The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel, has had a few audio versions, all pretty faithful within the limits of their respective running times (including an hour long one for Lux Radio Theatre in 1943 starring Edward G. Robinson, a lengthy 2008 American version, a 90 minute adaptation in 2009 for BBC radio starring Tom Wilkinson…and hero Sam Spade was featured in a 1940s weekly radio series called The Adventures of Sam Spade).

The 2008 version from Hollywood Theatre of the Ear and Blackstone Audio starred Michael Madsen, Sandra Oh, Edward Herrmann, Armin Shimerman and others. It’s mainly an audio play, but does a quirky technique where the actors will read some of the text description where needed to introduce a character or clarify the action. At first, it’s a bit distracting (particularly as they read it in the third person, so Madsen both plays Sam Spade, yet will also read a narration saying how “Spade crossed the room”) — yet it actually becomes effective, too, with the added gimmick that the various actors read the narration that relates to their character, and generally remain in character while they do it! Madsen is suitably world weary as Spade and Herrmann steals the show as Casper Gutman — doing a dead on Sidney Greenstreet impression (the actor who played the role in the Humphrey Bogart movie version).

In general, a very nice, very faithful (it clocks in at around 3 ½ hrs), very witty (I hadn’t remembered how witty some of the banter is) very evocative presentation (great use of music and ambient sound) of a story that is so seminal and archetypal…even if you’ve never read or seen it, it’ll probably trigger feelings of déjà vu (in a good way). They pull off the trick — that a lot of such projects try, but with less finesse — of being both a serious, straight-faced drama, while also being slightly hammy and tongue-in-cheek, as much a fun homage to the hard boiled/film noir genre as a mystery for its own sake.

The 2009 BBC Radio version was adapted by Michael Bakewell and starred Tom Wilkinson as Spade (when British actor Wilkinson adopts an American accent he sounds a bit like Jack Nicholson, which might have been deliberate casting — Nicholson having starred in the classic PI movie, Chinatown). It’s a perfectly good, perfectly agreeable version — and also remains faithful to the source material (albeit, at less than half the length of the other, and without lifting descriptive passages from the book). It also goes for a broad/evocative style (jazzy score, and the announcer introducing the story is deliberately meant to sound like something out of 1940s radio) without sliding too much into camp.

But it ultimately is a bit too broad at times, some of the actors seeming too much like they are playing archetypes (particularly Bridgitte, as played by Jane Lapotaire) or, in the case of Wilkinson, playing it real, but without quite putting his own stamp on the role. Peter Vaughn as Caspar Gutman is arguably the most effective (I guess it‘s just a good part!) — in this case, precisely because he doesn’t sound like Greenstreet so makes the part his own.

Ultimately the BBC Radio version is an entirely sound production, but maybe does feel a bit like a respectable go round with a classic novel, whereas the 2008 American version is more atmospheric and feels like a production for itself alone. Admittedly, it has the advantage of length, and that I heard it first!

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