The story of a black bird, and the people who want it. . .
The first film version of Hammett's novel will always dwell in the shadow of Huston's masterwork, but remains a film to be reckoned with. Cortez is no Bogart, and his Sam Spade is more overtly a sneering heel, but that is closer to the spirit of Hammett's work. And Daniels is a bit more believable as the mercenary femme fatale than Astor, whose fragile yet icy interpretation doesn't quite jibe with the character. Dudley Digges and the forgotten Otto Matieson (another interesting actor who died young) make the most of Guttman and Cairo, the roles forever associated with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Digges' sweaty and rumpled portrayal appears to have served as Greenstreet's inspiration. And of course, you have Dwight Frye as Guttman's psychotic gunsel (and lover) Wilmer.
This film was released a year after Hammett's novel appeared, and also before the Hays code hobbled the studios, and is thus closer to the spirit and atmosphere of the novel. Certainly the sexual innuendo is much more apparent. Whether that is a good or bad thing of course depends on the viewer, but in this case it definitely helps the film. That all being said, the prolonged and contrived ending is nowhere near as well done as Huston's film, though, and almost sinks the film.
In the end, not quite the polished perfection of Huston's proto-noir vision, but a solid work that stands quite well on its own. Anyone doubting this should keep in mind that the 1941 version was largely based on this film's script, minus the bits the censors would no longer allow.