Book vs. Movie: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon: Book vs. MovieWhen you have more than one screen adaptation of a novel, usually one is more faithful to the book than the other. However, in the case of Dashiell Hammett’s  The Maltese Falcon, it has two pretty accurate translations. The first version, released in 1931, stars Ricardo Cortez as detective Sam Spade, Bebe Daniels, and Thelma Todd, and it does a pretty good job of sticking to the source material. However, director John Huston’s 1941 film, with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet, is an even more accurate representation. It doesn’t stick to the novel exactly, but most of the dialogue is taken verbatim and the key story elements are kept intact. (Editor’s Note: There was also a very loose 1936 adaptation, with Warren William and Bette Davis, entitled Satan Met a Lady.)

Most of the differences are pretty subtle and probably were changed for the sake of pacing. For example, in the 1941 movie Sam finds out about the arrival of the boat La Paloma after he wakes up in Kasper (“The Fat Man”) Gutman’s hotel room and starts looking around the room. It’s a much more drawn out process in the book. In the book, Sam finds out Brigid O’Shaughnessy didn’t go to his secretary Effie’s apartment like she was supposed to. Instead, she had the cab stop to get a newspaper, then she asked to be brought to the ferry building. So Sam gets a copy of the paper in question to look for clues, but doesn’t figure it out until he starts snooping around Joel Cairo’s room and notices that the newspaper section with ship arrivals was of particular interest to him. Although there’s nothing wrong with the way that part plays out as written by Hammett, if it were filmed that way, it would have slowed the picture down. Another difference is that the character of Gutman’s daughter is completely absent from the Bogart movie (as well as from the Ricardo Cortez version, for that matter), but she wasn’t exactly a vital character in the book.

A lot of the other changes were definitely made because of Hollywood’s production codes. What’s interesting about that content is that neither the 1931 nor the 1941 version gets it exactly right. The 1931 film tends to be a bit more scandalous than the book was, but it does include things that were in the book that couldn’t be included in the 1941 remake. There’s no way director Huston could have gotten away with the scene where Spade strip searches O’Shaughnessy after noticing that $1,000 of the $10,000 Gutman promised him was missing, but it was in the 1931 version. The 1941 movie also really had to downplay the fact that Cairo and Wilmer were both supposed to be gay, whereas the earlier adaptation made that fact much clearer. In the book, when O’Shaughnessy finds out that Sam has been talking to Cairo–who is prepared to pay more money than she can– she offers to sleep with him and proceeds to spend the night at Sam’s apartment. When it comes to that part in the 1941 version, Brigid can’t offer herself to Spade or spend the night, so Sam just kisses her instead. As for Spade’s affair with Iva Archer, his partner Miles’s widow, the 1941 movie actually depicts what went on more accurately than the 1931 version. The first film made that affair more salacious than the book described. First of all, the book made Iva Archer out to be a little past her prime, which Thelma Todd most certainly was not. There also weren’t any scenes involving Iva showing up at Sam’s apartment and finding Brigid wearing her kimono, nor were there any of Miles listening on the extension while Sam and Iva set up a tryst.

I really enjoyed reading The Maltese Falcon, and I think anyone who likes either movie version would, too. Like I said, what you see in the two screen adaptations is pretty much what you get in the novel. And since it’s not a terribly long book, either, I definitely recommend reading it. As for which movie I prefer, I think it goes without saying that the Humphrey Bogart version wins hands down. The Ricardo Cortez version is good, but it doesn’t have the flawless cast and direction that the later one did. I always loved the cast of the 1941 film, but while I was reading the book and got to read exactly how each character was described, I feel like that version had some of the most perfect casting of all time. Nobody will ever make a better Sam Spade than Humphrey Bogart.

Angela runs the blog The Hollywood Revue and is a classic film enthusiast from Detroit. To keep up with the latest from The Hollywood Revue, please join her on Facebook.

  • srickcrump

    In 2009, a prequel book to the Maltese Falcon was published. It is called “Spade and Archer” and was written by Joe Gores. It gives some background to Sam Spade. It was pretty good.

  • BRIAN

    Ill stick with Bogie.Only he could do Sam Spade.
    The book wasnt bad.I read it years ago.

  • Juanita Curtis

    I saw the Houston version first before reading the book. I felt the movie was a very faithful adaptation allowing for code restrictions . I am very grateful to the Maltese Falcon for introducing me to the works of Dashiell Hammet and crime writing in general.

  • Jack Fitzpatrick

    Brian, Howard Duff on radio wasn’t too bad but I agree Bogie was the best.

  • Gord Jackson

    My personal interest is whether a film taken from a book works AS A FILM. They are two totally different entities, one the language of print leaving a lot to the imagination, the other the language of image which by its very nature leaves much less to the imagination. As such, I don’t much care with the film is a faithful adaptation or not. My only concern is whether it works as a film, as a progression of images.

  • Gord Jackson

    The second to last senetnece should read, “As such, I don’t much care whether the film is a faithful adpatation or not.”

    Sorry for the typo.

  • Bernard Jones

    I too have read Joe Gories’ book “Spade and Archer” and think it’s an excellent prequel to Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Of course, I love John Huston’s film version as well. However, wouldn’t it be wonderful if some film maker came along today and not only made a film version of the Gories book, but then afterwards, using the same cast in the Gories film, remake the Falcon again.

  • Eric Nilsson

    The 1941 movie seemed to be lifted from the pages. Each actor, save Sam Spade, seems to have been created by the book. Humphrey Bogart was the only one who was not as written, yet no other actor could do Sam Spade justice.

    There had been one in 1935, I think, that was quickly forgotten by the Huston movie.

    By the way, I agree with Gord Jackson that books and movies are different media. Not all books translate well (think the Edmond O’Brien version of “1984″). Others translate very well, only to be edited into insensibility (think “McTeague” into “Greed”).

  • Rufnek

    With only two exceptions, I generally like the book over the film because books are richer in details and, in many cases, more realistic. As for the homosexuality of Cairo and Wilmer, a no-no film subject in 1941, Houston was subtle in getting the message across, particularly in in how Peter Lorre portrayed the character with his curled hair, and in Spade’s and his secretary’s reaction to his perfume. It may have not been as obvious from Elijah Cook’s performance but Wilmer’s sexual preference was communicated in the movie through the frequent reference to him as a “gunsel”–which didn’t mean gunman as a lot of viewers think but was rather a 1930s-1940s term for a young homosexual kept by an older man (Gutman). It was obvious (to me any way) that the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer went beyond that of mastermind and hired gun.

    The reason the 1941 film is so good and sticks so closely to the storyline and dialog of the book is because the screenplay was written by Huston, who was a screenwriter before starting his directing career on the Maltese Falcon. Huston knew and appreciated good writing, so he made only a few changes to move the film along, including cutting a delightful tale by Spade about a man who disappeared, having decided to abandon his humdrum life after nearly being killed by a falling girder while walking to work. Spade tracked him down years later, working in the same sort of job, remarried to the same sort of woman, living in the same sort of house that he previously had abandoned. The reason, Spade explains in the book, was “because no more girders fell.”

    On the other hand, Huston added something to his film that was possible only in the movies. The ship’s captain who stumbles into Spade’s office carrying the falcon and immediately dies was played by his father, movie star Walter Huston, in an uncredited (and I think unpaid) cameo role. Walter Huston of course won an Academy Award in a later movie with Bogart, Treasure of Sierra Madre.

  • robert bishop

    Hammett was quite an excellent writer and much unappreciated. I too was introduced to him thought the latter version of this movie. If I am not mistaken he was involved in the screen play for this movie. As for the question of movie/ book being superior. A movie that is far superior to the book is “Three Days of the Condor (Redford, Roberson, Von Sydow). The book to be kind is tripe. That however may be the exception and not the rule. I also think that ‘Condor’ is more relevant today than even when it came out in 1974.

  • Bill C.

    While I love Humphrey Bogart in this movie,he really is not the “perfect” Sam Spade – at least as Hammett wrote the character.

    Bogart is essentially playing the Bogart “tough guy” character he played in many movies. There really isn’t much difference between his Sam Spade and his Phillip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” – and yet those two characters are very different on the printed page.

    The reason “The Maltese Falcon” sticks so close to the book is not because Huston wrote the screenplay. In fact, Huston confessed in later years that he gave the book to his secretary over a weekend and told her to simply break the book down into a shooting script format. Somehow that breakdown wound up on Jack Warner’s desk. He thought it was Huston’s shooting script, read it and okayed it for production.

    Huston had the good sense to keep his mouth shut. Although in a later interview he confessed to being somewhat embarrassed to having accepted the screenplay credit that really belonged to Hammett and Huston’s secretary.

  • C Carroll Adams, PhD

    When I was a small child in the 1930s my family loved crime and mystery stories. The monthly arrival of “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine” was a huge event. My Granny Vi was an early subscriber to “Black Mask” and had saved all the issues containing “The Maltese Falcon” as a serial. Of course she owned an autographed hard-cover first edition. When I was not quite 9 I enjoyed reading an un-signed copy, which I totally enjoyed. I agree that Hammett could spin a yarn.

    During the months leading to the release of the John Huston 1941 version of the film I learned about the 1931 version and “Satan Met A Lady” from 1936 with Bette Davis and Warren William. Since there were few revival movie theaters in those days there was no chance to see those earlier films at that time.

    Knowing I had already read the novel, during the first week the John Huston version opened in NYC my Granny took me to see it, and I was captivated. On one level I could understand why, because she shot Miles Archer, Sam Spade had to send her over, in my heart I hoped she would not be hanged and that Sam would wait for her release.

    Even as a child I felt there was no reason to compare the original story to a finished film.

    By 1941 I had enjoyed Una Merkel in several movies. Two of the few revival movies I was able to see were “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933″ so I was very familiar with former silent screen star Bebe Daniels and Warren William, as well as Bette Davis.

    So for years I kept hounding curators to show the 1931 version and the 1936 comedy. That did not happen until the early 1950s when I became a junior executive at a movie studio close to Warner Bros in Burbank. By trading some favors I was able to attend screenings of the Ricardo Cortez/Bebe Daniels 1931 version with Una Merkel as “Effie” and Thelma Todd and “Iva Archer” People I met at WB told me that they had worked on all three versions and that the 1931 version was considered a big hit at the time.

    A month or so later I was invited to a screening of “Satan Met A Lady” which I was told had turned a profit.

    So, imagine my joy when WB issued a DVD set including all three versions. Granny left her autographed first edition to a library, but I did keep the copy I had read as a child. Long before DVD was invented through dealers in such things I managed to buy shooting scripts of all three versions.

    If I could wave a magic wand, I would love to make still another version of “The Maltese Falcon” mixing and matching elements and without concern about Joseph Ignacius Breen and the Production Code.

    Generally I would go back to the 1931 script, but with some of the Huston touches. For sure I would retain the way “The Fat Man” swatted flies from 1931 and 1941.

    I mean no disrespect to performers I would not cast. I personally think my choices are more appropriate. Of course, because this is all magic, each performer selected would be the ideal appropriate age in my version.

    From 1931 I want Una Merkel as Effie and Thelma Todd as Iva. From 1936 I want Bette Davis as Ruth/Bridget, but as Bette looked circa 1932 or so. From 1941 I want Bogart as Sam Spade as he looked in 1941. Same for Jerome Cowan as Miles Archer; Sydney Greenstreet as Gutman; Barton MacLane as Lt Dundy. I want Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, but as he looked when younger, circa 1935. I led Ward Bond as Det Tom Polhaus in 1941 but would prefer the way he looked in the mid 1930s. I also would prefer Elisha Cook Jr as Wilmer, but appearing slightly younger.

    As I said, I would ignore the Production Code, perhaps ramping up the sexual tension beyond the novel and 1931 version, but in good taste. For sure I want to retain the flirtation between San and Effie and Sam and Bridget, but I would tone this down between Sam and Iva. Having seen Thelma Todd playing her sexuality more subtly for other directors, I have always blamed the 1931 director for her hammy performance.

    My bottom line opinion is that three talented cast and crews made work in hard times making the three versions of “The Maltese Falcon.”

    I confess, that when I only have time to look at one version, I do watch the 1931 version.

    • Dennis M. Walsh

      Dr. Adams, I’ve been trying to contact you. I met you during the first Spector trial when you sat in across the hall on the murder trial of my brother’s killers (David Steinberg and Jeffrey Weaver.) If you get this message, please contact me at walshatlaw@roadrunner.com Thanks,

      Dennis M. Walsh

  • Roger Phillips

    “The Maltese Falcon” bored me and I had trouble keeping up interest. I do not understand how it is considered a great movie. It truly pales in comparison to the much better “Double Indemnity”. (But maybe an actor not too handsome and chainsmoking, talking monotone does not exactly make an exciting story). Plus the plot seemed not so interesting to keep my attention.

  • Tito Pannaggi

    How can anyone dislike “The Maltese Falcon” , did you fall asleep during the beautiful moments with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet? They were always great!