The Bette Davis Project: Satan Met A Lady (1936)


Cynical private eye, Ted Shayne (Warren William, Three on a Match), sees an easy payday when a mysterious woman, Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis), hires him to follow a man. The assignment looks simple enough, but after Shayne’s partner is murdered, the sleuth realizes that there is more than meets the eye about his client. Soon Shayne finds himself caught up in a perverse scheme.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon goes through one bat-sh*t crazy metamorphosis. The book had been filmed, more or less, faithfully in 1931 (with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade). The book had, however, to wait until 1941 to achieve any kind of film immortality (I’m of course referring to John Huston’s classic movie, with Humphrey Bogart as Spade).

Directed by William Dieterle (The Devil and Daniel Webster), Satan Met A Lady suffers from all kinds of problems. The jarring tonal shifts are unpleasant to say the least. The humor is intrusive and feels out-of-place in an otherwise mean-spirited story. I think writer Brown Holmes was trying to imitate the popular The Thin Man, which is a hilarious whodunit. Needless to say this is a poor facsimile. 

For Davis, Satan Met A Lady was strike two (The Golden Arrow was strike one), and being the lady she was, she didn’t sit around waiting to be stroke out — it’s the movie that precipitated her famous 1936 rebellion. She was determined to never again appear in a B-movie so she left the country to make films in Europe. She was under an exclusive contract with Warners and the studio took her to court. Davis lost the case, but the quality of her films did improve.

Davis plays the role that later made Mary Astor famous, and quite frankly, she’s not very good. Even William, an easy-going actor who made a career playing these types of characters, doesn’t look comfortable in the part. I blame it on the sloppy script, and Dieterle’s uninspired direction.

Character actress Alison Skipworth (Dangerous) comes off best as the scheming Mme. Barabbas (the inimitable Sidney Greenstreet played the same role in the 1941 classic). The cast also includes Porter Hall (Double Indemnity), Marie Wilson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation), Wini Shaw (Front Page Woman), and Arthur Treacher (Mary Poppins). Interestingly, cameraman Arthur Edeson (Red Dust and Casablanca) shot both this movie and the Bogie film.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Satan Met A Lady is more of a curio than anything else. I quite disliked it. Davis was absolutely right — this is one of her very worst films. I couldn’t get over the fact that they took such a great book and turned it into one silly joke. Maybe a person who hasn’t read the book will be able to accept the film on its own terms — I know I couldn’t. B&W, 75 minutes, Not Rated.

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