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July 05, 2005

The Maltese Falcon

John Huston - 1941
Warner Brothers DVD

Last Saturday I decided to take a break from watching some Italian thrillers from the 70s to re-see something more classic. I usually make a point of seeing The Maltese Falcon about once a year, and had finally gotten around to replacing my old VHS copy with the DVD version. Otherwise, this is The Maltese Falcon that most everyone is familiar with, with Bogart as Sam Spade.

Most of the time when I see The Maltese Falcon, I forget that I'm watching a remake. The reason I bring this up is because remakes are popping up on screen more frequently, and I'm often one of those people who complains that someone is trying to cash in on a good, if older film, with something that is not as good. Maybe the lesson of The Maltese Falcon is that if you are going to do a remake, make a point of doing something better than before.

The Maltese Falcon DVD contains the trailer for the second version which was titled Satan Met a Lady. Bette Davis starred in this 1936 version, directed by William Dieterle. From what I could tell from the trailer, the Dashiell Hammett story was reworked to have the same comic tone as The Thin Man, also based on a book by Hammett. There is also the original film version, made in 1931 by Roy Del Ruth which I have yet to see. The third version is the one most people think of as the only version of The Maltese Falcon, and perhaps that is how it should be.

Another example of a remake that may perhaps be the definitive film version is The Age of Innocence. If you read my bio, then it should be obvious that I have a bias for Martin Scorsese. There is a silent version made in 1924 by Wesley Ruggles. I did try to see the first sound version, made in 1934 with Irene Dunne in the Michelle Pfeiffer role. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I actually tried two times, and turned off my TV two times. Maybe the problem with this version is that it is faithful to the play be Edith Wharton and comes off as stiff and talky. The version Scorcese made is both dialogue rich and sumptious visually, and as watchable as anything Scorsese has made.

While I haven't seen it since its initial release, I may have to reconsider Brian De Palma's version of Scarface. In 1983, the Howard Hawks version was largely unseen and unavailable for television or home video. The copy of the Hawks film I saw was a 16mm version that I managed to see through one of my contacts at NYU. This version is now more easily available, yet most people now associate Scarface with Al Pacino. I'm one of those people who would never have guessed that a film trashed by critics in 1983 would be revered twenty years later. Of course living in Miami Beach I can't avoid Scarface. T-shirts and posters of Pacino as Tony Montana are displayed in stores on Washington Avenue. Even my dentist has a painting of Pacino as Montana in the room where he drills my teeth!

I may be meandering here. I guess my point here is that remakes in and of themselves aren't automatically bad. It's more that those who choose to do a remake to frequently fail to make a film that is as good or better than the original film, as John Huston did with The Maltese Falcon.

Posted by peter at July 5, 2005 09:52 PM