By now everyone knows that the 1941 Maltese Falcon with Bogart and Mary Astor was the third remake of the story. And when I heard about the DVD set that combined the 1931, 1936, and 1941 versions in one convenient package, I just had to buy one, completist that I am.
So: The 1931 version has Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and is a pretty decent film in its own right (unlike the perfectly awful 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady). Surprisingly large chunks of dialog from this one made it into the 1941 version, including early exchanges between Sam Spade (Cortez) and Ruth Wonderly (Daniels) and the famous “I like a man who likes to talk” sequence between Spade and Casper Gutman (played with wonderful oiliness by Dudley Digges).
The Wilmer character (played by Elisha Cook, Jr in 1941) was played by everybody’s favorite near-psycho, Dwight Frye, who does a lot with almost no lines whatsoever.
But how do the leads do? Surprisingly well. Ricardo Cortez , who, to be frank, was kind of a stiff in the other two movies I’ve seen him in (The Lost Zeppelin and Postal Inspector) is nicely sleazy as Sam Spade–he doesn’t exude the inner core of integrity that Bogart had in the part. And it’s refreshing to see a guy who usually played straight arrows sass the cops and lounge around nursing a drink.
And Bebe Daniels just burns up the screen. She’s easily five times as sexy as poor miscast Mary Astor. She appears in lingerie several times, has a bath scene, and when she presses herself against our hero and looks up at him and says “Help me, Mr. Spade,” well, you can bet I’d help her, even if it meant the chair.
So, to sum up: Perhaps not the classic that the 1941 version is, but a perfectly respectable film in its own right. You oughta see it, just to see Bebe Daniels. Hubba hubba!