American Zoetrope/Orion Pictures/Warner Bros./Paramount Pictures
Directed by Wim Wenders
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay by Ross Thomas and Dennis O’Flaherty
Adaptation by Thomas Pope
Based on the novel “Hammett” by Joe Gores
Cinematography by Joseph Biroc
Edited by Janice Hampton/Marc Laub/Robert Q. Lovett/Randy Roberts
Music by John Barry
I want you guys to do me a favor, okay? If sometime in the future, after I’m dead and gone and somebody, for whatever obscure reason wants to make a fictionalized movie about me and my adventures, make sure they watch HAMMETT first, okay? Because that’s exactly what I would want a fictionalized movie about me to be like.
HAMMETT tells you right from the start that it’s a fictionalized story about Dashiell Hammett, the writer who totally redefined the hard-boiled detective novel in America. He created Sam Spade, The Continental Op and Nick and Nora Charles. His Continental Op novel “Red Harvest” has been cited as the inspiration for movies such as “The Glass Key” “Yojimbo” “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Last Man Standing” as well as my own “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.” Dashiell Hammett had the benefit of authenticity in his work, having actually worked for The Pinkerton National Detective Agency for about eight years. He claimed that the characters in his stories were all people he actually knew or encountered in his work as a detective. And during the course of the events of this movies we see where he got the inspiration for certain characters in his stories. We also get a damn good mystery yarn to boot.
But when we see Samuel Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) in this movie, he’s put his Pinkerton days behind him. Suffering from tuberculosis and alcoholism he’s living in San Francisco and has made a reputation for himself as a pulp writer of detective/thriller stories. One night after finishing a story he’s visited by his old Pinkerton partner James Francis Xavier Ryan (Peter Boyle) the guy who taught him everything he knew. Sam’s out of the game but Jimmy calls in an old marker and soon Sam Hammett finds himself helping Jimmy look for a Chinatown whore named Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei.) Jimmy made this out to be a simple missing person case but it’s far from that. Crystal Ling is also being hunted for by pornographic photographer Gary Salt (Jack Nance) and Chinatown ganglord Fong Wei Tau (Michael Tau.) And if that wasn’t enough Police Detective Lt. O’Mara (R.G. Armstrong) strongly suggests that Hammett forgets he ever heard the name Crystal Ling.
Sam would love to leave this whole dirty business alone but Jimmy has gone missing, along with the manuscript of his latest story. Assisted by librarian/sometimes girlfriend, the wonderfully named Kit Conger (Marilu Henner) and the cab driver Eli (Elisha Cook, Jr.) Hammett navigates the convoluted hidden government of San Francisco, run by The Cops, The Crooks and The Big Rich to find out what happened to Jimmy Ryan and the secret of Crystal Ling.
I cannot say enough about how much I love HAMMETT which to me successfully invokes the spirit of classic film noir from the 30’s and 40’s despite being a color movie. And most of it is due to to the outstanding performance of Frederic Forrest who should have won an Academy Award for Best Actor for this movie that year. There are so many touches of Humphrey Bogart in his performance…too many to name but if you watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not an imitation, far from it. But you’ll have to see the movie to understand what I mean.
And it’s a writer’s movie in that we see how how in putting together this mystery, Hammett incorporates it into his fiction. We see surrealistic scenes where Hammett’s reality blends with his imagination that I could really identify with because it’s happened to me.
The supporting cast is outstanding with the exception of Marilu Henner who I put in the same class with Robin Givens. They’re actresses who everybody tells me are supposed to be sexy but to me work too hard at being sexy instead of just being sexy. Know what I mean? Lydia Lei is terrific as Crystal Ling and she has a scene with Frederic Forrest that ends up with her saying: “I did such wicked things” and you totally believe his response. David Patrick Kelly as a gunsel is reminiscent of the same character played by Elisha Cook Jr. in “The Maltese Falcon”
In fact, all of the characters in HAMMETT have echoes to characters we’ve seen in other movies based on this great writer’s works and in a way, that’s a large part of the enjoyment of HAMMETT. It’s one of my favorite movies and I’m betting that after you see it that it will be one of yours as well. Enjoy with my heartiest blessings.