Hard-Boiled Hammett

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Considered one of the founding fathers of hard-boiled fiction, if not the founding father, Dashiell Hammett is must reading for anyone interested in tough guy crime fiction. Detective fiction before Hammett came along the likes of Agatha Christie: conventional, polite detectives where few got their hands down and dirty were standard. Hammett changed all that. His Sam Spade was a cynical outsider who lived by his own personal code. The streets of crime were tough and Spade and other Hammett characters walked them with a new literary style. They called it “hard-boiled” and as The New York Times in their obituary, christened Hammett he was the dean of the “so called” hard-boiled school of detective fiction.

Hammett served in World War I, where he was rewarded by contracting tuberculosis. During his recovery, he met a nurse, Josephine Dolan, who became his wife. For a few years, Hammett became a Pinkerton detective.  It was his work during these years that gave birth to his aspirations of becoming a writer. Reading stories in the pulp fiction magazines like Black Mask, he realized he could do better than those guys.

Drawing on his experience as a real-life detective, The Smart Set published his first story (The Road Home) in 1922. Many of the stories he wrote at the time featured The Continental Op, a nameless P.I. who worked for the Continental Detective Agency located in San Francisco. The Op led to Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and other tough guy P.I.’s.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Hammett was most productive: Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1930), The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934). It was during this short twelve-year period that Hammett produced most of his work. Alcoholism, politics, the blacklist, imprisonment, illness, and writer’s block all became barriers. A bright spot happened in 1931 when he met Lillian Hellman. They began a long term, though turbulent, relationship that lasted until his death from lung cancer in 1961. He was 66 years old.

This brings us to Wim Wenders 1982 film Hammett. Based on Joe Gores semi-fictional novel, the film is an homage not only to the great author but a stunning visual homage to those dark mean streets of film noir.

HammettSet in San Francisco. Hammett (Frederic Forrest) is already pumping out short stories to Black Mask but is not making much money. His old boss Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle) from his days as a Pinkerton detective, and the model for Hammett’s Continental Op, shows up at his front door. He’s not there to reminisce about the good old days, he’s on a case and wants Hammett’s help. Toss in Chinatown, crooked cops, dangerous dames and an eerie mood of disillusionment and you have a classic tribute to the noirs of yesteryear.

This was German director Wenders, first English speaking film, and not a good experience. Over the years rumors have spread the Wenders was fired and that Francis Ford Coppola took over. In an interview with IndieWire, Wenders reveals his version of what happened, why the film was literally shot twice. Read about it here.

A big part of the film’s moody ambiance is thanks to master cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc whose films included, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Killer Who Stalked New York, Dry Danger, Attack, Forty Guns, China Gate, The Garment Jungle, Tony Rome, and many other films and television shows.

The film stars Frederic Forrest, in an excellent performance, as Hammett, Peter Boyle, and Marilu Henner. Look for Sylvia Sydney, Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilber in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon), Royal Dano, and maverick B film director, Sam Fuller.

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