem, and usually spend that day and evening watching old movies, and joining the film characters in a glass or two of whatever they’re drinking on screen.

            This year I thought: what about a little film noir to echo the titular event? So tonight I’ll be revisiting some highlights of the film career of Sam Spade, and hitting, moderately of course, the hard liquor. Many thanks to my pal Jim Logan, of Twice Sold Tales, who provided copies of these ancient oddities. Prost!

            When author Dashiel Hammett wasn’t canoodling with playwright Lillian Hellman he was busy pretty much inventing hard-boiled detective fiction, which moved to Hollywood and adopted moody, shadowy black-and-white cinematography; terse, colorful and sometimes nasty dialogue; and an ambiguous moral stance, to become the American style that the French slapped with a name that stuck.

            Many of these stories started out with a private eye and a femme fatale, and one of the earliest of those comes from Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” John Huston’s first film.

            Huston had been a successful screenwriter, and he chose Hammett’s novel as his first directing task. His approach was so meticulous that he was able to breeze through the shoot on schedule, with evenings free for his actors to party. The entire movie cost the unbelievably paltry sum of $300,000 so naturally Huston became the industry’s darling and went on to his long and distinguished career.

            Everyone has of course seen Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman and Peter Lorre as Cairo, probably more than twice.  (If you haven’t you’d better get cracking, because we never know when the asteroid’s going to hit.) But not everybody knows that “The Maltese Falcon” was the second film of that name.

            The novel came out in 1930, and Warner’s rushed it to the screen in 1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth, who started his career writing gags for Mack Sennett and ended it directing “Alligator People” in 1959.

            Del Ruth’s Black Bird is hampered by camera work and acting styles that are ten years more primitive than Huston’s version, but the real clunker of the film is Ricardo Cortez as Spade. Cortez was from a New York Jewish family, but changed his name to chime with superstars Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Navarro. His experience as a screen lover is what dry-gulches him here: he plays Spade as a grinning, leering womanizer who can barely keep his mind on the danger when faced with a pair of naked shoulders. This was pre-Code Hollywood, so his femme fatale, played by Bebe Daniels, gets some pretty racy scenes in negligees and a bathtub. (She also, inexplicably, never admits to being Brigid O’Shaughnessy, so she spends the whole movie as Ruth Wonderly.)

            Still, the adaptation is breezy, with a lot of the dialogue taken directly from the book, and while it doesn’t sustain tension nearly as well as Huston’s version, it’s an entertaining evening of film history. You might have to look for it under the title “Dangerous Female.”

            But Warner Brothers couldn’t leave it alone. They had paid Hammett for the screen rights (I wish we knew how much!) and were determined to get their money’s worth. And so, in 1936, they embarked on an adaptation with no Spade, no Brigid, and not even a Black Bird. This bizarre treatment changed all the names and sometimes the sex of the characters, changed the treasure, and the tone. Oh lordy yes, it changed the tone. And the title too, to “Satan Met a Lady.”

            The falcon here has been replaced by the Horn of Roland, which the 8th century hero lost to the Saracens, who filled it with jewels as a trophy. Private dick Ted Shane (the Spade analog) gets involved in the race for the horn, with femme fatale Valerie Purvis; an effete Englishman; and a fat lady criminal-mastermind and her nephew, a psychopathic ringer for Porky Pig.

            If this all sounds like a screwball comedy based on “The Maltese Falcon,” I can assure you that it is. William Dieterle had directed Max Reinhardt’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and went on to do prestige titles like “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Life of Emile Zola,” and his touch here is deft and witty, though critics of the period savaged it. Warren William as Shane is sharp and slick, and he has a profile that’s uncannily like John Barrymore’s; and Arthur Treacher as the Englishman is already firmly set as the character he played forever. But the delight of the show is Marie Wilson as the secretary, doing a show-stopping turn as a ditzy blond that must have had immense influence on the persona of Marilyn Monroe.

            Bette Davis as Valerie Purvis is perfectly charming, though she hated the role, and wrote 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," Aw, come on, Bette, everybody deserves a little fun.