Thursday, November 26, 2015

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

Director: William Dieterle                               Writer: Brown Holmes
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Warren William, Bette Davis, Marie Wilson and Arthur Treacher

This is the second attempt by Warner Brothers at filming Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon. The first was the 1931 film of the same name starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. The film was a success, but because of the enforcement of the production code in 1934, Warners could no longer reissue the film and so they elected to remake it, this time as a comedy. The resulting film, Satan Met a Lady, was much less successful than it’s predecessor. The film was not well received for a host of reasons. In the screenplay by Brown Holmes, the comedy was definitely forced. Warren William does his best to play along, but Bette Davis’s undisguised loathing for the picture comes through loud and clear. She doesn’t exactly sabotage the proceedings, but it’s close. And the supporting cast seems equally unable to lift the film. In the end, it seems impossible to really judge the film because of John Huston’s version. The story is so familiar that it’s difficult to imagine how confusing the final few minutes must have been for viewers when William is forced to divulge the entire plot all at once. And because the whole thing is played for laughs, it dilutes the mystery to the point that it becomes difficult to care about any of the characters. The direction by studio veteran William Dieterle is about the only positive, but it’s not nearly enough to save a critically flawed film.

The film begins with Warren William being run out of town by the local authorities who don’t like private detectives of his sort. Onboard the train he councils the wealthy May Beatty that she might need someone to protect her jewels, and at the same time is spied on by Bette Davis. William turns up at the office of his old partner, Porter Hall, who can’t seem to find anything to detect. Like a whirlwind William takes over everything, including the affections of secretary Marie Wilson, and Hall’s wife, Wini Shaw. The next day Bette Davis shows up at the agency claiming to want to find a man who has run out on her. The only lead she has is his friend, Sol Gorss, who she’s going to meet that night. Hall tails her, but unbeknownst to him he’s being tailed himself, and winds up dead in a graveyard. And then so does Gorss. The police want to arrest William, saying it was a revenge killing, but they don’t have any evidence. Before Bette Davis can skip town, however, William accosts her and she confesses that it was really Gorss she wanted tailed. He thinks she might be involved with one or both of the deaths, but she isn’t talking. Meanwhile William confronts the man who is tailing him--and was tailing Hall--Maynard Holmes, and laughs in his face at his ineptitude.

When William gets back to his apartment he finds it has been ransacked by Arthur Treacher while he was out. Treacher is looking for an historic horn stuffed with jewels that he believes William has. William lets him believe he has it, and lets him pay him for it. Then he goes after the horn at Davis’s apartment, and lets her pay him for protection, then finally goes with Holmes to meet the real mastermind of the operation, Alison Skipworth. It turns out that all of the major players were once working for her, but as soon as the horn was within reach they all went after it for themselves. At this point William’s only motivation is to get as much money off of all of them while they’re trying to get their hands on it, and stay alive in the process. Bette Davis, perpetually unhappy with the way she was being handled at Warner Brothers, rightly determined that the film was not a good one and failed to report for shooting on the first day. Needing to collect her salary, however, she finally reported three days later. William Dieterle didn’t like the film much either, but it’s his contribution that is probably the best thing about it. While Satan Met a Lady may have something to offer fans of William and Davis, it has little else to recommend it.

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