THE MALTESE FALCON. Warner Bros Vitaphone Talking Picture, 1931. 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). Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Director: Roy Del Ruth.

   It’s taken me a long time to get around to seeing this one, but I’m glad I did. I’m going to assume everyone reading this knows the story, either by reading the book or watching the 1941 version, the one directed by John Huston and with Humphrey Bogart in his never to be forgotten role of private eye Sam Spade. Or both, of course.

   This first adaptation, as I’ve just discovered, follows the story line of the book just about as closely as the Bogart one. In my opinion, though, while very good, if not excellent, it isn’t nearly as good as the later one, in spite of the semi-risque bits it gets away with, having been made before the Movie Code went into effect. (I suspect that I’m not saying anything new here.)

   To some great extent, I imagine, how well you like this version depends quite a bit on how well you like Ricardo Cortez in the role. I didn’t, but on the other hand, who could compare with Humphrey Bogart’s performance, in a part made just for him?

   I don’t know what the critical or audience reception to this movie was at the time, but it didn’t seem to have any lasting effect on how detective stories in novel form were adapted to the screen. It took another ten years before film versions of other mysteries didn’t have to have goofy cops or funny detective sidekicks tagging along for comedy relief. There’s none of that in this 1931 movie, but except for a few exceptions, such Warner Brothers’ output of gritty crime and racketeer dramas, that’s a simple idea that didn’t catch on.