Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hammett

There's quite a story behind 1982's HAMMETT, an imagining of the life and times of pulp writer Dashiell Hammett.  The movie was produced by Francis Ford Coppola's (ill-fated) Zoetrope Studios and directed by German auteur Wim Wenders.  After photography was completed, the studio was unhappy and ordered a complete reshoot.  Wenders had filmed this neo noir on location in San Francisco, apparently going more for the essence of a detective's existence than a complex narrative.  A year later, after Wenders shot another movie, he returned to frame the action on soundstages and backlots.  There were and are many rumors that Coppola actually reshot the movie himself.

When HAMMETT was finally released, only some of Wenders' original scenes remained.  The director was quoted as saying the new version was "all story and no soul."  Given such a troubled history, it would seem that that the result would be a disaster, and many critics and fans were less than thrilled, but I find the film to be a real lost treasure, an entirely pleasurable evocation of a bygone era through the prism of patent artificiality.  I do lament the lost maiden effort (reports state the original film was destroyed), and it's impossible not to wonder how this movie played in its first incarnation.

Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), an old pal, shows up at Hammet's flat one afternoon with a request to help him find a Chinese lady of the evening called Crystal Ling.  Hammett isn't really interested, especially as it smells like a ticket to his old life, working for the Pinkerton snoops.  He's been behind the typewriter of late, eking out a living composing short stories. There is a manuscript he's trying to sell.  He coughs up his lungs and nurses whiskey no matter the hour.  But a friend's a friend.

Jimmy goes missing after the pair make their way through Chinatown.  The mystery is just beginning.  Hammett, known as "Sam" to several others in this movie, including his sexy neighbor, Kit (Marilu Henner), winds his way through a labyrinth of blackmail and hired assassins.  Duplicity lurks behind the eyes of many of the characters.  Periodically we are treated to dramatizations of Hammett's writings, nicely stylized in the traditional of great, smoky noirs.

But the entire feature can be described as such, and Wenders does a fine job of conveying the spirit of yesteryear crime dramas in every possible way.  The backlot settings only add to it, in my opinion.  Ling sums it up well as she slinks over Hammet's recliner, dreamily remarking how masculine his apartment is.  It's cluttered and drab, yet far more romantic than your average bad neighborhood shithole mancave might look.  Everything clicks in HAMMETT: the reliably snappy dialogue, the astounding production design, Joseph Biroc's beautiful photography.  While Forrest (a stock company reg for Coppola) was not Wenders' first choice he is excellent in the lead role.  A well balanced mix of confidence and weariness.  Noir fans should not miss this movie.  

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