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The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth)

Not to be too obvious, but I really wasn’t expecting a twist ending for The Maltese Falcon. But only because I’ve… read the book, seen the 1941 version, seen spoofs of it; I sort of figured I’d be able to guess the plot turns. And I did, right up until the end, when Falcon shows its been doing an entirely different kind of subterfuge than usual. The film even takes a moment to acknowledge that twist and take a bit of a bow. It’s all quite the surprise.

But Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes’s script always seems too good for the production. Falcon is an early talkie. Director Del Ruth has no idea how to do close-ups—he and cinematographer William Rees—don’t match the angles right, the actors aren’t in the same spots, editor George Marks isn’t doing any extra favors (he doesn’t know how to cut line deliveries). The film does have some good visual storytelling ideas, but they’re mostly transition stuff; who knows maybe the script has the transitions. Or they’re just where Del Ruth has the best ideas. But—throughout—it’s clear this script deserved a better execution. Not as an adaptation of the source novel, but the script itself.

It’s not just the choppy filmmaking, it’s the acting. The best performance in the film is Una Merkel as Ricardo Cortez’s girl Friday. There’s a lot of implication they’re having an affair, but she doesn’t mind playing wing-girl for him hooking up with every other woman he meets in the movie until the last scene. Like, Cortez is a shocking man slut, so much so it forgives his performance. He comes off like a bit of a dandy, but then he’s able to toggle into being tough; he’s better at being tough. He’s a sociopath. So’s leading lady Bebe Daniels. Or is he falling for her and blind to it? Or vice versa? And those aspects of both characters is straight from the script, from how they behave, react to outside stimuli, whatever. It comes through in the film, but isn’t really presented well. It’s like the script has a point to make about the source novel, but the actual film doesn’t get the script is trying to make a point, but still precisely follows the script.

Falcon’s also pre-Code, so lots of sexy, lots of scanty. Since the film revolves around Cortez and Cortez is apparently only in the private detective racket so he can score with vulnerable women… even though Del Ruth and Rees can’t figure out how to match a shot perspective between close-up and two shot, they do manage to create a fantastic narrative distance. It’s just it needs to be identified, which doesn’t happen until the twist ending.

Back to the acting.

Cortez is okay. It works out, but it’s occasionally a little much. He’s only got like two things he can do. Three if you count him putting his hands in his vest pockets. Daniels is similar. She’s got some really good moments, but they’re spread out wrong. The film doesn’t know how to emphasize its actors’ deliveries, which is most on display with ostensible scenery-chewer Dudley Digges. Digges is a sweaty mess of vague but obvious sinfulness with major interpersonal communication issues. And somehow Del Ruth, Rees, and Marks manage to drain all the momentum from his deliveries with how they cut between shots. Maltese Falcon has a lot of pacing issues, down to reaction times for actors. There’s a lot of talking in the film; the vast majority of the film is just talking. And Del Ruth never figures out how to keep up the momentum of it. It’s like it ought to be stagy, but isn’t. Del Ruth is overenthusiastic when it comes to emphasizing the performances.

And it mostly hurts Digges. Hurts Matieson a bit, but not as much. Matieson doesn’t bit down on a sofa arm and rip it apart. Digges goes wild.

Walter Long’s good enough as Cortez’s partner. Thelma Todd is about as good but wasted as Long’s wife, who Cortez is having an affair with; naturally. Though, again, the twist. It covers a lot of storytelling choices from the script, including who gets screen time and how. Robert Elliott is annoying as the by-the-books cop. He comes off as an idiot, not a capable crime solver. J. Farrell MacDonald is fine as the good cop. They’re around a lot, but they don’t really matter because they’re not women Cortez can try to make time with.

The Maltese Falcon is way too blasé about itself. It’s got an exceptionally good script, but Del Ruth doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Or with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, William Rees; edited by George Marks; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Dudley Digges (Casper Gutman), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Robert Elliott (Detective Lt. Dundy), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Otto Matieson (Dr. Joel Cairo), Walter Long (Miles Archer), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), and J. Farrell MacDonald (Det. Sgt. Tom Polhouse).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE MYSTERY MANIA BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE.


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The Saint Strikes Back (1939, John Farrow)

The Saint Strikes Back is George Sanders’s first Saint film. It’s strong, even though John Farrow might not be the right director for it. The script’s great, playing to Sanders’s strengths of being the charming cad, but Farrow’s close-ups are poorly conceived and some of Frank Redman’s lighting is questionable. Jack Hively, who went on to direct one of these Saint films, does a good job editing it.

This one’s also a little different–while a lot of the principals are the same–Sanders, Wendy Barrie and Jonathan Hale (who both appear in other entries)–Jerome Cowan and Barry Fitzgerald are in Strikes Back, which gives it a more A picture feel, especially Fitzgerald.

It’s a solid mix of mystery and comedy. There’s some nice montage a couple times throughout.

The pacing plays up the film’s San Francisco setting (obviously it didn’t shoot on location). It does a lot to convince the viewer of the location, only starting to fall apart in the last act with the exterior of a house and it’s clearly a set. It doesn’t feel right, since the other street sets are so well-done, shot at night with fog machines.

Sanders and Barrie both have some great scenes. Their chemistry isn’t particularly sharp, with Sanders playing the big brother here. Fitzgerald’s a hoot. Neil Hamilton’s solid, even though he gets short-changed.

John Twist’s dialogue for Sanders is incredible. It’s quite hard not to spend one’s time watching the film grinning at Sanders’s deliveries.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Farrow; screenplay by John Twist, based on a novel by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Jack Hively; music by Roy Webb; produced by Robert Sisk; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (The Saint / Simon Templar), Wendy Barrie (Valerie ‘Val’ Travers), Jonathan Hale (Inspector Henry Fernack), Jerome Cowan (Cullis), Barry Fitzgerald (Zipper Dyson), Neil Hamilton (Allan Breck), Robert Elliott (Chief Inspector Webster), Russell Hopton (Harry Donnell), Edward Gargan (Pinky Budd), Robert Strange (Police Commisioner), Gilbert Emery (Martin Eastman), James Burke (Headquarters Police Officer) and Nella Walker (Mrs. Betty Fernack).


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Thunderbolt (1929, Josef von Sternberg)

Thunderbolt has some excellent use of sound. It’s a very early talky and I’m hesitant to say any of its uses were innovative, because the word suggests others picked up on the techniques and developed them. Most of Thunderbolt‘s singular sound designs didn’t show up again in Hollywood cinema for over twenty years. The way von Sternberg uses on camera singers, showcasing them as a performance for the characters to watch, not for the audience to see, doesn’t resemble any of the ostensibly similar scenes in the 1930s. The overall sound design–the street scenes, the edits–resembles German film a lot more than American; there’s a particular lack of flash to von Sternberg’s tone.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of flash in the screenplay. In terms of plotting, Thunderbolt is exquisite. The first half of the film operates without a protagonist. All of the films scenes are long, but those first forty-five minutes play even longer due to the passage of time (a couple months). There’s the initial setup, with Fay Wray and Richard Arlen as young lovers who get picked up by the police. It seems Wray’s got an infamous paramour, played by George Bancroft (as the titular Thunderbolt, a moniker describing his lethal right). There’s some stuff with Wray and Bancroft, then a very pre-code scene with Wray staying with Arlen and mother Eugenie Besserer, and finally the development into the second half of the film.

During the first half, Besserer and Arlen are good together, Wray is mediocre (she has some effective scenes, but the dialogue’s clunky for most of her performance) and Bancroft is overblown. There are some noisy police detectives too.

The second half of the film, with Bancroft on death row, is where Thunderbolt starts to pick up. The character–going into the second half–is already supposed to be somewhat endearing, because he cared for a stray instead of promptly murdering Arlen (and, presumably, Besserer). The second half doesn’t try to rehabilitate him. Instead, it’s a goofy prison movie with Bancroft as the gangster (who we never actually see commit any crimes in the running time). There’s some decent stuff, a few good scenes here and there; really, it’s about Bancroft all of a sudden becoming the film’s lead. His performance is occasionally shaky, but it doesn’t matter. He commands the screen.

The melodrama soon kicks in (Bancroft, from prison, frames Arlen and Arlen ends up on death row and there’s conflict) and the film can’t narratively recover from it. There are still some decent scenes, some excellent shots from von Sternberg, and Bancroft maintains. Arlen, on the other hand, is silly and awful. It’s a bit of a surprise too, because he was fine during the first half.

There’s also Tully Marshall as the absurd prison warden. It’s a movie about an innocent man on death row and there’s this goofy prison warden running around, aping for laughs. Bancroft’s got some funny observations too, but Marshall’s something else entirely. He belongs in a different picture.

Thunderbolt foolishly tries to rehabilitate its protagonist (and inevitably, I suppose). It just goes about it in the worse way possible. It removes the agency from the character, making his salvation a passive event. Instead of being interesting, it’s de facto.

The film gets long during its lengthy scenes, especially after the more interesting technical methods cease. It’s decent instead of interesting.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Josef von Sternberg; screenplay by Jules Furthman and Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Charles Furthman and Jules Furthman; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Helen Lewis; produced by B.P. Fineman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring George Bancroft (Jim Lang), Fay Wray (Mary), Richard Arlen (Bob Morgan), Tully Marshall (Warden), Eugenie Besserer (Mrs. Morgan), James Spottswood (‘Snapper’ O’Shea), Fred Kohler (‘Bad Al’ Friedberg), Robert Elliott (Prison chaplain), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. McKay), George Irving (Mr. Corwin) and Mike Donlin (Kentucky Sampson).


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