Satan Met a Lady (1936)
Director: William Dieterle
Cast: Bette Davis, Warren William, Alison Skipworth
Synopsis: Jaded gumshoe Ted Shane is hired by enigmatic Valerie Purvis to find a man who spurned her. When Shane’s partner and his mark both wind up murdered, the detective suspects that Valerie may be harboring some secrets.
The second of three adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon to be released within a decade of one another, Satan Met a Lady is the least well-known of the triumvirate. That’s probably because it really isn’t very good, and makes the strange decision — and big mistake — of beefing up the comedy angle. I know: you wouldn’t think there was a comedy angle to Dashiell Hammett’s dark tale of murder, greed and deceit, but clearly somebody at Warners thought otherwise. It’s almost as if Satan Met a Lady is trying to pass itself off as a parody of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre, even though, by 1936, the likes of Marlowe and Spade were still to become established as movie icons.
Warren William (Strange Illusion), sporting a large hat and an even larger smirk, plays private eye Ted Shane with such smarmy self-satisfaction that it’s sometimes difficult to remember he’s playing the hero. We first meet him on a train as he’s surreptitiously drumming up trade for his own detective agency by recommending the services of his partner, Milton Ames (Porter Hall — Ace in the Hole, Pony Express) to one of those overweight, middle-aged dowagers (May Beatty) that seemed to appear in every Hollywood movie of the 1930s and ‘40s. His conversation is overheard by Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis — The Great Lie, Now, Voyager) who later appears in Ames’ office asking him to locate a lover who jilted her. Ames is murdered on the job, and so is the guy he was following, leaving Shane as the prime suspect in what the typically hapless police consider to be a revenge killing.
Meanwhile, Shane returns home one night to find his apartment has been ransacked. While he’s surveying the wreckage, the culprit, an Englishman named Travers (Arthur Treacher — Mad About Music) returns to apologise, and proceeds to tell the detective of his search for the fabled Horn of Roland before offering to pay him for information regarding its whereabouts. It turns out that not only is Purvis after the same horn, but so is the criminal Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth — Alice in Wonderland) whose inept but dangerously homicidal son (Maynard Holmes — Dancing Lady), has been tailing Shane ever since Ames was murdered. With the practiced skill of one used to living by his wits, Shane proceeds to play each of these antagonists off against one another in order to uncover the identity of Ames’ killer.
Bette Davis hated this movie, and it’s not difficult to see why. Shane’s devil-may-care attitude (which really makes you want to punch him in the face) is totally at odds with a story involving multiple murders, and the shifts of tone in the dialogue means it’s difficult to determine whether screenwriter Brown Holmes was aiming for sophisticated, cynical or ironic. It doesn’t really matter, of course, because he misses whatever it was he was aiming for with unerring consistency. In addition to William’s ill-conceived performance, we have a miscast Bette Davis simpering like a contract starlet when she’s not delivering her lines through clenched teeth, and Anthony Treacher failing to convince in a role that for once doesn’t call upon him to be some American’s butler. Only Marie Wilson as Shane’s slightly scatty, long-suffering secretary makes much of an impression in an otherwise lacklustre movie which shows little evidence of sharing its origins with one of the screen’s classic thrillers.
(Reviewed 29th September 2014)