RogerBW's Blog

The Maltese Falcon (1931) 18 July 2021

1931 noir, dir. Roy del Ruth, Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels: IMDb / allmovie. So the dame hires the private eye to find her sister, who ran off with a man… Vtt Woman of the World, All Women, Dangerous Female.

Nick and I were looking at our favourite noir films for Ribbon of Memes, and the 1941 Maltese Falcon, the one everyone knows about, is one of my favourite films of any kind. But for this occasion, I thought I'd sneak up on it by seeing what had been done before. I'd seen this pre-Code version (and the other one) before too, but not in quick succession.

Naturally this suffers by not being the 1941 version, but it's interesting to me to see how it differs. Most obviously, it's pre-Code, at least in practice; the list had been formally published in 1930, but it didn't start to be enforced until 1934. So this version of Sam Spade has most definitely been sleeping with his partner's wife, rather than just having it hinted at; and Ruth very clearly offers herself to him as a bribe, rather than just hinting at that. There are homosexual slurs against the villains just as there are in the book (not counting "gunsel", which has its own special history).

And it fair bowls along, at 78 minutes end to end; there's a lot to do, and while one can see that it could easily drag, it never gets a chance. Cortez's Spade is cocky to the extent that one wants to punch him in the face, not to mention a performative lothario who goes after anything in a skirt to the point that I was actually surprised he was shown to be sleeping alone when he's woken to be told of his partner's death. None of the rest of the cast really stands out at all. But more insidiously, the film doesn't look like noir: it looks like a standard black-and-white talkie of its day, having made it out of the early era of film when directors simply copied stage productions, but being basically representative rather more than artistic.

And of course there's no real moral dilemma for this Spade, not even a hint of one: he's always on the look-out for a fall guy, and no mere woman is going to come between him and keeping his hands clean.

It's a pretty faithful rendition of the story, and as in the 1941 Falcon large chunks of the dialogue are taken from the book. It works on its own terms, and I think shouldn't suffer merely because of comparison with something that came later.

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

Tags: film reviews

  1. Posted by Robert at 02:03pm on 20 July 2021

    In the interest of a generational study of this situation and gunsel in particular, I first watched the 1941 version around age 8 with my grandparents along with Casablanca. I loved both, naturally. It was part of a spate of films they watched with me to explain the references in the Warner Brothers cartoon “Hollywood Steps Out” and so I’d understand the Peter Lorre impersonations in my grandfather’s Spike Jones record.

    In my previous fantasy, mythology, high romance, and historical reading on my own and with my dad I was quite familiar with the idea of mercenaries and the term sellsword. I never even questioned gunsel. Hearing it aloud rather than reading it I added an additional terminal L and it was just like sellsword but with word order reversed. And I used it wrong for many years after.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:12pm on 20 July 2021

    Well, yeah, that's the trick – it sounds as if it might mean that, which is how Hammett sneaked it past Joseph Shaw the editor of Black Mask where the story was originally published. We mentioned this at greater length in the podcast, but for anyone who doesn't have the good taste to listen, it's slang derived from gansel, the Yiddish for "gosling", referring to the junior partner in a homosexual relationship.

    Or rather it was, because lots of pulp authors read Black Mask, thought "this is a tough-sounding term for a gunman", and used it in that sense.

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