This past week, I had occasion to listen to the Lux Radio Theater version of The Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart and the rest of the original cast were not available, but the great Edward G. Robinson was chosen to fill Bogart’s substantial gumshoes.
At the end of the hour performance, I was struck by how the Lux performance even with an “A” lead came off as a pale imitation when compared to the Bogart classic. I then listened to the half hour Academy Award Theater radio presentation with Bogart in the lead and Sidney Greenstreet and Mary Astor
I had the same feeling when I heard radio’s attempt to create a made-for-radio sequel to the Maltese Falcon with Howard Duff as Spade. Duff had successfully created his own version of Spade, and played the famous hard boiled eye more often than anyone else. And the Khandi Tooth Caper is a fine radio play in its own right, but it couldn’t come close to living up to the wonder of the movie.
The radio adaptations are helpful to showing the true wonder of the movie and what makes it a great clasisc. The biggest key is the dialogue with lines such as Kasper Gutman’s, “I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.” However, not just any actor can deliver these sort of lines.
I’d insist the magic of the movie comes back to the cast. While Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and even Elisha Cook, Jr. (who played Wilmer) turned in solid performances, they aren’t irreplacable. In fact, neither the Lux or the Academy Award Theater version featured Lorre and the Lux version didn’t feature Astor, and neither featured Cook. The only rule is if you don’t have Peter Lorre playing Joel Cairo don’t have an actor doing a bad Peter Lorre impression (as was the case with the Khandi Tooth Caper.)
The key to the greatness of the movie is found in Bogart and Greenstreet as Spade and Gutman. As Spade, Bogart delivers a spell-binding performance. Bogart’s is tough, cynical, sarcastic and may seem mildly sociopathic at times as he tries to play both sides to square the murder of his partner.
And Greenstreet’s performance was a classic that would be imitated countless times on radio, in television, and screen. He served up a definitive template of the sophisticated, polite, and yet ruthless villain and earned an Oscar nomination.
Those two performances make the film a definitive screen classic that thankfully, no one in the modern era has tried to remake.
If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.