- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

At a curiously absentminded juncture in his 1980 autobiography, “An Open Book,” John Huston wrote, “Only successful pictures are made over again. … I’ve never known of an instance where the remake was as good as the original.”

How about famously better than the original? The septuagenarian memoirist had temporarily forgotten his own debut feature as a Hollywood writer-director, the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon.” It was Warner Bros.’ third stab at Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel, acquired soon after its publication in 1930. The belated Huston movie proved the charmed attempt, a re-enactment so entertaining and definitive that moviegoers have not required cinematic improvement with that source material for 65 years.

In recognition of this Huston centennial year — the late filmmaker was born in 1906 and died in 1987 — a new DVD edition of “The Maltese Falcon” is in circulation. Blithely and usefully inviting comparisons, this three-disc set includes the earlier versions, which left plenty to be desired in terms of expert execution or fidelity.

The timeliest was the 1931 “Maltese Falcon” directed by Roy del Ruth. Admirers of the Huston classic are often surprised at how much dialogue the del Ruth and Huston movies have in common — a tribute to the original author. The credits of the first film are superimposed over the book’s best-selling cover, and the screenplay is reasonably faithful to the Hammett plot — especially when compared to the 1936 revamp, titled “Satan Met a Lady” and played as screwball farce with occasional mystery motifs and Hammett remnants.

Made before the advent of the Production Code, the first version is also the raciest in some respects. It slips Bebe Daniels as femme fatale Ruth Wonderly into a tub and then compels her to strip when Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade insists that she disprove an accusation of theft on the spot. Scattered humorous touches are difficult to resist: for example, garbing bedtime Spade in polka dot pajamas and providing Wonderly with two hiding places for ready cash, her bodice and the top of her stockings.

Unfortunately, the first “Falcon” is often hampered by stilted readings, especially in foot-dragging scenes where Spade confronts policemen. Major and minor roles are so much better cast in the Huston remake that the cliche about casting being a director’s most important single prerogative is emphatically confirmed. The 1941 ensemble: Humphrey Bogart as Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaugnessy (aka Miss Wonderly), Sydney Greenstreet as Kaspar Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, et al, appears even more heaven-sent if you watch the three versions in chronological order.

I’m not as inclined to scorn “Satan Met a Lady,” directed by William Dieterle, as I once was. There’s something to be said for a mocking version of any classic, and there was no particular reason to regard “Falcon” as a sacred text within the crime fiction tradition five years after its publication. On its own terms the movie is a breezy and clever travesty, no doubt intended to compete with the playful tendencies of “The Thin Man.” A proper respect for “The Maltese Falcon” is never an imperative.

Certain performers have durably amusing identities — Marie Wilson as an adorable bimbo, Alison Skipworth as an arch-dowager, Arthur Treacher as an arch-valet posing as a menace, Bette Davis as a double-crosser — that “Satan” can justify its existence as a period piece and facetious showcase. There are even stylistic links with the Huston film in two cases — cinematographer Arthur Edeson and costumer Orry-Kelly, who returned in the same specialties five years later. “Satan” gave the masterful Mr. Edeson an atmospheric opportunity that might have been a budget-buster for Mr. Huston, obliged to command a very tight and economical ship — a prolonged, dockside showdown and shootout are staged during a rainstorm.

There are numerous wrongheaded notes in a featurette appended to the main attraction, under the title “One Magnificent Bird.” Predictably, the most dubious line of argument is to welcome Mr. Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” as a foreshadowing of “film noir,” now the True Genre Faith among pretentious movie buffs. (Frank Miller of graphic novel renown takes the cake when congratulating Huston & Co. for “embracing the essence of noir.” The magic French word is magnified by his fruity pronunciation: “new-Ah.”)

In reality the Huston breakthrough was a consequence of several other factors, notably the filmmaker’s own diligent preparation and accumulated experience as a screenwriter at Warner Bros. He could scarcely have embraced a genre that hadn’t been coined yet, patiently awaiting French critical discourse after World War II.

Returning to “An Open Book” supplies the common sense gospel. Mr. Huston recalls, “I came very well prepared for my first directorial assignment. ‘The Maltese Falcon’ was a very carefully tailored screenplay, not only scene-by-scene but set-up by set-up. I made a sketch of each set-up. … I didn’t want ever to be at a loss before the actors or the camera crew. I went over the sketches with Willy Wyler. He had a few suggestions to make, but, on the whole, approved what he saw. I also showed the sketches to my producer, Henry Blanke. All Blanke said was, ‘John, just remember that each scene, as you shoot it, is the most important scene in the picture.’ That’s the best advice a young director could have.”

Every exceptional popular movie does tend to play as vividly and incisively as “The Maltese Falcon” has since its completion in 1941. Stories, performers and intentions may diverge, but when a film is really cooking, it’s because every scene falls smartly into place and refuses to collect slack. One savors the sensation of optimum takes, adding up methodically and without a hitch, culminating in a finished movie that defies staleness or obsolescence. Whatever was alive and responsive on the days of shooting seems to remain miraculously preserved and compressed.

Although James Agee doesn’t get credit for originating the term “in the moment,” ubiquitous among movie folk for almost a generation, he anticipated it while praising Mr. Huston’s work in a 1950 Life magazine profile titled “Undirectable Director.” The piece was, of course, something of an audition, since the director hired the writer to do early screenplay drafts of “The African Queen” soon afterward.

Despite the self-interest, Mr. Agee did isolate the nature of astute film direction when commending Mr. Huston’s skill at making scenes “seem to happen for the first and last time at the moment of recording.” One of the director’s best self-evaluations derived from “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” His approach, Mr. Huston said, was to “look on and let the characters stew in their own juice.” Not a bad approach with any prospective dramatic conflict. John Huston’s knack for savory stewing was evident at the outset of his directing career.

TITLE: “The Maltese Falcon”

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1941, decades before the advent of the rating system; occasional violence and systematic sinister elements)

CREDITS: Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by Mr. Huston, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Cinematography by Arthur Edeson. Art Direction by Robert Haas. Costumes by Orry-Kelly.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Video

WEB SITE: www.warner video.com

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