[Image stolen from Wider Screenings]
As the picture fades up on the smoky visage of late ‘20s San Francisco, the following preface appears: “This is an entirely imaginary story about the writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett, who…in the words of one of his most gifted contemporaries…helped get murder out of the Vicar’s rose garden and back to the people who are really good at it.
“The detective story has not been the same since.”
Hammett, of course, is the author of The Maltese Falcon, a book and film that laid the floorplan for the modern day American detective story. A private eye is hired to find a mysterious object but after his partner is murdered during the investigation, the hero must look past the allure of the women, the danger of the men, and solve what has become a personal quest. Drawing from his own past working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Hammett told tough stories with a tight, spare style, about hard men existing in a labyrinth of criminals.
In 1975 Joe Gores, another private investigator-turned-author cast Hammett as the lead character in his fictional novel of the same name, giving the struggling writer a famous “one last case” that would test his limits and his honor before giving new spark to his creative output. As in The Maltese Falcon, in Hammett the murder of a good friend and former partner draws him into a web of corruption involving low lifes and “big money”. Not too long after its publication, director and producer Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to Gores’ book with the intention of spearheading a new studio he’d established with fellow conquering hero George Lucas, American Zoetrope. Originally announced as a project with Nicholas Roeg, scheduling problems had Coppola looking elsewhere for a director. Having made up his mind that a European director would bring the correct mood to the project, Coppola approached German artist Wim Wenders, whose gritty The American Friend, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s own thriller Ripley’s Game, had garnered praise in both Europe and the United States in 1977. Wenders came on the job in 1978 to make his first American movie. But Hammett wouldn’t see a release until 1983.
The movie that hit the screen starred Coppola regular Frederic Forrest as the writer, who is introduced typing away at a (fictional) manuscript entitled “Caught in the Middle”. He drinks whiskey and succumbs to crippling coughing bouts due to tuberculosis (a result of the Spanish Flu he’d contracted during his stint in the Army prior to World War I), but he gets the story finished and the audience gets to see the pictures formed by Sam’s words: his unnamed protagonist—likely the famous “Continental Op” character of his pre-Sam Spade works—and a shady red-head parked on a lonely river dock, waiting to do a final deal.
Real life comes calling without so much as a knock on the door. Hammett’s old partner, James Francis Xavier Ryan (Peter Boyle, who also plays the detective in Hammett’s story), needs his help in locating a young girl, Chinese immigrant by the name of Crystal Ling, who has gone missing from a gambling den owned by notorious rascal Fong Wei Tau. Sam is cozier with the local law than Ryan, so he needs his old partner to be his go-between, his “tin mittens”. Sam asks his muse, Kit Conger (Marilu Henner), the inspiration for the story’s “Sue Alabama” (real name ‘something Greek and unpronouncable’, he writes), to keep an eye on things while he’s out with Jimmy. Tough gal, Kit, and easy on the eyes. The kind of woman who greets you at the door with a sharp remark, like she’d been standing there all day sharpening it. Along the way he plans to mail out his manuscript.
They’ve barely stepped foot in Chinatown before they pick up a tail (David Patrick Kelly), a young punk with a ruined voice and taps on his shoes, always giving him away. After some noise, Sam and Jimmy are separated. Loses his manuscript as well. Not too long after the rest of the players sleaze out of the woodwork. Newspaper man Gary Salt (David Lynch hero Jack Nance) is doing a piece on the Chinatown slave trades. His cop buddies (R. G. Armstrong as Lt. O'Mara, Richard Bradford as Detective Bradford) are quick to warn him away, to forget he’d ever heard of the name Crystal Ling. Somehow everyone is tied to the recent suicide of business magnate C.F. Callahan.
By now, Sam’s up to his neck in it. He checks with his own eyes on the streets: Pops (Royal Dano) who runs a newstand and sets aside bottles for Sam, as well as the new issues of Black Mask Magazine bearing his name; then there’s the Old Man at the pool hall (played by Sam Fuller in a don’t-blink cameo); his personal chauffer, Eli the ex-anarchist and hack driver (Elisha Cook, Jr.); finally old Doc Fallon (Elmer Kline) who did the autopsy on Callahan. Seems the rich man did himself in with a half-dozen or so blows to the back of his head with a blunt object. Finally, the mystery leads to the richest men in California, all tied together by refined thug English Eddie Hagedorn (Roy Kinnear in a terrific nod to Sidney Greenstreet, introduced in a bathtub). Took a lot of twists and turns to get there. Fake-outs, murder, drugs, prostitution, pornography, blackmail, betrayal—it’s all laid out on the table, end to filthy end, and winds up with Sam, Kit and Ryan all standing on that narrow riverside dock, where the story began.
Hammett is a fine nod to the genre Hammett helped create and Hollywood worked overtime to polish. Sure, maybe the plot is more Raymond Chandler than Dash, maybe the dialogue is punched a little too hard—particularly by Boyle who seems to barking from cue cards—and maybe, sometimes, the whole thing seems forced. And bound to interior Zoetrope-built sets, Hammett’s San Francisco seems too cramped and all kinds of phony, particularly exterior street scenes. But it manages to work, especially with Forrest helping it along. As Hammett, he’s tops. In the end, if all the pieces don’t seem to fit, if threads are left dangling while others tugged too hard, maybe that’s because life is messy. An obituary just seems like a neat little package; all the fat and flavor gets trimmed to fit it all in.
In 1982, Hammett premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received critical praise, but its theatrical release was inauspicious. It spent more time on HBO than it did on the big screens and it wasn’t given a proper DVD release until 2005, and even that was a bare-bones disc packaged with a handful of other Coppola productions. The story behind the movie and its journey seems even more convoluted than the fiction.
According to Edward Davis’ 2005 article forIndiewire, “Wim Wenders Discusses Painful 'Hammett' Collaboration With Coppola,Friendship With Nicholas Ray”, the 33-year-old Wenders walked in to what he would later call “a long, amazing experience” and a “too good to be true” experience that would last more than five years. Working with four different writers over the period, Wenders oversaw more than 40 drafts of the script before he started shooting. Coppola was lost in the jungle shooting Apocalypse Now, so most of Wenders’ work was done
[Photo courtesy of Arrow in the Head.] “under the radar”. When he began shooting, having already been denied Sam Shepard to play the title character, Wenders’ version had Brian Keith, Sylvia Sidney and his new wife, Ronee Blakely, in the major roles, with an expanded part for his friend Sam Fuller. Filming was done on location in San Franciso, and it was distinctly different from Gores novel (in no small part due to a dispute with Hammett’s estate who objected to some of the more “on the nose” biographical content). While he shot, Wenders reworked the ending, changed it drastically, and no one knew what to make of it.
According to Indiewire: “Actually it had not much to do with the script and there were even characters they didn’t even know,” [Wenders] said with a chuckle. “And they looked at it and said, ‘What are you shooting here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s the necessary ending for the film I’ve been making so far.' ” Suffice to say, production shut down immediately. Coppola then suggested Wenders stop the shoot and edit the film so he could understand the ending. “I didn’t have a choice anyhow,” Wenders said and then when he finished editing the film a year later, “Nobody liked it. At least the studio didn’t like it. Francis sort of liked it, but he said, ‘They think it’s way too lyrical and it’s about the writer and not the detective story we had given you’ …but they felt it was too slow and didn’t have enough action.”
Between 1979 and 1980, production on Hammett was halted while a new ending could be crafted. Coppola so liked what Ross Thomas had come up with he ordered the whole script rewritten. It took so much time that both he and Wenders were each able to shoot a new movie in the interim, with Coppola working on One From the Heart, which would lead to Zoetrope’s ruin, and Wenders shooting a personal exorcism of his experience in The State of Things.
Production resumed in 1981, after another waiting period so the sets could be rebuilt and Frederick Forrest could slim down, both consequences of One from the Heart. Once underway, the rumor mills began, with many sources insisting that Coppola directed the more than 90% of footage reshot. Sometimes Wenders disputes this, particularly in a 17-minute short documentary of the experience titled Reverse Angle. Sometimes he just avoids the question.
Grudgingly praised at the time, Hammett is usually described as “messy” by contemporary critics, and that is a valid assessment. The mystery central to the story is a Gordian knot and solved in roughly the same way as Solomon, by simply chopping through it at the end, via a long –albeit beautifully-written and performed—monologue by Forrest. The fabricated studio sets do impose a sense of artificiality to the film and sometimes impedes the tone where the noir films of the ‘40s and ‘50s were able to work around such constraints. The camera work includes some shakey Steadicam but also a handful of grand crane shots swooping from rooftops to street level which add gravity to the picture. While Forrest and Henner display some crackling chemistry (they would marry and divorce over the course of the production), the real stars are art directors Angelo Graham, Leon Erickson, and Joseph Biroc’s photography, which brings every shot to life with a mixture of Edward Hopper and Will Eisner. Even some of the possibly intentionally-corny scenes—those out of Sam’s manuscript in particular—are beautifully composed, so it’s easy to forgive if an actor, especially Boyle, chews on the scenery a little too much. (Boyle, too, adds to the artificiality and never rings true as a person). Forrest and Roy Kinnear handle the tough guy dialogue the best.
The final product is flawed, to be sure, but is still a satisfiable little hard-boiled movie, standing tall between Chinatown on one end and Michael Winter’s version of The Big Sleep at the other end of the spectrum. Those familiar with Wenders more dreamlike work like Wings of Desire can imagine what his original now lost footage, photography first by Robby Müller (who would later shoot Wenders’ Paris, Texas), and then Philip Lathrop, whose work exists in the final cut just enough to allow him credit for 'other photography'.
Coppola wanted a European take on the American mystery, an outsider to look in and bring his own perspective. Ultimately, as far as the producers were concerned, Wenders was obsessed with solving the wrong mystery. As he writes on his official website, “Hammett: detective, writer—this aspect of the character fascinated me. And it was this aspect that blocked the shooting of the film for so long. I wanted to find a balance between the detective story and the story of the writer who begins to confuse reality with fiction.”
Since the DVD is out of print, you can actually watch the whole thing HERE for just $1.99