by Allan Fish
(USA 1931 80m) DVD1
Aka. Dangerous Female
The strange History of the Little Black Bird
d Roy del Ruth w Maude Fulton, Lucien Hubbard, Brown Holmes novel Dashiell Hammett ph William Rees ed George Marks m Joseph A.Burke art Robert Haas cos Earl Luick
Ricardo Cortez (Sam Spade), Bebe Daniels (Ruth Wonderly), Dudley Digges (Caspar (sic) Gutman), Dwight Frye (Wilmer Cook), Otto Matieson (Joel Cairo), Thelma Todd (Iva Archer), Una Merkel (Effie Perine), Walter Long (Miles Archer), J.Farrell MacDonald (Det.Tom Polhaus), Robert Elliott (Det.Lt.Lundy),
The positioning here of Roy del Ruth’s original take on the Dashiell Hammett classic shouldn’t be mistaken for an act of preference. No-one could say that it was as good as the immortal Huston/Bogie version a decade later, and yet stranded on the desert island with these good companions by my side, there would be a gnawing itch at the back of my head while I was watching Bogie send Mary Astor over; an itch with a distinct smell of pre-code sex and sin. So that while I’d always take the remake over the original, only by being greedy and taking both would the itch go away.
For a time it lay almost forgotten, not helped by being known under the ho-hum title of Dangerous Female when showing on US TV. It’s true, it moves differently to the later film, and it’s also two reels shorter. The plot is the same, probably more so, and shows Sam Spade having an affair with his partner Miles Archer’s wife Ida, seeing Archer get killed on a somewhat dubious job for a mysterious young woman called Ruth Wonderly, and Sam get put into the spotlight as chief suspect by the somewhat dim-witted flatfoot Lundy. Sam and Ruth wind up having an affair in the aftermath, when it transpires her cover story was just that and her real motive was the recovery of a priceless black statuette of a Falcon, worthy millions of dollars and also the motive for murder of a group of three crooks led by the portly Caspar Gutman.
The biggest difference between this and the remake is in Sam’s character. Bogie seemed almost disinterested in women, looking like Gladys George’s Ida was about as important to him as one of his collar studs. Cortez’s Sam is a womaniser par excellence. Indeed, when we first see him he’s escorting a young woman from his office. Her face isn’t seen, but she’s adjusting her stockings after giving payment for services rendered. Sam goes back inside and rearranges the cushions on his sofa, left scattered on the floor after their sexual shenanigans. Spade here is the type to fancy anything young and in a skirt, and while he’s honourable with regard to his secretary Effie, he’s still not above eyeing her up occasionally and murmuring “yes, sir!” It’s interesting to see Cortez in the role, for while no Bogart, he’s still some sort of magnificent, a million miles from the hosts of crooked fly by night gangsters and brutes he generally played in early talkies.
The supporting cast is also quite strong, not perhaps as immortal as their later equivalents, but still worth the price of admission. Digges may be a little shallow round the girth for the fat man but still does a fine job, Merkel the sort of secretary everyone dreams of as Effie and Long a perfect dumb bloodhound of a Miles. Best of all, however, is Daniels’ Wonderly. There are no multiple aliases here, she begins and stays Ruth Wonderly, and it truly is a wondrous creation, for her femme fatale is so duplicitous and so morally ambiguous as to beggar belief. And she’s sexy as sin, whether indulging in a pre-code bath (probably the same tub Joan Blondell got into in del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy the same year), indignantly complying with a strip search but then not bothering to get dressed again afterwards, in one particularly see-through dress that left nothing to the imagination or, best of all, cheating at solitaire during an all-nighter but looking around to see no-one saw. Directed with typical swiftness by Roy Del Rush, as he was known, and wonderfully scripted, with even homosexual undertones, it’s heaven for pre-code buffs, with a fantastic final scene not in the remake. Truly a labour of love.