RogerBW's Blog

Satan Met a Lady 20 July 2021

1936 noir comedy, dir. William Dieterle, Warren William, Bette Davis: IMDb / allmovie. So once more the dame hires the private eye to find her sister, who ran off with a man… Vtt Men On Her Mind, The Man in the Black Hat, Hard Luck Dame.

The 1931 Maltese Falcon couldn't be re-shown in the Code era, because of its lewd content. So Warners remade the book… as a comedy. (They also renamed everyone and changed the Falcon to the Horn of Roland, presumably for reasons.) Though the title is at least inspired by the book; at the end of the first paragraph, "[Spade] looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."

And the basic problem with this comedy is that it, well, isn't very funny. Bette Davis hated the thing, and it shows; she stuck with it because she was promised something better, and then they put her onto God's Country and the Woman, at which point she sued to try to get out of her contract (which didn't work, but did at least pave the way for her getting some good parts). Though she does a few good lines here ("would you mind taking off your hat in the presence of a lady, with a gun") and one utterly perfect visual moment, filmed by Arthur Edeson (who'd also work on the 1941 Falcon), though mostly this film is visually unremarkable.

One can't help notice, though, that she isn't really the leading lady at all: she goes through the motions, but not-Spade's secretary (the always-excellent Marie Wilson) has much more to do, and apart from one scene of performative stupidity is clearly much more on the ball than anyone else in the story. (Except that she decides she wants not-Spade for herself at the end, which shows rather poor judgement.) The Joel Cairo role is played rather well as a proto-spiv by Arthur Treacher, who mostly did very proper butlers and manservants, and Gutmann becomes Madame Barabbas, played by English veteran Alison Skipworth, but in very much the style of the book – an early example of accidental gender-blind casting, perhaps.

Warren William plays Spade as much the same skirt-chaser that Ricardo Cortez portrayed, though the Code means he has to be a little more subtle about it; in the rest of his career he mostly played villains, and he does his best here, but he's certainly not great. Overall, this production holds together and is very welcome for a quite different perspective on the source material, but it certainly can't be considered a classic.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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