'Maltese Falcon': One remake that showed originality

'Falcon' reinvented three times before it became a classic

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2003

As a passionate filmgoer, I couldn't help but feel disheartened a few weeks ago when I searched for a movie to watch and all I found was "S.W.A.T." and Jackie Chan's "The Medallion."

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Jackie. But this year's end-of-summer fare left even this dedicated optimist feeling deflated.

What seems to be missing from the current film crop is a little invention. Take a look at the movie fare in mid-August: Excluding the local art-house offerings, six out of the seven movies showing one week were either a sequel, a remake, an adaptation of a '70s TV series or an offshoot of a theme park ride.

However, a closer look at cinema history and so-called "revolutionary" films reveals how little is truly new. What's fascinating is how great films have emerged from the recycled and reinterpreted.

Those who decry the current trend of remakes, sequels and TV adaptations should take heart in the story behind the making of "The Maltese Falcon." The film that we all know and love starring Humphrey Bogart actually was filmed twice before John Huston fashioned his third memorable version.

In its first incarnation, Dashiell Hammett's plot was a muddled mess. It's almost impossible to decipher who did what to whom. This version, also known as "Dangerous Female," also featured a roguish Sam Spade that is far slicker than the character created by Bogart.

As for the film's dialogue, though racy by 1931 standards, few of the lines are memorable. The only exception is a line spoken by a supporting female character that couldn't get past the censors when the movie was reissued five years later: "Who's that dame in my kimono?"

In Warner Brothers' second attempt to adapt the material, 1936's "Satan Met a Lady," the studio all but abandoned the mystery, opting instead to focus on comedy. All of the characters' names were changed. Spade became Ted Shane and the Brigid O'Shaughnessy character became Valerie Purvis. The character of the Fat Man became a woman and, instead of a jeweled-encrusted statue of a falcon, everyone is seeking a golden ram's horn.

When Huston decided to tackle Hammett's novel in 1941, he went back to the original source material. His adaptation wasn't slavishly faithful to the book (the novel ends with Spade resuming his affair with his dead partner's wife), but he was able to tap into what made the novel interesting - its moral ambiguity.

In Huston's version, Spade is hardly virtuous. He is emotionally distant, sometimes brutal and fully capable of setting up another character to be a patsy. He wants the falcon as much as the other characters. However, he lives by his own code and there are some lines he can't cross, such as forgiving O'Shaughnessy for the death of his partner.

This was Huston's first effort as director after making his mark as a writer. He had a lot riding on this project and it shows in the focus of his writing and direction. The mystery wasn't allowed to wander as it did in the 1931 version. And like the 1936 version, the film has its funny moments, though the humor is decidedly dark and fits well with the other elements of the story.

Besides the taut pacing and pitch-perfect dialogue, the movie had excellent casting. Bogart had honed his skills playing tough-guy supporting roles and he imbues Spade with that same toughness. Sydney Greenstreet, who had been a stage performer for years before making his screen debut, brought a theatrical flair to his role of the Fat Man. And Mary Astor managed to make O'Shaughnessy sympathetic despite the fact her character lies throughout the film.

That a gem like "The Maltese Falcon" evolved from a pulp novel and two failed adaptations gives me hope that something good can rise out this summer's schlock. I'm just patiently waiting for the next gem to escape Hollywood's dream factory.

• Michael Plett is an Empire page designer, copy editor and film buff. He can be reached at mike.plett@juneauempire.com.

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