Director: William Dieterle
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The title of the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon (1950) passed into the language to describe any single incident seen from varying points of view. It’s a useful word, though now falling out of use as familiarity with the film has faded. But I’m half-surprised that some other word didn’t come out of the cinema long ago for such a situation. The abundance of remakes and films based on the same material stretches way back, and the variety of ways a single story can be spun truly boggles the mind.
Take, for example, the venerable Dashiell Hammett novel The Maltese Falcon. There are three film versions of it, and the consensus opinion is that the 1941 John Huston version starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor is the definitive one. I know some classic film buffs have a particular fondness for the 1931 The Maltese Falcon helmed by director Roy del Ruth. And then there is the current film under consideration here at Ferdy on Films, Satan Met a Lady. It is here where the Rashomon idea is most useful, because this comedy—yes comedy—takes this story places it’s hard to dream it could go. I really didn’t believe it myself until nearly the end, when Warren William as Ted Shane (this version’s Sam Spade) utters that classic line, “I won’t play the sap for you.” Yes, I guess this is Hammett after all.
You won’t see much in this film that you’d recognize from the other versions. In fact, Satan Met a Lady is basically a B picture with a B cast. Even the great Bette Davis as the femme fatale Valerie Purvis is still an actress in the formative stages who looks and acts pretty much like all the other blonde ingenues of the 30s. But I recommend that you put any preconceived notions aside about what The Maltese Falcon is supposed to be. I had a fantastically fun time watching this respectable example of the screwball comedy form that brightened the dreary reality of the Great Depression.
The film opens on the platform of a soon-to-be departing train. Photographers are swarming for a shot of someone famous who is boarding the train. Shane, standing on the stairs of one of the cars fixes his angular face into a bright pose. Alas, the photographers work to arrange the parents of quintuplets and their offspring for the camera. A 1936 audience would instantly recognize this ripped-from-the-headlines moment as the media circus surrounding the Dionne quintuplets. We return to the marginalized Shane who, far from getting a hero’s send-off, is being run out of town for his shady activities as a detective.
While on board the train, he makes the acquaintance of a wealthy older woman named Mrs. Arden (May Beatty) and suggests that she needs a body guard. He recommends the Ames Detective Agency, where it just so happens, he is headed to claim a job from his old pal Ames (Porter Hall). We see a woman sitting with her back to Shane. We can’t see her face, but it’s obvious that she’s listening.
Cut to a door with Ames Detective Agency stenciled on the glass. Shane walks in on Ames and a blonde bubblehead named Miss Murgatroyd (a delightful Marie Wilson), who is packing up her desk due to nonpayment of salary. Shane, an inveterate womanizer, puts the soft touch on Miss M, trapping her into trying to spell her own name. I’m really not sure what this bit was all about, because the dumb blonde routine just doesn’t track. Murgatroyd (if that’s really her name) isn’t nearly as useless as she seems to be. In fact, she ends up being pretty handy throughout this film, and not just as part of a running gag about “having some fun” with Shane when he’s not chasing a lead of some kind or other. Marie Wilson knows how to put a very slight, knowing spin on all her clueless line readings that had me smiling every time she appeared.
Shane tells the financially strapped Ames to relax. A $250 retainer as a body guard will be coming his way any minute. The slightly bumbling Ames takes Shane back into the agency as a rainmaker, though Ames’ wife Astrid (Wini Shaw) had a hot affair going with Shane before she married Ames. Shane is not eager to pick up with Astrid where he left off. In fact, he’s got his eye on classy, innocent Valerie—the woman from the train—who has engaged Ames to find the fiancé who abandoned her. When Ames goes to the hotel where Valerie said the fiancé was said to be, both men end up dead. Shane spends the rest of the film tracking down Ames’ killer, avoiding Astrid, promising to take Murgatroyd out, and keeping up with a complicated race to recover an ancient ram’s horn filled with jewels.
Warren William is perfect as the slick, superficial Shane. His pointy face may have suggested the title of the film, but he’s certainly no Satan. He’s not very principled, but certainly seems to have more scruples than Bogie’s Sam Spade—no extramarital affairs with his partner’s wife (though this might have had more to do with the morality restrictions of the relatively new Hays Production Code than anything else), a more genuine affection for Ames than Spade ever had for his partner Archer, and a thief’s respect for his own kind as each of the horn’s pursuers steps into the picture.
Arthur Treacher as Anthony Travers is a delightful fortune hunter, apologizing like a proper Englishman as he tears apart Shane’s furniture with the zeal of a puppy savaging a pair of slippers. Alison Skipworth plays Madame Barabbas as a shabby-genteel “appropriator” who turns her prim-and-proper act on and off at will but goes to pieces when her infantile gunsel (Maynard Holmes) gets roughed up. Skipworth and Holmes set the tone for Sydney Greenstreet’s and Peter Lorre’s similar turns in the later film, but Madame and Kenneth make a much funnier pair imitating an overbearing mother and her mama’s boy.
And what of Bette Davis? Frankly, she’s a very unconvincing liar and makes no real attempt to seduce Shane. I never believed for a second that Shane had any trouble turning her in because neither of them seemed all that interested in the other. A blind man could have seen through her stories. She just seems lost in the film, though perhaps her problems with Warner Bros. that led to a well-publicized dispute with and suspension from the studio the year this film was released accounts for her lackluster performance. That William Dieterle, one of the cadre of great German directors working in Hollywood at the time, couldn’t get more out of her just doesn’t seem possible.
Satan Met a Lady won’t make you forget the classic The Maltese Falcon we all know and love, nor should it. As a rapid-fire comedy with a fascinating cast of types, you can learn to love it as something quite different and delicious. l