Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of—Sort Of

Note:  Not Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor....

I was getting ready for bed.  It was late.  I was idly flipping through channels while finishing a late night snack.  Then there it was.  On Turner Classic Movies (TCM)—The Maltese Falcon.  And I caught it only minutes after the opening credits rolled.  I was hooked.  John Huston’s 1941 directorial debut is one of those films you can watch over and over and it is fresh every time.  So I watched.  Who needs sleep?
Then in the wee small hours, after Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade delivers the classic closing line to Ward Bond’s befuddled detective, “That’s the stuff that dreams are made of,” before I can finally pack it in I discover that next up was the odd Warner Bros. 1936 remake of a still earlier version, Satan Met a Lady.  I had never seen it.  Well, I wanted to see the sun rise any way.
The Maltese Falcon originated as a serial in the pulp pages of a lurid magazine—The Black Mask.  It was penned by their most noted writer,  Dashiell Hammet, a hard drinking former Pinkerton agent who had made a name for himself creating a nameless detective known as The Continental Op.  In the process he was re-inventing the mystery story into something much grittier.  Eventually it would be called the hard-boiled detective genre.  Out with the drawing rooms and gentile murders and in with the gritty streets, betrayal, flawed heroes, and brassy dames.
In 1930 the serial was issued as a standalone novel.  It immediately elevated Hammet to the top flight of popular novelists, even though he would be moldering in his gin soaked grave before it would be acknowledged as an American “literary” classic.
His character, Sam Spade, was a departure from the faceless operative of a giant corporation.  He was, like Sherlock Holmes a “consulting detective.”  But unlike Holmes his motives were purely pecuniary, his ethics iffy, and his methods by turns trading in betrayal and brutality.  In an uneasy partnership with Miles Archer he operates a shady agency in a seedy part of town specializing in divorce, scandal, and perhaps a tad of strong-arm enforcement on the side.  His relationship with the police and authorities is iffy at best, although he has allies—most likely drinking buddies or former associates from an implied past. 
The character and the lurid story, swirling madly around a McGuffin—in this case a fabulous gold and jeweled statuette known as the Maltese Falcon—were a natural for the new sound movies which could make the most out of tough, snappy dialog which Hammet delivered in, you should pardon the expression, spades.  Warner Bros., which was already distinguishing itself from other studios by its willingness to exploit crime and a little sex, gobbled up the rights.
By the way, there really was a Maltese Falcon, as described in the book and ’41 movie.  There really was an annual tribute of “one falcon” paid by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V for bestowing the fiefdoms of Malta, Tripoli, and Gozo on them.  Known as the Maltese Tribute it was paid annually to Charles and his heirs for centuries—always as an actual bird, however.  No golden, jewel encrusted bird was ever sent and then lost to antiquity.
Their first stab at a movie looks like a dud when viewed today.  The camera work, dictated by the cumbersome and noisy Vidaphone process camera which had to be encased in a booth, is static.  The pacing drags.  The acting will win no awards.  Bebe Danniels as the temptress Ruth Wonderly gets top billing.  But the action and most of the dialog revolve around Ricardo Cortez as Spade.  Despite the Latin name, Cortez was a handsome, fast talking New York Jew who was a hold-over silent leading man.  After early success in talkies, his career faded and he was relegated to playing mostly heavies in B movies.  The ubiquitous Una Merkel enlivened that proceedings as Spades loyal secretary and implied plaything.
Whatever its deficiencies to modern viewers, the film was a hit to audiences.  A few years later when Hammet was even a bigger name when rival MGM  began producing the Thin Man movies, Warner’s tried to re-release The Maltese Falcon.  But the Motion Picture Code had come into play since the earlier release.  Code authorities refused to allow the release citing several sexually suggestive sequences—including a strip search of Wonderly by Spade and an acknowledgement of a homosexual relationship between villain Casper Gutman and his youthful stooge Wilmer Cook.
Instead the studio settled on a remake.  But they felt that they had to even change the title to avoid a preemptive block by the Code Authority.  Thus Satan Met a Lady was born.
The plot and much of the dialog remain, but the names of all of the characters are changed and the McGuffin this time is the supposedly jewel filled Horn of Roland based on a reference in the Medieval French epic the Song of Roland.  But for those of us steeped in the Bogart classic this is Bizzaro World.  To begin with, it’s a comedy.  Let that sink in.
Warner’s reigning queen Bette Davis gets top billing.  But she has remarkably little to do but bat those famous eyes and play the temptress.  She is on screen for less than a quarter of the film.  This was just the kind of throw away role that had her at constant odds with Jack Warner.  The real star is Warren William as detective Ted Shane. 
William was another Warner’s pre-Code leading man.  Tall, handsome, glib and middle aged, he specialized in playing amoral businessmen and bosses in films like Skyscraper Souls, The Match King,  and Employees Entrance.  Sort of a cad that women adored anyway.  His most memorable turn for modern audiences was as the prudish older brother of Dick Powell in Golddiggers of 1933.  By the time this movie was made he had carved out a reliable niche as the fast talking, close to the line super lawyer Perry Mason in a series of Warners' programmers.  By the way, for those who grew up on Raymond Burr’s sort of stuffy and stodgy TV version, William is a revelation.
William’s Shane is basically Mason on steroids.  Glib and without an apparent ethical bone in his body, William plays it to a hilt while wearing, for some unknown reason, a black Stetson cowboy hat instead of a private eye snap-brim fedora.
But what really gives the film a house of mirrors feeling is the casting of supporting characters.  Villain #1, Joel Cairo as played by diminutive Peter Lorie five years later, here is lanky Englishman Arthur Treacher, of all people, as Anthony Travers.  Villain #2 vividly remembered for the film debut of Sydney Greenstreet as Casper Gutman is here grandmotherly Alison Skipworth as Madame Barabas.  And the teenage gunsel played by Elijah Cook Jr.  here is an over-sized oaf in a beret played by Maynard Holmes.  A very young Marie Wilson doing her best Gracie Allen-cum-Jean Harlow ditzy blonde is a delight as Miss Murgatroyd, Shane’s semi-loyal secretary.
Yes, this remake was an odd film.  It makes nobody’s list of classics and Davis considered it the nadir of her career at Warners.  But I have to admit, it was kind of fun.  I bet if I had watched it with the aid of a little pot, like I used to watch late-late movies on my little black-and-white portable TV years ago, I bet it would have been hilarious.
But it won’t make me forget the delicious perfection of watching Bogie tell Mary Astor that he is “sending her over” because he “won’t play sap for you like those other guys did.”

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