by Cassie Brown
If you go searching for Ted Shane, you should look where there’s the most trouble. The detective, and lady’s man, is on to his next case in 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, directed by William Dieterle.
Loosely adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s cult classic novel, The Maltese Falcon, Satan Met a Lady doesn’t play by any rules of the book. The falcon is replaced by that of a vintage horn which is supposedly filled with priceless jewels. The detective is money hungry Ted Shane (Warren William), who always seems to be looking for the next pay day. Bette Davis plays Valerie Purvis, who’s packing more than just what meets the eye.
Crooks fights crooks. Double crossers cross paths. While this B&W pre-noir may set a tone of mystery, it comes up with more jokes than gun shots. In fact, Satan Met a Lady is more a comedy than a detective story (I don’t know if there’s ever been a film quite like it). Could you imagine if Bogart had found out the Maltese Falcon was a rubber chicken?
The story itself revolves around Shane, a good ol’ lady loving detective. He’s more motivated by money and trouble than maintaining any dignity. He refers to many of the women in his life as kittens, until Bette Davis finally scratches him back.
Shane comes back from another bout of trouble, wandering into the detective agency office he shares with his partner, Ames and Secretary Miss Murgatroyd, the ditzy girl who moves the plot along with silly phone calls and quips. Shane and Ames focus on a new case, following a friend of Valerie Purvis (Davis). Shane, of course, is distracted by Murgatroyd and ops for dancing rather than detective work.
Ames is gunned down in a cemetery, and Shane finds himself in the middle of another murder mystery. Valerie seems to be the main link to the killing of Ames, so he tries to bait and switch Valerie, only to find she’s always ten steps ahead of him.
All the murders revolve around that of an ancient horn, supposedly worth more money than Shane could imagine. His investigation begins to attract attention from numerous crooks as his connection to Valerie grows closer. Although blinded by women, Shane finally clears his mind and figures out how to double cross (and criss) his way through this comedic mystery.
The history of Satan Met a Lady is devilish, as one of many filmed versions of Hammett’s Falcon. The first adaptation, in 1931, was considered too lewd (even for a Pre-Coder) and was pulled from circulation by the Hays Office just four years after its release and wasn’t seen for years. Warner Brothers, who still owned the rights, tried to release another adaptation. They hired Brown Holmes to write Satan (a play on a line in the novel “like a blonde Satan”). Holmes took full creative liberties and changed names and genders of several characters. Ted Shane is technically our infamous Sam Spade. Five years after Satan debuted, the iconic Bogart led Maltese Falcon premiered (sticking closer to the original storyline). Historically there have been four film recreations of Hammett’s famous book but only the John Huston classic hit gold.
The decision to make Davis the mastermind was genius. Her moments on screen are incredibly empowering, and her scenes; truly quotable. But Davis was no fan of playing Valerie Purvis, and was so upset with the film, she got suspended for not arriving to set. But seeing her as a gun toting, quick mouthed, leading lady, was a radical moment for 1936.
Satan Met a Lady is much like the film’s coveted horn. There’s a lot more to it than seems. Some moments are priceless, while others seem more like a Monty Python sketch. In the end, it’s not quite The Maltese Falcon, but it’s not valueless either. Satan’s Lady, then, is quite more devilish than Satan himself.