Monday, January 07, 2008

Satan Met a Lady

1936, US, directed by William Dieterle

This second version of The Maltese Falcon changes the names and some of the plot details just five years after the original filming, playing the whole complicated affair as a light farce (in the wake of the hit adaptation of another Dashiell Hammett novel, The Thin Man).

Warren William is cast as Ted Shayne, the Sam Spade character, a pretty affable fellow by William's standards, as the actor was more frequently cast in roguish parts. William's character is absolutely the rogue where women are concerned, though, pursuing virtually every actress who walks across the screen, even flirting shamelessly with a much older woman (Alison Skipworth, who plays the Sydney Greenstreet role). William is clearly having tremendous fun as Shayne, who treats everything as one big joke (most notably in an extended "robbery" sequence with Arthur Treacher, one of Hollywood's great butler types).

Even by the standards of Warner Brothers in the 1930s, the first half-hour feels extremely brisk, with some scenes seeming to end abruptly, though it's not entirely clear if this is due to William Dieterle's swift direction or the surviving print. Bette Davis shows up after about 30 minutes, and the rhythm settles down, but this isn't one of the actress's more notable films; she's upstaged, for the most part, by Marie Wilson, who has the right breezy tone as Miss Murgatroyd, Shayne's secretary.

There's a striking moment near the end which seems, at first glance, an instance of ugly racism of a kind that, even for an industry that was hardly progressive, seems rather blunt. The character who casually orders a black porter around quickly finds the joke's on him, however, and as the joke is extended it's hard not to think that the film is trying to make a broader point about the treatment of black characters (and the actors who play them).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States