[i]The Maltese Falcon
[/i]dir. Roy Del Ruth
This original version of the Dashiell Hammett novel is a provocative, tight investigation into a world of greed, betrayal and the feminine mystique.
The story involves the search for a jeweled falcon that has a vaunted pedigree and is ostensibly worth more than $500,000. The film tracks several individuals keen on retrieving the valuable statuette for a variety of motives. Det. Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) becomes involved when the seductive Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) saunters into his office needing him because she claims her sister has run away with a man named Floyd Thursby. Spade's partner Miles Archer investigates and is duly murdered. Thursby is also gunned down and the police suspect that Spade committed the act to avenge his partner's death. Nothing can be proven so Spade continues to work all angles in pursuance of this mysterious bird.
There is a sense of playfulness about this film that comes through in the performances of the various women. Thelma Todd is impossibly coy and sophisticated. As the film begins she's been having an affair with Spade and isn't too terribly shaken up by her husband's murder. Bebe Daniels is a whirlwind of nervous energy as a woman perfectly capable of hiding behind a series of masks provided they serve her intentions fully. As Spade's secretary Effie Perrine, Una Merkel glides coquettishly around the office doing a terrible number with her eyes and slyly slipping out of doorways quite suggestively. All told, the women are all playthings for the cad Spade who seems to have access to more women than he knows what to do with. Cortez spends most of his time smiling madly as it is clear he is in his element with all the women who surround him. He teases Effie and treats her like a lover with intimate pats and slight come-ons.
The film is well constructed with an openness that is felt mostly through the lighting and interiors. Spade meets two other men who want the falcon and are willing to pay him handsomely for it. Caspar Gutman (Dudley Digges) offers him 25 % of the final sale price and another sniveling man named Cairo (Otto Matieson) offers him five grand. Cairo is a slippery eel with a creepy disposition that is increasingly unpleasant as the film progresses. The mood of the pic is upbeat and oft-times downright jaunty as the performers bounce off one another in various states of ease. The end is neat and almost polite as it explores the nature of betrayal when complicated with sentiments of deep affection.
Overall, this is a credible first shot at Hammett's novel. It's not as dark and claustrophobic as the remake and subsequently offers a light, intimate portrait of the great Sam Spade and his towering charm and frolicsome charisma. The women purr and cavort in several scenes that were quite salacious at the time. There is an atmosphere of license throughout this production and each actor performs with sharp timing and ceremonial zeal. Ultimately, it's a fine look into the eyes of seduction and greed and possesses an energy that renders it decisively rich and entertaining.