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.
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 Speakeasy, Shadows 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