I'd never had the chance to see the 1931 version. This is Pre-Code, and you can tell. People clearly sleep with each other ... del Ruth uses a clock to indicate the passage of time, letting us draw our own conclusions about why people are still around in the morning. Joel Cairo is more clearly homosexual than in Huston's version ... heck, so is Wilmer and probably Gutman. These things were significant enough that when Warner Brothers tried to re-release it in 1936 ("post-Code"), they were denied by the Production Code office, because the movie was no longer appropriate. (This prompted WB to film a new version, Satan Met a Lady, with Bette Davis.)
The 1931 Falcon is a much lighter affair than the better-known 1941 version. Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade is much more the skirt-chaser than Bogart. Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly is far less conniving than Mary Astor. It's a breezy film, with little to suggest that there was a classic hidden somewhere in the source material.
I've written before about the 1941 version, in my dissertation, and when I chose it as my 18th-favorite movie in our Fave Fifty project a few years ago. I wrote then:
John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, realized from the start that Dashiell Hammett’s novel, with its terse style and realistic dialogue, was as perfect a screenplay as any novel could be. Huston allows Sam Spade to emerge, as he does in the book, as a self-interested hero with more than a little of the sadist in him.
What is missing from this film version is the critique of Spade that Hammett offers. Hammett uses the third-person to allow the reader to “see” Spade; the reader is encouraged to evaluate Spade rather than identify with him. Huston changes this perspective by shooting the movie largely from Spade’s point of view: while in the novel, Hammett’s description of Spade as he beats Joel Cairo is oddly distancing, as if the reader were interrupting Spade as he slept, the movie, with Bogart’s face showing clear enjoyment as he roughs up Cairo, allows the audience to feel superior to Cairo and to join Spade in his pleasure. The audience’s identification with Spade turns actions that would otherwise seem cruel into positive actions.
Though noteworthy for its seeming faithfulness to the novel, Huston’s movie does eliminate a final scene that is remarkable for what it shows about the movie’s desire to remake Spade’s image. Hammett leaves the reader with a hero who, for all his seeming victories, has lost more than he has won, someone who has alienated his best friend and sent his true lover to jail, someone who will return to a sleazy affair he had never enjoyed. It is a downbeat ending in line with Hammett’s cynical mistrust of heroic individualism. Huston omits this final scene, with its implications of failure, ending his movie instead with the barred elevator doors closing on Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Sam Spade walking down the steps, the faux falcon (“the stuff dreams are made of”) in his hands. Spade has lost his lover, but he has solved the case and avenged his partner. By dispensing with Hammett’s final chapter, Huston is able to maintain the aura of invincibility that Bogart/Spade has carried with him throughout the movie, in direct opposition to Hammett’s more despairing conclusion.
I should note that the 1931 film is much closer to Hammett than I would have expected, at least in the dialogue, which like Huston's movie, lifts plenty of lines directly from the book. Having said that, there is a fairly large space between the 1931 movie and Hammett's novel, primarily in the performance of Ricardo Cortez. It's possible at this point we just can't see anyone but Bogart in the role. But Cortez's Spade lacks the sadism of Bogart/Hammett.
There are historical reasons to watch the Roy del Ruth film ... if you like Pre-Code movies, you might like this, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the later classic version. But there are better Pre-Code movies, and there is most certainly a better Maltese Falcon. The 1941 version is #276 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 1931: 6/10. 1941: 10/10.