Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Legendary Horn of Roland.

Those of us who love classic films often whine about remakes--especially when a film that is already pretty darn near perfect is remade into something awful. In my personal universe, no one is allowed to mention the 1976 version of King Kong within my hearing. As far as I'm concerned it doesn't exist. I won't say that I have the dismembered bodies of people buried under my floorboards because they dared acknowledge its existence while visiting my home. Or at least I'm not admitting it in any legally admissable way. But there definitely was NO remake of King Kong released in 1976. There simply wasn't.

I will tolerate the existence of the bloated 2005 version, because at least the film looked good despite its storytelling and pacing flaws.

But remakes aren't always bad. One of the most perfect films ever made was the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon. That was actually the third time the book had been adapted into the film. Two previous versions of Dashiell Hammett's novel had been made in 1931 and 1936. So here we have a case in which it took three tries to get it right. The remakes were necessary things.

That's not to say that the earlier films don't have their strengths. In fact, the 1936 version, titled Satan Met a Lady, is a fun film in its own right.

It's an odd little film It takes a brilliant hard-boiled novel and does the following:

1. It changes the names of all the characters. Sam Spade, for instance, is now Ted Shayne. Heck, it changes Casper Gutman (the fat man) into an elderly lady named Madame Barabas--who happens to be a well-known master criminal.

2. It changes the Falcon into the "legendary horn of Roland," which is supposedly filled with priceless gems.

3. Though it keeps the bare bones of the plot and vague parallels to the relationships between the characters, it changes the feel of the movie from hard-boiled to borderline screwball comedy. The various characters are still quirky, but not in a Film Noir-ish way. They're comically quirky.

Superficially, this sound horrible. But, if you don't think  of the movie as The Maltese Falcon, then all this works. Warren William plays Ted Shayne and its the sort of role William shined in. He's likeable, clever and charming--just as he was when he played other detective characters such as Perry Mason, Philo Vance and the Lone Wolf. Watching him fast-talk his way through the film, convincing the various villains one-at-a-time that he's working for them as he collects a fee from each, is a delight.

Bette Davis takes the Femme Fatale role. She hated this movie and was actually suspended by the studio for a time when she initially refused to do it. But she was a trooper and does a fine job in the role. The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Alison Skipworth as Madame Barabas--the only one of the villains who seems truly menacing.

It's interesting that an early version of Hammett's novel dropped its hard-boiled vibe and went for something more light-weight. That's not the only time this happened with the great hard-boiled writers. A few years ago, I wrote about Raymond Chandler's novels being adapted for films featuring established B-movie detectives, several years before more faithful versions of his novels were made that actually involved Philip Marlowe. It seems that after the Hays Code took affect, Hollywood was wary of the hard-boiled genre.

But Hollywood soon got over that and we had Bogart, Richard Powell and Robert Mitchum giving us classic Film Noirs. But before we got there, Satan Met a Lady proved that a more light-hearted romp through double-crosses, greed and murder was a worthwhile journey in of itself.

I've written about Warren William as the Lone Wolf a couple of times in the past. Now that I've written about him as (sort of) Sam Spade, I think I may keep going. Over the next few months, I'll do occasional posts looked at William as Perry Mason, Philo Vance and the arch-enemy of reformed thief Arsene Lupin.

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