Cinema Slueth –  Sam Spade: Cortez Vs Bogart

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: Overall while the 1931 version was filled with sexual references and scenes making it much lighter in tone; the 1941 version was much more darker and more suspenseful. I must say that both Cortez and Bogart stayed true to their version of The Maltese Falcon, making both movies iconic in their own and both actors fitting as Sam Spade to the T.

Sam Spade is the fictional protagonist character of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. Surprisingly Spade appeared only in four more short stories which are much lesser known. Yet, he has become a cult icon for all the sleuths that would come out of future authors. Even Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was influenced by Sam Spade’s characterization.

Over the years Sam Spade has been portrayed by several actors on Radio, in Television and on Film. Howard Duff made a very convincing Sam Spade in the 1940s Radio series The Adventures of Sam Spade. He was followed by Steve Dunne as Sam Spade on Radio.

We see Warren William portraying the fictional detective in the 1936 American detective film Satan Met a Lady, a film loosely based on The Maltese Falcon. George Segal portrays the detective in the 1975 American comedy film The Black Bird, a sort of sequel to the 1941 Maltese falcon film.

But the two people who made Spade shine and make everyone notice are – Ricardo Cortez in the 1931 American pre-Code crime film The Maltese Falcon; and Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 American film noir The Maltese Falcon. While the 1931 version stayed true to the book, the 1941 version made Spade more cynical and hard boiled, capturing the book’s mood than the text.

A few years ago I watched the 1941 version when it aired on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel. I love Humphrey Bogart and all of his movies, so I was partial to the review I wrote for that film. Recently TCM channel aired the 1931 version and I wasn’t one to lose the opportunity to watch it.

I found Cortez very comical and a Casanova as Sam Spade. While Bogart was very hard, cynical and hard-boiled who looks at the world glass half empty. In this 1931 version, Spade’s partner Miles Archer is married and his wife actually carries on an affair with Spade. In 1941 version, Spade tolerates his partner who is married, and also feels sorry for losing him in a rather self-deprecating way. He does have a fling with her though.

Even the supporting characters seem more strengthened in their nature in the 1941 version. For instance, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo is much more sinister in the 1941 film compared to Otto Matieson who played the same role in the 1931 version.

Casper Gutman, the fat man, is played by Dudley Digges in the 1931 film while in the 1941 version this character is immortalized by Sydney Greenstreet. Whenever anyone thinks of the Fat Man, it is only Greenstreet that comes to mind. However Digges wasn’t half bad either yet he is forgotten.

Una Merkel as Effie Perine, Spade’s personal secretary in 1931 version is more inclined to be romantically linked to him, and also always pulling his leg with regards to beautiful clients. But in the 1941 version, Effie who is portrayed by Lee Patrick, is much more professional, serious and protective of her boss.

The 1931 version retained the references to homosexuality, nudity, overtly sexual suggestions and other aspects that the Motion Picture Code would have objected to. Those are either missing or written differently in the 1941 version. Although both movies kept the dialogues almost verbatim from the book.

The ending in the 1931 version gives the viewers hope and shows some redemption in the characters. While with the ending in the 1941 version, it makes Spade more cynical and gives viewers a glimpse into a very dark and scary world.

The one thing that is performed excellently in both versions staying true to the character as well as the book, was the femme fatale Ruth Wonderly / Brigid O’Shaugnessy – Mary Astor sizzled on the screen in 1941 while Bebe Daniels destroyed the screen with her portrayal. Bebe Daniels gets top billing in the 1931 version though.

Overall while he 1931 version was filled with sexual references and scenes making it much lighter in tone; the 1941 version was much more darker and more suspenseful. I had my reservations on Cortez’s Spade although I like Cortez’s films in general. However I must say that both Cortez and Bogart stayed true to their version of The Maltese Falcon, making both movies iconic in their own and both actors fitting as Sam Spade to T.

Spoiler Alerts:

Movie Trivia:

  1. Both versions had the same art director – Robert M. Haas.
  2. Both versions were Warne Bros productions.
  3. When sold to Television in the 1950s, the 1931 version was renamed as “Dangerous Female” to avoid confusion with the 1941 version. However, 50 years later TCM restored its original title card.
  4. In the 1931 version Sam Spade has a photograph that may be of actress Louise Brooks hanging above the phone in his living room.

Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors: From the 1931 version only

  1. Visiting Wonderly, Spade finds that she has been reading a book. In close-up, its title is shown as “The Strange Case of the Little Black Bird”, with a picture of the eponymous falcon on the jacket. But in other shots, it is “Famous Criminals and their Trials” (possibly the 1926 book by Sidney Theodore Felstead), with human portraits on the jacket.

2. Also in the same scene, in one shot he is holding book and talking to Wonderly; and the following shot when Wonderly walks towards him he is seen filing his nails.

3. The door is partially open in long shots and closed in close-up shots when Sam is talking to the detectives in front of his apartment door.

4. Cairo introduces himself as Dr. Cairo only prior to the apartment scene, yet Spade calls him “Joe” in one dialogue.

5. Wonderly hits Cairo on his forehead in Spade’s apartment. But the next scene when he is with Gutman there is no sign of being hit on his forehead.

6. The suitcases are identical including the travel stickers that are owned by Wonderly and the suitcase that contains The Falcon. May be because the suitcase was given to Captain Jacobi by Wonderly and that is her second suitcase. Perhaps!

7. The price offered by Gutman changes from $25,000 to $20,000 without any negotiation.

8. On the newspaper headline near the end of the movie, a housefly can be seen crawling along the exclamation point!

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