Humphrey Bogart’s a hard act to follow, even if you actually preceded him. This is the problem facing Ricardo Cortez, playing Sam Spade in the original Maltese Falcon a full decade before Bogie: even though Cortez got there first, I suspect virtually anyone who’s seen the 1931 version has only seen it after the 1941 version. That the latter is no less than the third version of the tale is a fact probably better known now than it used to be, and all three have been handily compiled into one box set. Obviously I’m looking at all three in their release order here, but it’s still hard to escape the fact that the first film really comes after the later one in real terms. And taken on its own terms (as near as is possible) it’s not that bad; it’s of a piece, I suppose, with other Warner pre-codes I’ve seen since I first saw this nearly a decade ago, especially in terms of sex (Huston’s film had less choice about complying with the production code than del Ruth’s). I’ve seen other reviewers complain that Cortez’ somewhat smirking performance deflates any sense of menace, but I think that’s unfair; there’s a nastiness behind the smile which gives the character and the film a certain edge. But there is also an overall kind of light tone to proceedings, you couldn’t really consider the 1931 Falcon as being film noir as you can the 1941 version, and I suspect that stems from it being, let’s face it, a 1931 talkie directed by someone who wasn’t really a master of cinema; the pacing is problematic, and the contusions of the plot aren’t always well-handled. And it does give the sense that Hammett’s novel could just as easily have been made into a play as into a film, it’s pretty stagebound stuff. As I said, not bad, though I don’t think you can say it’d be better known if the 1941 film hadn’t displaced it; this was a box office failure 80 years ago, and without the Bogart film it might not be known at all now.
The Maltese Falcon (1931)