The hero, of course, is private dick Sam Spade, as played in the 1931 version by Ricardo Cortez and in the 1941 version by Humphrey Bogart.
Cortez has perfectly manicured nails, and in one scene he even files them. Bogart, on the other hand, keeps his hands busy by rolling his own cigarettes. We never see Bogart's nails, but it's a pretty good bet they'd be stained with nicotine, and he wouldn't be particularly concerned about it.
Their appearances fit their portrayals. Cortez plays Spade as a cock-of-the-walk -- a fun-loving, unabashed ladies man with a plush apartment and well-tailored suits. Bogart's Spade has rougher edges and a quiet assurance -- his wardrobe and his digs aren't as opulent. He doesn't feel the need to be as showy.
There are other differences between the two films, of course, as you'd expect when comparing a pre-code movie with a post-code movie. The 1931 version of Dashiell Hammett's novel is filled with attractive women and driven by sex; by 1941, sex was being kept on the down low. Violence, on the other hand, was much more acceptable, and the later version of the film has more fighting and gun play.
The story begins at the San Francisco office of Spade and Archer, private eyes. Here's how we first see Spade in the 1931 version:
No sooner does he get rid of one conquest than he starts flirting with gal Friday Effie (Una Merkel). Then comes a call from Iva Archer (Thelma Todd), the wife of Spade's partner. Spade and Iva do a little canoodling over the phone, and Spade doesn't know it, but Archer (Walter Long) is eavesdropping. The 1941 version opens with Spade in his office, alone, with no phone conversation. Enter a client (Bebe Daniels as Ruth in the 1931 version and Mary Astor as Brigid in the 1941 version), who says she wants her sister followed that night. Archer enters. When Brigid/Ruth flashes her gams and a wad of cash, Archer volunteers for the job. And he gets plugged -- it happens off screen in the 1931 version, but in the 1941 version we see Archer get it right in the gut.
In addition to Archer's death, the man Archer was supposed to follow is found shot. The cops start quizzing Spade. Cortez taunts the officers and laughs at his own witticisms. Bogart, on the other hand, delivers Sam's wisecracks with a straight face, and they're funnier that way. For instance, when Sam becomes a suspect, he jousts with the police. "How'd I shoot him?" he asks them. "I forget." Bogart says this as a throwaway line, while Cortez makes it too obvious -- he builds it up like the punch line of a joke. Bogart does much more with less -- when the cops start pressing him, he stops it with a hand on one cop's shoulder and a simple line -- "Don't crowd me, Tom."
Then comes a scene between Spade and Brigid/Ruth. The client's not telling the whole truth to Sam, and he knows it, so he has a little fun with her, in what I like to call the "you're good" scene. Here are the two versions -- judge for yourself which one plays more effectively:
Brigid/Ruth, of course, is wrapped up in the pursuit of a priceless jeweled statue of a falcon that dates to the 1500s. And there are others after the falcon as well -- seedy adventurer Joel Cairo (Otto Matieson in the 1931 version, and Peter Lorre in the 1941 version) and fat man Caspar Gutman (Dudley Digges in the 1931 version and Sydney Greenstreet in the 1941 version).
As you can see by the stills, there's no contest about which duo looks more threatening -- and more visually memorable. In terms of casting, first-time director Huston knocks the ball out of the park in the 1941 version. After years of playing two-bit bad guys, Bogart is entering his hero-matinee idol phase here. Astor is a perfect picture of prim sexuality. Lorre is appropriately creepy, and Greenstreet -- making his film debut -- is a memorable, charming villain.
Spade ends up in fights with Lorre's character and with Elisha Cook, Jr. as Gutman's gunsel Wilmer Cook. When Spade overpowers Lorre, who's come to search his office, Bogart sports a nasty smile while he's rabbit punching the guy. Here's a comparison of the Spade-Cairo fights in both films:
Later in the 1941 film, Spade overpowers Wilmer by pulling his overcoat down off his shoulders, and Wilmer gets back at Spade by kicking him when he's down -- after he's been drugged by Gutman. In the 1931 version, there's no kicking -- Wilmer just watches as Spade passes out.
Once the bird is delivered and determined to be a fake, Gutman and Cairo resume their search. Spade puts the cops on their trail, but he also has to deal with the fact that the woman he loves has killed his partner. In the 1931 version, the confrontation is filmed as the same leisurely pace as the rest of the film, and in the same wide shots. Huston, on the other hand, knows that this is the emotional heart of the picture and films it in tight, intense closeups:
The 1931 version ends with a sympathetic Sam visiting Ruth in jail with "good news" -- he's been made chief investigator of the District Attorney's office. Huh?
The 1941 version, on the other hand, builds to an unforgettable climax -- Sam describing the bird as "the stuff that dreams are made of" and Brigid behind the bars of an elevator door, foreshadowing the bars she'll soon be behind, with a possible death sentence. Swing your lady, indeed.
Here are the full credits for the 1931 version of "The Maltese Falcon." And here are the full credits for the 1941 version of "The Maltese Falcon," and a trailer: