A couple of weekends ago, while Janet was partying with the girls in Milwaukee, I used several of the evenings available to me to watch some DVDs that I didn’t think she’d be particularly interested in. Somehow Christmas 2009 arrived fast from my point of view. Therefore, I was a little taken aback when Janet pointed out to me back then that I needed to: A) get to writing our annual Christmas missive, and B) come up with a list of Christmas-gift suggestions for both sides of our families. The Christmas letter, as in just about every former year when I was still working, filled about a day and a few hours on another (after Janet had a chance to proofread, edit and correct) to compose and complete. The gift list needed to go out by e-mail much more immediately, so in desperation I racked my brains for things I desired. (The previous year I had accidentally sent out the same list as I had in 2007.) I even went through the wish lists I have created on Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, which was a good technique because it gave me several idea—of of which my obliging relatives accepted.
One suggestion was a new three-DVD set of a remastered The Maltese Falcon, including Warner Brothers’ two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime novel. My niece Rachel went ahead and bought it for me (although I had felt its price was a tad steep for a Christmas gift) to my surprise and delight. The long bachelor weekend gave me the opportunity to watch all three versions as well as the additional “Making of” video and other specials (I still haven’t watched the Bogart version with the expertʼs commentary yet).
It was an interesting experience. I took them in chronological order, starting in 1931 with a straight version, very close to the book, that since it’d been a long time since I saw the Bogart version, seemed all right. It was pretty racy, clearly indicating a sexual relationship between Spade and the duplicitous Miss Wonderly, even indicating that they had spent the night together. I especially enjoyed Spadeʼs secretary, as played by Una Merkel in a delightfully spacey turn. The Spade actor was adequate, and Wonderly okay; there was some heat between them. The cops were good, too. The worst element in the movie was a really weak choice to end the film with a prolonged visit by Spade—now “promoted” to an assistant district attorney investigator—to Wonderly in prison. Vapid and sappy.
The second version, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, was simply odd. First of all, it was a comedy, nearly farcical (with three murders essential to the plot), and Spade (renamed Ted Shane) as a carefree, jovial playboy! I watched it, enjoying some moments, but it wasn’t good (and it tanked back in the Thirties). It was eerie to hear some of the same lines of dialog (also from the book) in such a different context. I really can’t comment much because it was really just bad.
That was all Thursday evening. On Friday I decided to watch another black-and-white movie I had never seen and also doubted Janet would enjoy, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. With Vladimir Nabakov himself writing the screenplay, it did a pretty good job of squashing the book into film. Peter Sellers was a hoot as Clare Quilty, and James Mason, always good, was oilily sympathetic as Humbert Humbert. The one who really gripped me, however, was Shelley Winters as Lolita’s mom — annoying dynamite and right on target all the time as that character.
I went back on topic to John Huston’s 1941 classic remake of The Maltese Falcon for Saturday night’s viewing. After the two earlier versions, this one truly was a revelation. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it before, but I had never appreciated or enjoyed it quite like this most recent viewing. Like the first version Huston’s script is faithful to the book (a Hollywood legend, retold in the “Making of” documentary, says he told his secretary simply to type up the text of the book in script form for him to consider, but Warner execs saw that typescript and asked it to be filmed—not true, I believe). What made it tower above those previous botches reveals the importance of good directing and good acting. Humphrey Bogart really is amazing as Sam Spade, trying to be coolly casual but tormented by his decisions and situations. Mary Astor always has seemed too demure and distant to me for Miss O’Shaughnessy, too apparently nice and sweet, no real hint of the character’s deviousness. I still feel that way; Bebe Daniels got closer in the 1931 film. On the other hand, as I learned from the “Making of” information, Mary Astor’s scandalous personal life colored in the character sufficiently for audiences back in the Forties, so we’ll give her a break.
Huston really understood the story and its themes. The cinematography, evidently the first real film noir, makes the most of strange angles, sharp and dark shadows, interesting shots (like Spade answering the phone at two AM and the camera remaining focused only on the phone), and moody atmosphere. I had always liked how Gutman is frequently shot from low and close below, making Sidney Greenstreet look even larger than he really was. It also works well for me that Spade’s apartment is lit so flat and harshly at the end (and does as the documentary indicated as well, feel cramped and small). Visually everything feels tense, raw, like the novel.
But the true mastery is in the meaning of the story in this version.
However I’m already tapping at 1000 words, my intended daily ration for the blog, so I better save the literary criticism/interpretation for tomorrow. (Images today all available on Wikipedia.)
©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.