Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Satan Met a Lady (USA, 1936)

Between the ten years spanning between Roy Del Ruth’s version of The Maltese Falcon (1931) and John Huston’s 1941 universally acknowledged classic version of the story, German-born William Dieterle, one time star of German silents — including Paul Leni's expressionist masterpiece Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924) — made a truly substandard variation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel starring Betty Davis and Warren William.
Satan Met a Lady, made in 1936, is a screwball comedy vaguely along the lines as W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934), only not even half as good. Dieterle has little grasp of his material, and shows little evidence of being the man who went on three years later to direct the all time best rendition of The Hunchback of Notre Dam (1939), starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. (But then, that film was also not a comedy.) Likewise, Dieterle’s stars in Satan Met A Lady don’t exactly excel either. In terms of comic interaction, nothing in the film gets even close to being half as charismatic or as witty as that of Myrna Loy and William Powell. Dramatically, well, it is to be expected that a film meant to be a screwball comedy would hardly achieve any of the nuances of performances to be found in Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon. Strangest of all, though featuring the same producer (Henry Blanke) and scriptwriter (Brown Holmes) as Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 film, Satan Met a Lady pales terribly even in comparison to the oldest version of the story.
Warren William, who died in 1948, was a popular star now long forgotten, best known amongst film fanatics as a one-time Perry Mason (in four films), Philo Vance (twice) and, most regularly, as Michael Lanyard, better known as The Lone Wolf. In Satan Met a Lady he plays Ted Shayne, a skirt-chasing private detective who comes back to his hometown and restarts his partnership with his old P.I. partner Ames (Porter Hall), who promptly gets bumped off in a graveyard while tailing someone for client Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis). Though not particularly put out by Ames’ death, Shayne sets out to find out whodunit. Between his dizzy secretary, Ames’ widow and the various other ladies that distract him, Shayne discovers that a bunch of people are all after some mythical horn supposedly filled with priceless jewels...
The rest of the story we all more or less know, but instead of Sidney Greenstreet we have Alison Skipworth, and instead of Peter Lorre we get Maynard Holmes. And nowhere do we have anything all that funny, or even worth watching. Bette Davis made many a great film in her life, but this ain’t one of them.

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