The 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel The Maltese Falcon provides a curiously unique opportunity for examination of the extent to which a director influences a film. When it comes the world of Hollywood, two myths continue to persist to the point where they have become unchallenged pearls of conventional wisdom. One, the book is always better than the movie. And two, the remake is never as good as the original. In the case of adaptations of Hammett’s novel, neither of conventions prove unerring in their wisdom.
First, there is the case of the remake versus the original. John Huston’s assured and unobtrusive direction of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor and the rest of his top-notch catch is indisputably the classic cinematic take on that story about greedy and quite possibly incredibly gullible low-life treasure hunters chasing a statue of a bird around the globe. What even man fans do not realize is that not only is this classic a remake, but it is actually twice remove from the original. Two versions of Hammett’s novel made it to the screen in the ten years before Huston, Bogey and the rest sealed the deal on how to make it right. The first version was also known under the stupendously uncreative title Dangerous Female. The second remake corrected that mistake to a degree by retitling the source material with the far more enigmatic Satan Met a Lady. Unfortunately, massive alterations from Hammett’s novel did not stop at the title and the result is a version of The Maltese Falcon all but unrecognizable to fans of perhaps the only second remake of a movie to establish itself as the classic.
That first version was directed by Roy Del Ruth during the Pre-Code Era before the institution of the Hays Code standards for censorship. As a result, in some ways it is a more faithful adaptation than the 1941 remake in that it includes scenes from the novels that would be forbidden by the time Huston got his hands on the material. In another more authentic sense, however, the 1941 version is more faithful to the novel and it is in this sense that the extent of directorial influence on an existing property is best demonstrated. The 1931 Pre-Code version contains excellent performances all around…yet its Sam Spade and Casper Gutman and Joel Cairo are very different characters from the ones most movie fans know. John Huston did not just direct the 1941 remake of The Maltese Falcon, he also wrote the screenplay for which he received an Oscar.
Which brings the conversation back to whether the book is always better than the movie. Sometimes that is true. Sometimes the movie far exceeds its literary inspiration. Far rarer are instances like Huston’s take on The Maltese Falcon in which the book and its movie adaptation exist on the same plane. The reason why book and movie are equally enjoyable is that Huston’s script is one of the faithful adaptations of the dialogue from a book ever. What allows the third remake to become the classic that the surprisingly faithful original did not, however, is Huston’s direction of that dialogue. That direction is faithful to the tone and pacing of Hammett’s novel in a way that neither the original nor the misguided first remake never come close to approaching.
Thus, the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon reveals that the influence of a director can be felt on a literary adaptation even when it is a remake of an almost equally faithful adaptation of the source material. Huston was quite clearly so familiar with his source material that he was able to use the art of direction to transfer intangibles like tone and pacing from page to screen fully intact.