Originally released 22 Jul 1936
Written by Brown Holmes
Directed by William Dieterle
Starring Bette Davis and Warren William
My rating: ★★ stars
Adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon tries too hard to be everything but The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon, the all-time movie classic, with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, came out in 1941, but it was not the first version of the Dashiell Hammett novel brought to screen. The first version, starring Ricardo Cortez as the iconic detective and Bebe Daniels as his femme fatale, came out in 1931. In this version, Hammett’s material makes for a racy, enjoyable pre-code romp even if it doesn’t have nearly the impact of the famous version.
Between these two films, a third version came out under the unfortunate title Satan Met a Lady. I find it inexplicable that Warner Brothers would not use the title of a famous novel in order to capitalize on its popularity. Satan Met a Lady is the least creatively successful of the three adaptations precisely because of the degree it diverts from the source material. It manages to strip the story of precisely the qualities that make it effective.
The film changes the names of the main characters, for no apparent reason. Sam Spade becomes Ted Shane (Warren William); Brigid O’Shaughnessy becomes Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis). As played by William, Shane, unlike Spade, proves impervious to any of the goings on in the film. He is unaffected by anything and anyone. In this way, he resembles the characters played by William in other mystery films of the 1930s. Perry Mason, Philo Vance, and the Lone Wolf solve mysteries, but they don’t become engaged in them. In the novel, Sam Spade does. The events of the story involve and change him. But Ted Shane remains above it all and, in doing so, stays completely static.
In this way, Ted Shane recalls William Powell’s interpretation of Nick Charles from The Thin Man, another movie based on a Hammett novel. Powell’s Charles is unflappable, like Shane. Furthermore, Satan Met a Lady adds an element of goofy humor to the character of Shane reminiscent of Powell’s Charles. Sam Spade has an acerbic and jaded wit, but Shane is far more light-hearted, particularly in his interactions with his secretary, Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson). Their byplay is reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles’s in The Thin Man and makes me think that Warner Brothers may have been trying to create a successful franchise along the lines of The Thin Man for Shane and Murgatroyd. This would explain the liberties the film takes with the novel’s tone and focus.
With such a large role for the secretary, Bette Davis’s ostensibly leading role (she’s top-billed) is diminished. Surprisingly, Davis makes little impression in this movie, but the script (by Brown Holmes) and the director, William Dieterle, don’t give her much of a chance to do anything. She flirts a little with Shane and has one good scene where she holds a gun on him, but the character has no depth and nothing that makes her inherently interesting to the audience. Furthermore, Davis and William have zero chemistry, which, combined with the movie’s push to put Shane and Murgatroyd together, leaves little substance in their interactions.
The supporting cast shows similar alterations. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in the 1941 version) becomes Anthony Travers (Arthur Treacher), Casper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in the 1941 version) becomes Madame Barrabas (Alison Skipworth), and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr. in the 1941 version) becomes simply Kenneth (Maynard Holmes). All of Satan Met a Lady’s character interpretations are more comic than those in the later film and in the source novel. They lack the desperation to go along with their greed, which is played as comical instead.
Despite the increased attempts at humor, Satan Met a Lady doesn’t succeed at being a comedy. The material doesn’t lend itself to being funny. The Maltese Falcon is an ironic and sordid tale, not an amusing one.
The film is not all bad. Skipworth gives an enjoyable performance, and the byplay between Shane and Murgatroyd can be fun to watch, but the film doesn’t work on the whole. The biggest crime in the film is pushing Bette Davis to the periphery of a film where she gets top billing to play a character who is fascinating in the source material and subsequent film incarnation. It’s not surprising that the year after this movie came out Bette Davis sued Warner Brothers for the chance to play better characters—she’s completely wasted in Satan Met a Lady.