Private detective Ted Shane (Warren William) has just been thrown out of town for his unorthodox practices, and makes his way by train to New York to catch up with an old business partner, Milton Ames (Porter Hall). On the journey, he gets to smooth talking a wealthy old lady who he advises needs a security service what with all those riches she owns, and she is taken in, thus providing Ames with the first proper case he has had in a while. But someone was listening in on Shane's conversation in that carriage, and that someone spells trouble...
Not only that but she was an early role for Bette Davis, here beginning her career as one of the silver screen's finest leading ladies and illustrating why so many audiences found her so captivating for so long. But that is not the reason Satan Met a Lady is best recalled today, if recalled at all, no, it holds a place in movie history for being a version of the all time classic The Maltese Falcon made five years before John Huston got to make his. Remakes are the cause of plenty of grumbling these days, with the usual complaint being that the film business has run out of ideas, but if it were not for remakes we would not have had a classic of the Golden Age.
This was not that classic, and it was a remake as well, for Dashiell Hammett's novel had already been adapted in the 1931 version that director William Dieterle went to great pains to avoid comparisons with, with many of the details altered and the tone just a whisker away from screwball. But while it may not have featured the best incarnation of Sam Spade, that was not to say it wasn't enjoyable, as it was actually quite good fun even if it did come across as it was having trouble taking any of the plot at all seriously. William especially played his role as one part cad and one part wisecracker, which in these surroundings was apt.
The eavesdropper on the train was Valerie Purvis, the Davis character, and soon she appears in the Ames office to ask if he will take her case, something about following her partner to see if he's cheating on her, but oh dear, the case stops abruptly when Ames shows up dead. To contribute a well nigh parodic style, although Shane is summoned by the police detectives to visit the scene of the crime half to identify the body and half because he's a suspect, he takes it all in his stride, and Ames is little mourned by anyone except his (younger) wife, who still sees it as an opportunity to get together with Shane. This sleuth is a ladies' man alright, and he takes every advantage he can, with a few near the knuckle saucy gags sprinkled in the script, especially with the dizzy secretary (Marie Wilson).
This in spite of the Production Code of censorship being introduced a couple of years earlier, so perhaps the more suggestive jokes went way over the heads of the moral guardians. If you know the Huston version then you will be distracted by your tendency to compare the two here, particularly in the casting, with the Peter Lorre role taken by Englishman Arthur Treacher, usually a butler in Hollywood movies but here highly amusing as a villain, and most notably Alison Skipworth as the mastermind made famous by Sydney Greenstreet, here given a sex change to attempt to throw fans of the book off the trail. But the plot does stick fairly close to the source - Hammett's credit being a giveaway to the sharp-eyed - and although it's not the ornate statuette being sought but a horn supposedly filled with jewels, many of the themes are similar here, if essayed with a light and breezy touch that necessitates a clunking wrap up of an explanation.