About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Hammett:" Don't Hurt 'Em!

Directed by Wim Wenders from a story by Joe Gores and others.
Starring Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner.

If you like men in fedora hats, women in red lipstick and clunky heels, mystery stories that go nowhere in particular and films that intend to give the appearance of multiple locations, but actually have the claustrophobic feel of something cranked out on a single sound stage, Hammett may be right up that mean street you call your alley.

On the other hand, if you like the novels and stories of Dashiell Hammett (author of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, among others), the films of Wim Wenders (The American Friend, Paris, Texas), or the novels of Joe Gores (Gone -- No Forwarding, 32 Cadillacs), skip this one.

Accept no substitutes: The real Dashiell Hammett

Hammett fails to deliver in virtually every possible way: the dialog is weak (ironically, the best lines are copped directly from Hammett's own stories), the characters are cardboard cut-outs, the plot as dull as the back side of a cleaver and the storyline so feeble that a priest should be summoned to administer last rites.

You would be better off watching a real Dashiell Hammett classic like The Maltese Falcon (John Huston,1941), The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler,1942), or even The Dain Curse, a 1978 TV mini-series by E.W. Swackhamer that adheres closely to the plot of the original and is surprisingly entertaining. 

In Hammett, the former Pinkerton detective is now living in a San Francisco flat and grinding out crime yarns for pulp magazines like Black Mask. He is finishing a story at the film's beginning and we hear his words in a voice-over narration as he pounds them out on an ancient manual typewriter. Unfortunately, the narration sets the tone for the movie -- the manuscript he is writing sounds more like a parody of a hard-boiled detective yarn than anything Hammett ever wrote.

The voice-over narration at the beginning tells us we're in for a bumpy ride.
It is cornier than an explosion in a Frito-Lay plant.

He is contacted by an old chum from his detective days (Peter Boyle) who seeks his aid in a missing person case -- a young Chinese woman (Crystal Ling, played by Linda Lei) has disappeared.

Hammett discovers that Ling is part of an extortion scheme in which wealthy San Francisco businessmen who have been covertly photographed dallying with her are being blackmailed for big bucks. In the process of solving the mystery and unmasking the villains behind it, Hammett meets up with Chinatown gangsters, crooked cops and the operators of a commercial sex industry.

Hammett (the lightly talented Frederic Forrest) switches from writer to detective for this film, but his detective work is negligible.

While these fragments may seem adequate building blocks for a decent hard-boiled detective yarn, they fail to match up to the actual depravity and criminality that existed in San Francisco during the period depicted. In other words, the true story of San Franciscan prostitution, Tong warfare and corruption during the first quarter of the twentieth century is both more sensational and lurid than the historical fiction conjured by filmmakers and novelists fifty years later. It is also considerably more interesting than this kludged-together piece of detritus. 

In addition, the "mystery" of the movie is not compelling. We are given no real reason to care about Crystal Ling or the Jimmy Ryan character played by Peter Boyle. In fact, we are given no real reason to care about Hammett, the central figure in the story, aside from the fact that he became famous some time after the period depicted in the film.

And while Marilu Henner, as Kitt Conger, plays a leading female part, it is unclear whether she is supposed to be a romantic interest for Hammett, a close friend or just some woman who was parachuted into the script to provide a female mannequin for some of the retro 1930s outfits that are showcased in the film.  

Hammett, who was tubercular, is too bloodless a protagonist to hold up his half of any sexual dynamics and Henner's character seems to have no other purpose in the story except to tag along and swap half-hearted wisecracks with Forrest.

Ordinarily, I can take at least some pleasure in seeing the performances that character actors put into a picture like this. Unfortunately, the bit players who appear in Hammett -- and there are at least a dozen of them, including such standbys as R. G. Armstrong, Roy Kinnear, Elisha Cook Jr. and Sylvia Sidney -- have so little do that their presence in the movie is more depressing than elevating.

Even veteran character actors like R. G. Armstrong (foreground) can't save Hammett.

The back story on this cinematic disaster is that Francis Coppola hired Wenders to direct the movie while Coppola was tied up making Apocalypse Now. Wenders filmed all but the conclusion of Hammett in 1979, but had trouble putting the final scenes together.

By then, Coppola was finished with his Vietnam epic and turned his attention to Hammett. He didn't finish rewriting, re-shooting and reediting the film until 1982. Frederic Forrest, who plays Hammett in the movie, gained so much weight making an unrelated film during the layoff that his original scenes no longer could be matched. Waiting for him to lose the extra avoirdupois also delayed the film's completion.

Winders says Coppola re-shot so much of the movie  that several of the parts had to be recast because the actors who had originally played them -- including Sidney and famed director Sam Fuller -- had died in the meantime. He estimates that only ten percent of his original shoot ended up in the film.

Who knows? A Wenders version of the story might be pretty good. The mystery could actually be mysterious, and the thriller might really have a few thrills. Unfortunately, we'll never know.

If you want to find out what Gores, a fine mystery writer and Edgar winner in his own right, had in mind in the first place, you are better off buying the eponymously named novel, or checking it out of your local library. 

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