Directed by Wim Wenders.
Starring Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, Roy Kinnear and Elisha Cook, Jr.
SYNOPSIS: When and old detective friend shows up at his door, pulp fiction writer Dashiell Hammett gets involved in a world of gangsters and double-crossers that he thought he had left behind.
Hammett is a curiosity. It’s a 1982 take on the Film Noir genre, based on a fictionalised story about Dashiell Hammett, the writer of pulp detective novels such as The Maltese Falcon. It seems to have slipped into obscurity since then however, and only now is getting a proper UK DVD release with, bizarrely, no sign of a Blu-ray in sight.
Hammett apes the great detective films of classic Hollywood, particularly Hammett’s own most famous work, The Maltese Falcon, but also the likes of The Big Sleep. The novel twist of Hammett is that it’s the writer doing the detective work. A bit like a stylised Murder, She Wrote then. Hammett has all but abandoned his earlier detective days, and put his talents into writing hard boiled stories influenced by his experiences and acquaintances. But when an old friend suddenly arrives asking him to help find a missing Chinese prostitute, Hammett gets caught up in the usual twists and turns of a Noir plot, discovering unsavoury characters, corruption and cover-ups.
Hammett was also technically the first American film directed by German art-house hero Wim Wenders, but differences between him and executive producer Francis Ford Coppola meant that most of the film was actually re-shot by Coppola himself. This inconsistency may explain some of the problems with the film, which is at times thrilling and at others messy.
What it has going for it is bundles of style. Aesthetically it’s an authentic homage to a bygone era. Sound stages are used rather than location shoots, there’s plenty of moody light seeping in through slatted blinds, and the costumes, intricate plotting, and hard boiled dialogue are spot on. But it still feels false in a way. Perhaps Wenders and Coppola mirror the 1940s style too closely. Everything is very classical, but it doesn’t quite capture the joy of early Noirs. Neither does it put a distinct artistic stamp on the genre like Polanski’s Chinatown did some years earlier, or Blade Runner did in the same year as Hammett.
What it lacks most are characters. Frederic Forrest is good as Hammett, but he doesn’t have the same charisma as Humphrey Bogart does when playing Hammett’s creation Sam Spade. Noir plots are convoluted and hard to follow at the best of times, but we’re always pulled through by a charismatic hero. Here the lead character is interesting, but Forrest doesn’t quite give us enough to distract in the moments we get lost in the plot.
That said, I still enjoyed watching Hammett. It’s an unusual film, immediately at odds with a 1982 output that included Spielberg’s E.T., Richard Gere cliché fest An Officer and a Gentleman, Sylvester Stallone’s third entry in the Rocky series, and Oscar winner Gandhi. Quite who wanted to see an old-fashioned detective thriller in the early 80s isn’t really clear. And that’s probably why I hadn’t heard of this film until the DVD release came along. It simply disappeared without a trace. It’s an anomaly in both Wenders’ and Coppola’s work, as well as against its cinematic contemporaries. But Hammett is a worthwhile film, and one that should be seen as an admirable (and largely enjoyable) failure.
Hammett is released on DVD on November 7th.
Arnold Stone blogs at spaceshipbroken.com and can also be found on Twitter.