When Warner Bros. was casting THE MALTESE FALCON, which premiered Oct. 3, 1941, their first choice to play Sam Spade was George Raft — not Humphrey Bogart.
Raft, a big star since 1932’s SCARFACE, passed on FALCON because he didn’t want to risk working with a first-time director. That fledgling filmmaker was John Huston, who went on to direct 37 movies, including 1949’s TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, for which he won Oscars for directing and writing. To skip FALCON, Raft used a clause in his contract enabling him to avoid doing remakes.
FALCON’s roots have been forgotten over the past 80 years, but at the time it was well known that this was a remake of WB’s 1931 THE MALTESE FALCON, based on the same Dashiell Hammett novel about private eye Sam Spade. Spade was based largely on Hammett, whose real first name was Samuel. He’d worked for about seven years, starting in 1915, for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, winding up at their San Francisco branch before leaving to write detective fiction. FALCON, his third novel, began in September 1929 as a five-part series in Black Mask magazine. Hammett’s next book, 1931’s THE GLASS KEY, was filmed twice by Paramount. His 1934 novel, THE THIN MAN, spawned a six film franchise at MGM, starring William Powell & Myrna Loy, from 1934-47.
1931’s FALCON starred Ricardo Cortez & Bebe Daniels in the roles Humphrey Bogart & Mary Astor played 10 years later. Hammett’s story is the same in both films, but the 1931 version preceded Hollywood’s Production Code and could show things not possible in 1941 — like the scene where Bebe Daniels is forced to strip after being accused of stealing a $1,000 bill by Kasper Gutman (Dudley Digges in the original and, famously, Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut at age 61). When it’s clear she doesn’t have the money on her, Spade gets Gutman to admit he palmed it, himself.
Actually, the classic FALCON was WB’s third version of the novel. Besides the 1931 film, there was the 1935 crime comedy SATAN MET A LADY, starring Bette Davis & Warren William. The characters’ names were different and instead of a jewel encrusted falcon coated with black enamel, they were after a ram’s horn filled with jewels.
It’s easy to see 1941’s FALCON on cable or DVD, but the 1931 version’s a challenge to find — unless you know that in the ’50s WB changed its title to avoid confusion for TV sales with the classic remake. So look instead for DANGEROUS FEMALE and you might get lucky.