Tuesday, April 25, 2017

THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: The Many Faces of Casper Gutman


Private eye Sam Spade may be author Hammett's greatest creation. The moody anti-hero set the framework for all the hard-boiled fictional detectives that followed. In the byzantine tale of The Maltese Falcon Spade deals with the murder of his partner and a duplicitous client. The lies never stop and the oddball characters Spade encounters in the hunt for a bejeweled statue of a falcon include a neurotic gunman, a foppish go-between and a mysterious boss known as "the fat man".

"I'm not a man that's easily discouraged when I want something."
- Casper Gutman

The acquisitive fat man, Casper Gutman, in pursuit of fabled riches, sets in motion a global criminal enterprise that does not stop short of murder. The character looms large (pun possibly intended) before his first appearance in chapter 11 of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon in the fear and awe he inspires in those who know him. Readers are ready to be impressed and are not disappointed in Gutman's overbearing physicality and personality quirks. Actors of experience and talent would relish such a role.




The 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon directed by Roy Del Ruth, produced two years after the serialization and publication of Hammett's story has a sense of immediacy and the thrill of actors bringing the outrageous characters to life for the first time.

Brigid O'Shaughnessy, as played by Bebe Daniels, is top-billed and she glories in her role as a deceitful vamp. If all of detective Sam Spade's clients lie as much as she, it is a wonder he gets any work done. Fashion note: Daniels' wardrobe is to die for. Thelma Todd is a glamourously needy Thelma, married to one partner of the Spade and Archer detective partnership while fooling around with the other. Una Merkel is a treasure who stepped right off the page as the far too understanding secretary Effie Perine.

Ricardo Cortez brings the necessary equipment of a wicked grin and nervy nonchalance to Spade. Audiences would be anxious to see the wackadoodles on their treasure hunt. I feel Otto Matieson as Joel Cairo should have added more flamboyance to his characterization. What we know of him comes more from the reactions of others. Dwight Frye is delightfully distraught as that put-upon tough guy.  And then there is Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman.



Dudley Digges as Casper Gutman

Dublin born Dudley Digges (1879 - 1947) arrived in America with the George Arliss Company. He enjoyed a successful stage career prior to entering films at the age of 50. In a Broadway career encompassing the years 1906 to 1947 Digges directed and performed in Shaw, Wilde, Ibsen, Dosteyevsky, and the original productions of On Borrowed Time, George Washington Slept Here and O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. He was among the 1924 Broadway cast of Outward Bound who recreated their roles in the 1930 film, along with Leslie Howard and Beryl Mercer.



Recognizing the Russian's hand.

Casper Gutman as played by Dudley Digges is not a "fat" man, but an egotistical dandy who displays a narcissistic temperment and an almost maniacal steadfastness in his goal of obtaining the black bird. Our eyes cannot escape his fancy dress appearance with a prominent spit curl, his old-fashioned tail coat, exceedingly wide tie, jeweled stick pin and pinky ring. This character needs props and uses a lace handkerchief to steady his nerves and a fan to cool his excitement.

Digges twists his mouth and speaks with a guttural emphasis when describing the betrayal of his agents and the wonders of the treasure. Spade and the audience cannot help but think that here is a fellow not quite playing with a full deck. Such a fellow can be dangerous indeed.





Brown Holmes, who worked in the 1931 picture, wrote the screenplay for this version of Hammett's classic as well. Perhaps Warners was hoping to create another "Thin Man" with this comic treatment. It's not a bad idea as the dark humour in the story is one of the elements that makes The Maltese Falcon such a classic. Whether it works or not is up to the viewer. Stripped of its noirish atmosphere the preposterous plot and eccentric characters run wild.

Warren William's Shane (Spade) is a goofy playboy deftly hiding his private eye smarts. Top-billed Bette Davis as Purvis (O'Shaughnessy) is elegant, tough and cheeky. Marie Wilson plays Murgatroyd (Effie), and her adorable ditzy blonde seems to have a lot of fun with the outlandish goings-on and her handsome boss.

William and Porter Hall as the detective partners are a perfect comedic tag team and it is a shame that Hall's Ames (Archer) has to leave the film so soon, but c'est la vie. The Cairo stand-in is a "big, tall Englishman", Travers played by Arthur Treacher. William and Treacher are a treat with their dry by-play in a scene where the detective's apartment is torn apart in the search for a legendary horn filled with jewels (encrusted falcon). Wilmer has been morphed into Kenneth, a tubby mama's boy played by Maynard Holmes. Mama's boy? Yes. Meet Madam Barabbas.



Alison Skipworth as Madam Barabbas

London born Alison Skipworth (1863 - 1952) was an artist's model turned actress who began a stage career in America in the 1890s. Many successful years touring and lean years on the Great White Way eventually led to her talkie film debut at age 67. She was a film character actress much in demand and much appreciated until her retirement 10 years after entering the screen arena. Popular  film titles with fun roles for Ms. Skipworth include Outward Bound, Raffles, Night After Night with Mae West, If I Had a Million, Tillie and Gus with W.C. Fields, The Captain Hates the Sea, Becky Sharp and The Princess Comes Across with Carole Lombard. 

Madam Barabbas is an internationally known jewel thief, not an unscrupulous private collector. She is known to Shane and they meet with that surface cordiality shared by professionals. The meeting is a "cards on the table" sharing of information and plans for disposition of spoils. Of course there is a trifling matter of trying to put one over with knock-out drops, but it is all very friendly. After all, what could be threatening about a refined senior citizen obviously used to her comforts? A fur-trimmed gown and sparkly jewels are no harbinger of chicanery. She has taken a charming apartment and even has a pet kitten to keep Kenneth company.  Surely Shane would never suspect that she plans to kill him after the horn is retrieved. Of course he does.



A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

The well-prepared internationally known jewel thief always dresses appropriately for the situation.  I love this look worn with ease by "aunty" in a rain soaked showdown on the docks. The shootout and treasure hunt conclusion almost wraps up the story of Satan Met a Lady. The "I won't play the sap for you" bit occurs on a train where the whole affair began only 74 minutes earlier.





Only one thing keeps me from calling 1941s The Maltese Falcon a perfect movie. The unnecessary prologue with the misspelling (knight templars) makes me purse my lips and shake my head every time. After that all is marvelous. Here we have Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade creating an indelible character for the ages with his appealing mix of weariness and energy.

I do not know which was the final scene of the shoot for Mary Astor, but whether it was the last scene of the movie or not, I wish I could travel through time and give her a wordless hug of appreciation for her stellar performance of Brigid "honesty is the best policy" O'Shaughnessy. If that is her real name.

Peter Lorre is the Joel Cairo movie fans didn't know they were waiting for. Elisha Cook Jr.'s nervous energy truly fits the role of Wilmer. And then there is Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman.



Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman

Born in Sandwich, England Sydney Greenstreet (1879 - 1954) began his stage career at the turn of the 20th century. His career led him to America, the Broadway stage and the famous Theatre Guild. Like his fellow Gutmans, Greenstreet came to the screen at a respectable age, his being 62. His debut netted him an Oscar nomination in the supporting category. Until his retirement in 1949 Sydney Greenstreet gave us a host of memorable film performances from the entrepreneur of Casablanca to a Columbo-like police detective in The Velvet Touch.



"Here's to plain speaking and clear understanding."

The first thing to appreciate about the casting of Sydney Greenstreet is that he is big as befits someone playing a character described as "the fat man". Also, thankfully, this fat man is not the grotesquery as described by Hammett. Certainly, anyone as close to Jabba the Hut as described would be distracting, and nothing must distract from the sheer delight of Greenstreet's performance. Often shot from low angles to take advantage of the actor's bulk we are given an intimidating view of this villain.

Gutman himself is an actor who enjoys his turn in the spotlight. Watch as he relishes sharing the story of the falcon with Spade. How many times in his quest has he brought agents into his fold with the telling? Is it the same every time or does he embellish a touch here and a touch there? Watch the eyes as he measures his potential partner or victim. Will he continue with the jovial masquerade or let his cunning nature take center stage? He decides in an instant what will work best and carries on.



"It's a fake!"

You should expect that someone who considers himself a mastermind, who employs others for the grunt work, would be leery of the act of violence, but not our Gutman. He carries guns, he employs drugs and he displays none of that loyalty he expects from his underlings. The self-love of the true villain.

What lingers in the mind and imagination about Sydney Greenstreet's performance is the voice. The voice Hammett described as "purring". Those memorable lines and the faultless delivery often imitated by fans (admit it) as an affectionate tribute to a great performance of a great villain.





On Monday, February 8, 1943 devotees of Lux Radio Theatre on CBS were treated to a version of The Maltese Falcon based on the John Huston adaption starring Edward G. Robinson as Spade, Gail Patrick as O'Shaughnessy and Laird Cregar as Gutman. Bea Benaderet is Effie, Eddie Marr is Wilmer and Charlie Lung played Cairo.



Laird Cregar

Born in Philadelphia (1914-1944), Laird Cregar was introduced to the theatre while attending school in England. A summer job as a page boy at Stratford-on-Avon set his foot on the path of an actor, and that is the way he continued. Training at the Pasadena Playhouse and stage successes led to a contract at Twentieth Century Fox. A big man at 6'3" and 300 pounds, Cregar's talent was as outsized as his frame. Unconventional villains became his specialty in such films as I Wake Up Screaming, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Black Swan and as His Excellency, the devil, in Heaven Can Wait.

Cregar's size was not necessary in his radio interpretation of Casper Gutman, but it would certainly have added to the audience's perception of the character. Cregar's "fat man" is a suave villain, relying on his phony joviality to control events and people. His smooth baritone and perfect enunciation of a high class British accent sets him above the mayhem he has created. His breakdown upon finding the falcon is a fake takes him to the edge, and back again. Gutman plans to continue his quest.

The IMDb features this Cregar quote from an interview upon the release of The Lodger:

"Lots of people get a great kick out of evil efficiently wrought, and they write in and pat me on the back. Then, too, there are the righteous people who think I'm actually the kind of person I portray on the screen, and who enumerate the various ways in which they would like to eliminate me. The only ones I really like are the letters from the few kind souls who realize that I'm only an actor trying to make a living."

Perhaps that was the way with all of our actors who portrayed Hammett's legendary "fat man".



The ladies of SpeakeasyShadows and Satin and Silver Screenings are once again hosting that yearly treat The Great Villain Blogathon taking place from April 25th to April 29th. Thank you Kristina, Karen and Ruth.  Day 1   Day 2   Day 3   Day 4   Day 5










34 comments:

  1. I keep meaning to look at the earlier versions of FALCON. One day I'll have to give it a try. Interesting that the Gutman character was a woman at one point.

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    1. TCM is showing the 1931 Maltese Falcon this Thursday morning in a day long salute to Ricardo Cortez. It's not his birthday, but I don't question these things. I like Cortez.

      I think turning the character into a female for Satan Met a Lady was a great idea.

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  2. Fabulous overview of the Casper Gutman incarnations! Admittedly, the only version I'm familiar with is the Humphrey Bogart/Sidney Greenstreet film, but now I'm wondering why on earth I haven't seen (or heard) these other adaptations! I especially like the idea of Madam Barabbas as a jewel thief in Satan was a Lady. (Plus, Warren William, so you can't go wrong there.)

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this iconic villain. :)

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    1. I get a kick out of Satan Met a Lady, but haven't read of many who agree with me. I'd be interesting in hearing your take on these earlier versions when they come your way.

      1931 film is on TCM this Thursday morning. They're really on top of things. LOL

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  3. Yes, I agree - FABULOUS overview. I learned something new - well, quite a few 'somethings' actually. I want to see my guy Warren William in SATAN MET A LADY if I can find it. I have seen the Richardo Cortez version and really enjoyed it. I loved Sidney Greenstreet in just about anything. So for me, he owns the role of 'the fat man'. But the others, including Alison Skipworth are a treat to read about. I admit that the Casper character in the Cortez version of the story was a bit TOO much for me, but not totally bothersome. :) THANKS again, Pat, for an informative and fun post.

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    1. Thanks, Yvette. It was fun revisiting these adaptions of the famous story.

      On a whim, I checked YouTube and someone has posted Satan Met a Lady. Is it still raining in your neck of the woods? There's a lot of rain at the end of that movie.

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    2. Oooh, I'm going to rush right over and check it out - see if it's still up. I'm such a Warren William slave. Ha. Wasn't he just absolutely the best Caesar(with Claudette Colbert in CLEOPATRA?) - SWOON! Anyway, I see I have spelled Kasper with a C. Oh well, maybe I was thinking of The Friendly Ghost. And oh by the way, wouldn't Laird Cregar have made the best Nero Wolfe???

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    3. The hubby always calls him Warren William"s", just to annoy me.

      Hammett spelled Casper with a "C", but when they came to the 1941 version they switched it out for a "K". We can do whatever we want.

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  4. This is a wonderful read, and such a perfect villain indeed! I love your descriptions of all the character actors and their characters and the extra details that come up on the periphery of the different versions of The Maltese Falcon- though I will always love Greenstreet's portrayal of Gutman "self-loving villain" -- bigger than life- a true 'fat man' in that sense!-- Cheers Joey from The Last Drive In

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    1. Thanks so much. It was a lot of fun seeing what different actors bring to the same role. Greenstreet, of course, is my favourite. Not only because he was the first Gutman I saw, and in a very special movie. Everything he did was superb.

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  5. Greenstreet is the definitive Gutman, in my opinion, and the film itself is the definitive version, in no small part due to Greenstreet - if that makes sense.
    I see the others versions as curiosities mainly but they have their points. Greenstreet was just such a powerful presence and he dominates every frame he's in, and would do so in all his subsequent movies - he's a guy I never tire of watching.
    Cregar was interesting, and another great screen presence, so tragic how he passed so young.
    Colin

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    1. Yes, what you say makes perfect sense. The combination of role and actor made the movie.

      I would love to know the story behind Greenstreet's being cast as Gutman in this, his first film. Was he seen in a play? Did he have to audition?

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  6. What a great idea comparing all of the cinema Gutmans. I never cared for Satan Was a Lady. Found it misconceived. As for the 1931 version, it's a real sexy alternative to Huston's masterpiece.

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    1. There had been talk a few years ago about another "remake" and, fan that I am of '41, I couldn't imagine such a thing. Now I almost wish someone would take on the project. My curiosity has been piqued.

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  7. What a wonderful read! Thank you for this fascinating & insightful look at the various incarnations of one of my favorite screen villains. I have yet to see the 1931 version, and will be setting the DVR for the TCM showing, thanks to your heads up!

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    1. Thank you.

      I think you will find much of the 1931 film entertaining. Not the least of which is the presence of the ladies.

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  8. Even though he is evil, it is hard to see Sidney Greenstreet as Guteman as evil. I think it is the laugh. Hoping to see the 1931 version of Maltese Falcon this week on TCM. I have never seen it. We'll see if I see Guteman as evil in that version.

    Hope to see you at this week's The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. http://classicmovietreasures.com/the-classic-movie-marathon-link-party-5/

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    1. Ah, that's how Gutman fools us - with his laugh. It certainly is lucky for this post that TCM has scheduled that salute to Ricardo Cortez so folks can check out the first version.

      Thanks for the link. I'll have to join the party.

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  9. I have always been meaning to see the 1931 version, and now you have whet my appetite! I think I am afraid to compare it to the 1941, which I love so so much. Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Greenstreet are villains extraordinaire, and Bogart the ultimate Sam Spade to me. BUt now I MUST check out the earlier version, and seek out the radio show as well!!

    Thanks for your great work as always! You are a true film historian!
    - Chris

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    1. I have loved the 1941 version unabashedly since my teen years (late night TV with commercials). It is very interesting to see the earlier version. The Pre-Code era could get away with a lot.

      Thanks for the compliment.

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  10. I reviewed the Bogart version on my blog before I acquired the previous two versions, so I only mentioned them in passing. I found a DVD that had both in a discount bin a few days later and I keep meaning to get around to a follow up entry. BTW, in case your readers are interested, the full broadcast of the Lux Radio version is here:

    https://archive.org/details/LuxRadioTheater430208TheMalteseFalcon

    Great review.

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    1. Hollywood always seemed to have fun with its remakes. We should do the same. Certainly, in 1941 they really did it right.

      Thanks for the link to the radio program. I'm sure others will appreciate it. Poor hostess that I am, I should have thought of it.

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  11. I fell in love with Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca first and then I saw Maltese Falcon. Love it and love him. I got to see Maltese Falcon on the big screen a couple of years ago. Great post.

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    1. It must have been amazing to see The Maltese Falcon in a theatre. Like seeing it for the first time, I imagine.

      I believe Casablanca was the first time I saw Greenstreet as well. Such a delightful actor, whether he's on the right side of the law or not.

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  12. Great post but it's so hard to look at any actor as The Fatman other than Greenstreet and to debut at 62 is hard to believe and to land such a memorable role all the more so. Thankfully I'm no where near 62 so I just might have my own chance to debut yet.:) Doubt if it will be in such a role as this in the "almost" perfect film. A true classic and one I quote on occasion. The stuff that dreams are made of.

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    1. Greenstreet was the whole package when it came to casting Gutman. A gift from the movie gods.

      Ah, who knows what roles are awaiting you? Perhaps something comparable to the fat man.

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  13. Interesting overview of all the incarnations of Gutman. Didn't know the character had such a long history. Cregar would have been fine in the Bogart version, I think, but it's hard to fault Sydney Greenstreet in the role. Enjoyed this very much and thanks for spotlighting Alison Skipworth. She's one of my favorite character actresses. Love her in "The Princess Comes Across."

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    1. Cregar suited the role physically and talent-wise. Greenstreet has cemented himself in most of our minds as the perfect Gutman.

      Skipworth is a favourite of mine as well. I get a great kick out of The Princess Comes Across. I saw Night After Night for the first time a few months ago, and that's near the top of the list.

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  14. I love Dashiell Hammett, so I've been putting off seeing the earlier film versions because I know they veer a lot from the source material. In the case of Satan Met a Lady, I wonder why they bothered adapting it when it sounds so different than the original story. Maybe just capitalizing on Hammett's popularity?

    Part of why I enjoy Huston's film is his faithfulness to Hammett. The tone, the look, the characters -- it's all done perfectly. (I can overlook minor things, like Bogie not fitting the description of "a blonde Satan.") However, your excellent post has shown me that the other versions have their own points and I'll be sure to keep a more open mind whenever I do watch them.

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    1. I know you'll get around to the other versions sometime. Maybe not in the near future - heck! - maybe not for decades, but sometime you'll be ready to check them out. One thing I'm sure of, whatever the outcome, the films were made by people who liked what they were doing.

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  15. First, you were fast when commenting in my post!
    Now: I always paid more attention to brigid than to Casper, but there is no doubt Greenstreet has a great turn with the character. And, by what you wrote, the 1936 version must be a fine mess!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. First, timing is everything. I happened to check out the blog and there you were on my reading list where you hadn't been just a moment before! I was so pleased to find you there.

      You do have to wonder sometimes what the studios were thinking, but still I give them credit for trying just about anything.

      Greenstreet is a dream in the role of Gutman. Just love him.

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  16. Wonderful topic, so enjoyed reading. Fascinating to compare such different actors in, and treatments of, the same character.

    I wish Greenstreet and Cregar were around today to menace and class up the blockbuster/comic book movies. They'd steal the works. Thanks as always for being part of the blogathon!

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    1. Thanks a lot, Kristina. Is it my imagination or does this blogathon keep getting better?

      Greenstreet or Cregar gracing the blockbusters of today would be fascinating and oh-so-entertaining.

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REMAKE ALLEY: From Headquarters (1933) and When Were You Born (1938)

Another amble down the twisty byways that lead to those movies you watch and say to yourself, "Haven't I seen this before?"...