Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Woman in the Dark (1934)

June, 2024

Select/RKO Radio, 1934. Director: Phil Rosen. Screenplay: Sada Cowan, based on a story by Dashiell Hammett. Camera: Joseph Ruttenberg and (uncredited) Sam Levitt. Film editor: William Thompson. Cast: Fay Wray, Ralph Bellamy, Melvyn Douglas, Roscoe Ates, Ruth Gillette, Joe King, Nell O’Day.
            Dashiell Hammett is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve always enjoyed the fact that his writings inspired two of the all-time classics of cinema: The Thin Man (1934) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). And, as every film enthusiast knows, the connection doesn’t end there. The Thin Man (the movie) was such an enormous hit in 1934 that it spawned no fewer than five sequels over the next 13 years, some of them co-written by Hammett himself; while the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon was actually Warner Bros.’ third screen version of the Hammett novel. (I’ve written about the 1931 version in an earlier edition of this column.) Add to this such overlooked gems as City Streets (1931) and The Glass Key (1935), and it’s clear: Hammett and Hollywood had a long and productive relationship.
            So I’m particularly pleased to see that yet another long-forgotten Hammett film adaptation, Woman in the Dark, has recently been made available to the home viewer by our friends at Flicker Alley. The occasion is a Blu-Ray collection of features produced by low-budget “Poverty Row” studios in the mid-1930s, an exciting prospect in itself. In the case of Woman in the Dark, the studio was Select Productions, a short-lived company that enjoyed an even shorter-lived distribution arrangement with RKO. (The Flicker Alley collection is poetically titled In the Shadow of Hollywood, but in fact Woman in the Dark was produced in New York, filmed during the summer of 1934 in the old Biograph studio in the Bronx—a studio with a storied legacy of its own.)
            That Poverty Row association is doubtless the reason this film has been so long forgotten—that and the obscurity of the story itself, not one of Hammett’s celebrated works. Woman in the Dark was not a novel, but a three-part short story published in Liberty magazine in the spring of 1934. Select snapped it up immediately to capitalize on the notoriety of Hammett’s name, featuring him prominently in the film’s opening credits and in its advertising. To the modern-day viewer whose interest, like mine, is focused on both the literary and the film-history aspects of the film, the resulting picture is a fascinating case study in adaptation.
            To begin with, the filmmakers’ esteem for Hammett notwithstanding, the film does take liberties with the original plot—as it should. Regular readers of this column will know that I feel strongly about the adaptation process: the translation from one artistic medium (the printed page) to another (the screen) almost inevitably requires changes in plot elements. Here, writer Sada Cowan and director Phil Rosen—a prolific director of low-budget films, previously specializing in Westerns but actively branching out in 1934 to other kinds of story material—transform Hammett’s short story into a more orthodox feature-length picture. In place of Hammett’s taut atmosphere of foreboding, sustained throughout the story, the filmmakers vary the temperature. Periodically they relax the tension, taking their story at an almost leisurely pace and even introducing some comic relief, only to revert to intense dramatics, with fast pacing and editing, for key action episodes.
            As part of this process, the filmmakers “open up” the story in interesting ways. Details of exposition, glossed over in few words in Hammett’s original, are spelled out in the film. Past events that cast their shadow on the plot are illustrated in flashback on the screen. I’ll avoid spoilers here, but one episode in the story involves a couple traveling by car, fleeing pursuit by the law. Hammett tosses off this episode in a couple of pages. The movie teases it out with an extended rest stop along the way, marked by bantering dialogue that suggests the filmmakers are looking over their shoulders at Capra’s It Happened One Night, which had been released earlier in the year and was enjoying its sensational success during this film’s production.
            On the other hand, some specific incidents in the original story are transferred to the screen verbatim, and even underscored with striking closeups. And the climactic action scene is almost identical to Hammett’s original, and is staged, photographed, and edited for maximum shock value.
            The film’s casting, too, is part of the adaptation process. Poverty Row studios were seldom able to snag top-tier acting talent for their films, but here the leading lady is no less than Fay Wray, who had been an established star since the 1920s. Wray was an extremely busy actress at this time, working for both major and minor studios, and in 1934 was fresh from her career-defining roles the previous year in King Kong and Mystery of the Wax Museum. Her casting was undoubtedly a coup for Select (possibly owing something to the RKO connection)—but, at the same time, her trademark quality of fresh innocence is an odd fit for the worldly, enigmatic title character of Hammett’s story. Similarly, Wray’s costar, Ralph Bellamy, may seem a curious casting choice for the lead. Today’s viewer, knowing Bellamy’s familiar persona from the classics of just a few years later—the comic klutz who never gets the girl—may be at a disadvantage in viewing him as a Hammett protagonist. And, granted, he’s no Bogart; but his performance here, taken on its own terms, is perfectly acceptable. Melvyn Douglas, as one of the bad guys, likewise seems cast against type, but likewise delivers the requisite quota of polished menace when it’s needed.
            In short, Woman in the Dark is a fascinating rediscovery in more ways than one, offering the film enthusiast fresh historical nuggets on multiple levels. For lovers of crime fiction in general and Dashiell Hammett’s work in particular, it fills in a long-missing piece of his filmography. And all of us can be thankful to Flicker Alley for searching out yet another obscure corner of film history and making it available to us once again.

J.B. Kaufman