The Maltese Falcon (1931) and City Streets

This is the kind of write up that tortures me (and you, too I’m sure) because I absolutely loved City Streets and it’s not available on DVD. Like Crashout, this is a film that more people need to see, but probably never will. I wish I could recommend it, but I’ll have to settle for telling you all about what you missed. Meanwhile, watch the TCM schedule and see if you can catch it.

But first, The (other) Maltese Falcon.

I’ve seen this one before, and it’s a pretty bad movie. Mostly on account of Cortez’ smarmy, leering performance. I actually like Bebe Daniels as “Ruth Wonderly” and the saucy Una Merkel as Effie but every second Cortez is on screen you want to knock that big cheeseball grin right off his kisser. I don’t buy him as either tough or sexy. The few times he’s required to show anything resembling real emotion it seems almost jarring, like something out of a different movie.

It’s a real tragedy that they couldn’t have this much sex and violence in the Bogart version, because that’s this films only redeeming quality. I love Bebe in the bubble bath and the scene where she’s forced to strip to prove she didn’t palm a thousand dollar bill. They don’t make any attempt to disguise the sexual nature of Wilmer (Dwight Frye!) and Gutman’s relationship either. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth checking out as a curiosity, even if it’s just so that you can have a giggle at Spade’s huge, luxurious apartment.

Now, a confession. I’m not a huge fan of the Bogart version either. It’s not bad, and it’s a thousand times better than this one, but I think it’s a little bit stagey and flat. I also find Mary Astor kind of sexless and unappealing as Brigid, although I loved her in Act of Violence. It’s too bad that a really dark, dead-on, true to the novel version of this story has never been made. Maybe someday…

Next up, City Streets

Muller kept talking about how handsome Gary Cooper is in this film, which is true, but I really fell for sexy Sylvia Sidney in her role as a street-wise mobster’s daughter.

This is the only Dashiell Hammett story that was written specifically for the screen, and it’s brilliant.

Nan, the aforementioned mobster’s daughter (step daughter actually,) played by Sidney, falls for a carnival sharpshooter and former bull-rider named Kid, played by Cooper. She works with her slippery stepfather’s mob running illegal beer. She encourages Kid to get in on the action so they can earn enough money to get married but he’s reluctant. Then she gets pinched trying to dispose of a murder weapon for her stepfather and goes to jail rather than rat out Pops. Pops convinces Kid that Nan needs his help and talks him into joining the mob.

Nan does the time like a pro with her mouth shut, but while she’s in the stir, she starts to have second thoughts about getting Kid involved in such a dangerous racket. Especially after her cellmate’s gangster boyfriend is murdered right outside the prison. When he comes to visit all dressed in spats and fur and tells her about how successful he’s been at climbing the criminal ladder, she’s heartbroken.

When she finally gets released, she begs Kid to give up the racket and run away with her. But he’s gotten used to the cash and the cars and big swanky house, and refuses. Until the boss starts hitting on Nan hard and won’t let up. Kid soon realizes the boss is going to rub him out so he can have Nan all to himself.

Kid leaves Nan to take care of business with the Big Boss, but Nan makes her own arrangements to meet the boss in secret, with a gun in her purse.

This isn’t Kid’s story, it’s really Nan’s and she is a sensational character. She’s smart, tough, resourceful and independent, but also fiercely loyal and not afraid to take violent action to save her lover. According to Hammett’s granddaughter Julie, who was on hand to introduce the film, Hammett thought Sidney was perfect and exactly what he had imagined for that character. Which is interesting because the role was supposed to be played by Clara Bow, but she had to back out because of her famous nervous breakdown.

Of course the film is a little clunky at times and you can see that they were trying to figure out how to use this amazing new technology, but that doesn’t take away from the crackerjack script and the terrific performances.

Again, I wish this film were more widely available. But if you ever get a chance to see it, you won’t be sorry.

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