As I said, the 1931 MALTESE FALCON was the first film version of Dashiell Hammett's novel. The second, a couple years later, was the rather light-hearted SATAN MET A LADY featuring Bette Davis and Warren William (of Universal's THE WOLF MAN as well as Perry Mason and Philo Vance movies). Naturally, neither of these films can hope to compare to the classic 1941 version. But the 1931 film (awkward, flimsy and routine as it is) isn't a total loss. The screenplay by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes sticks relatively well to the original novel; you'll be surprised when you watch it to hear quite a few direct quotes from the novel that would also be used in Huston's 1941 version. It's also interesting to note the scene in which Sam Spade is awaked by a phone call saying his partner Archer has been murdered; the same scene in John Huston's 1941 version is shot very similarly to the same scene in the 1931 version. The direction by Roy Del Ruth isn't much to write home about; it suffers from the long, awkward silences and forced badinage which many early talkies display. Roy Del Ruth (1893-1961) wasn't exactly known for his mystery/suspense credentials; other than the horror B-picture THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE , I know Del Ruth mostly for directing the Eleanor Powell musicals BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 and BORN TO DANCE. As an early talkie detective movie, THE MALTESE FALCON plays out only slightly better than average. There is never any sense of danger or, indeed, any mystery or suspense. In fact, the players mostly behave rather flippantly; perhaps in style at the time but today it can be a little annoying. One interesting note is the added-on final scene of the film which finds detective Sam Spade (newly appointed to the District Attorney's team) visiting femme fatale Ruth Wonderley in her prison cell. There is none of the sense of tragedy or emotional wrenching which Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor evinced in 1941. Instead, Spade is rather cavalier towards the woman he's turned in and comes across as quite the bounder.
The cast itself handles the proceedings, on the whole, adequately. Sam Spade is no Humphrey Bogart here; instead we find Ricardo Cortez (1899-1977) cast in the role of Hammett's detective. The aforementioned flippancy is amped up considerably by Cortez's performance; which is a shame since one gets the feeling that Cortez's Sam Spade COULD have been better had he been reigned in. Cortez plays Spade as a ladies man which, frankly, could have worked if not for the over-played flippancy. Ricardo Cortez was a silent film actor (appearing in the silent SORROWS OF SATAN) who would go on to appear in the sound films THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, THIRTEEN WOMEN (a personal fave with Myrna Loy, Irene Dunne and the Hollywood-Sign-leaping Peg Entwhistle) as well as the Boris Karloff horror-meller THE WALKING DEAD. The femme fatale role of Ruth Wonderley (the character is never known as Brigid O'Shaunnessey) is played by decidedly NON-femme fatale type Bebe Daniels (1901-1971) who would be more at home when she appeared in the musical 42ND STREET. Daniels is not terrible but she seems outmatched by the role which Mary Astor would make her own a decade later. A pleasant surprise is finding the wonderful Una Merkel (1903-1986) in the role of Spade's secretary Effie. Merkel, as usual, gives the most naturalistic, unaffected performance of the film with her easy-going breeziness. Merkel appeared in Roland West's sound remake THE BAT WHISPERS (more on Roland West in a minute) as well as DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (with James Stewart & Marlene Dietrich), the classic ON BORROWED TIME (with Lionel Barrymore), 42ND STREET, BORN TO DANCE (again with James Stewart & Eleanor Powell), THE BANK DICK (with W.C. Fields) and THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (with Lionel Atwill). Merkel is probably one of two actors who would've fit right in with the cast of the 1941 MALTESE FALCON (more on the second in a minute). The wife of Spade's partner Archer is played by noted comedienne Thelma Todd (1905-1935) who would be found dead several years later inside her car. Whether it was suicide or murder is still not known; however director Roland West was considered a suspect for years. Todd is probably best known screen roles nowadays are probably her appearances in the Marx Brothers' comedies MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS.
How can one compare the performances of Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet as Joel Cairo and Casper Gutman respectively to the 1931 version's Otto Matieson and Dudley Digges. Again, Matieson and Digges aren't bad in the roles; just undistinguished. In a pre-code movie like this, one would expect Joel Cairo to be played rather floridly but Matieson barely shows us any dandified behaviour. Effie tells Sam that there's a "beautiful" client waiting in the outer office that's a "knock-out"; Otto Matieson doesn't really fit THAT bill! Otto Matieson (1893-1932) would only make one more film after this (MEN OF THE SKY) before he would be killed in a car crash. Dudley Digges (1879-1947) as Casper Gutman can hardly be called fat but here he is as "the fat man" played by Sidney Greenstreet a decade later. Admittedly, Gutman is never referred to as "fat" in the 1931 film so that's merely a minor quibble. Digges does sport a rather amusing pair of spit curls encroaching upon his male pattern baldness. Dudley Digges (also seen as the "chief detective" in James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN) does play up the possibility of a homosexual relationship with his gunsel Wilmer "who is like a son" to him. The 1941 film really doesn't go there but here in pre-code 1931 the acting and script really seem to be stating this relationship unambiguously. And here, Wilmer is played by the incomparable Dwight Frye (1899-1943) who was all over those classic Universal horror movies from DRACULA (as Renfield) to FRANKENSTEIN until his untimely death from a heart attack. Frye is certainly the second actor from the 1931 version who would have fit right into the cast of the 1941 version. Elisha Cook Jr. was perfect as Wilmer but, had he been somehow unable to appear in the film, Frye would've been an apt replacement. Frye as Wilmer was also luckier in the sense that he isn't humiliated at every turn the way Bogart's Sam Spade humiliated Elisha Cook Jr.
Is the 1931 MALTESE FALCON worth watching. Well, yes. Will you be disappointed by it? Most certainly. Especially if you know and love the 1941 classic. But for any true fan of the book or the movie (which admittedly is essentially the book filmed), the pre-code 1931 MALTESE FALCON is worth a look. Although it REALLLLLLLLLLLLY should have been much spicier -- being a pre-code film and all. Ah well. If it (and SATAN MET A LADY) had been any better, we may never have gotten Huston's 1941 version. And THAT would've been the TRUE crime of the century!