When 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.