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Case Number 27026: Small Claims Court

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The Dain Curse (1978)

Scorpion Releasing // 1978 // 294 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // March 2nd, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Daryl Loomis writes his prose in more of an auburn.

The Charge

I knew I'd hit a nerve, but this lady could stand in hot coals and never blink.

The Case

It's that kind of purple prose that made crime novelist Dashell Hammett so much fun to read. But while it works on the page, it doesn't come off so great on the screen. So when adapting his work, as well as that of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, the other two great American crime novelists, the writer has to be very careful to give the impressions that those kinds of lines are meant to deliver visually, and not in the dialog. It's silly and awkward and only works as parody, such as in The Naked Gun.

The Dain Curse, a television mini-series adaptation of Hammett's 1929 novel of the same name, does it one worse by including that dialog as direct narration, and it's not just once or twice. The whole stupid thing, four-and-a-half hours' worth, is peppered with the stuff, dragging the story into exposition hell when these stories, fundamentally, need to snap. Between all the exposition and the massive running time, snappy might be the last word to describe it, but we have a murder to solve, so here we go.

There's trouble afoot when the Leggett family discovers some diamonds missing, but instead of contacting the police, they call the Dickerson Detective Agency, who puts their best man on the case. His name is Hamilton Nash (James Coburn, Our Man Flint) and he's a piece of work. Death follows him closer than a trained dog and when he arrives, so does a string of killings involving the innocent young Gabrielle Leggett (Nancy Addison, Ryan's Hope). She claims to have the "Dain Curse," in which people all around her suffer terrible endings. He's skeptical, of course, and his deductive mind discovers a web of drug abuse, religious cultism, and manipulation that reaches the upper echelons of high society.

The big trouble with this TV adaptation can be traced from Hammett's original work. This was his second novel, a collection of four relatively independent stories serialized in Black Mask magazine shoved together, connected up, and released as The Dain Curse. On paper, it seems as though that would make it a natural fit for the mini-series format, but instead of it playing as the episodic adventures of Nash (known as Continental Op in the stories) with the Leggett family, writer Robert Lenski tried to make the thing a cohesive whole.

The result is this gigantic blob of exposition and barely connected plotlines that starts meandering almost as soon as it begins. What should be a simple robbery obviously isn't, as a body is found and this supposed curse is brought up right away. As the bodies pile up around Gabrielle, it seems like she might get cursed, but wait! Nash quickly surmises that there's no curse, but instead, there's all this business about a cult. It seems to exist to bilk the rich out of their money, but wait! Nash realizes that they're actually there to brainwash Gabrielle for some reason, but wait! And it just goes on and on like this for three hours until the third and final part, when it finally slows down, though that really doesn't help things.

See, at some point, they make a big deal out of the fact that Gabrielle is a morphine addict and, as the movie goes on, Nash starts to fall for her a little. Finally, the case is solved to almost everybody's satisfaction (though not Nash's), so instead of just ending it right there, Nash decides that he's going to help her kick the habit. Where the first three hours were a fairly tasty, if completely mediocre mystery, the final part becomes the ever-so-exciting withdrawals drama, which is how we all want our crime stories to end. Now, to be fair, there is one more big reveal, but after listening to Gabrielle scream and thrash about for an hour, I had grown far too weak to care.

The plotting is a terrible failure, but The Dane Curse does benefit from an excellent casting choice in James Coburn, whose easy charm makes for an excellent private dick. He's arguably the coolest cynic in Hollywood history and putting him in the realm of Dashell Hammett is a brilliant move. Even if the writing is lame, his reading of it is great. It's tough to say the same for the rest of the cast; though none are actually bad, there is nothing of note from any of them. Star Trek: The Next Generation fans will take interest in an early role for Brent Spiner, but his brief involvement in this massive endeavor won't bring in too many viewers. Director E.W. Swackhammer does nothing special with the material, delivering a late 1920s vibe that works but is non-descript, while the best part of the production is probably the score by Charles Gross (Air America), whose music does a lot more to deliver that vibe than the direction.

The Dain Curse comes to DVD from Scorpion in a mediocre, bare-bones edition though, to be fair, we received a screener for review. The full frame image looks pretty good given its age, with a decent level of detail, good colors, and a clean transfer. The two-channel mono mix doesn't have much going for it, though it's mostly clean, and there are no extras on the discs that I received, so the two discs won't draw any new fans, either.

The Dain Curse is one of Dashell Hammett's lesser works and The Dain Curse, it turns out, is one of the least of the major crime novel adaptations that I've ever seen. Coburn's awesome, but that's nothing new; the problem is that, while a short novel can take five hours to read and still feel snappy and fresh, there is nothing snappy about a five hour movie, at least not like this. The only value is for Coburn fans and, even then, The Dain Curse is a serious slog.

The Verdict

Like a man caught in the sack with his sister-in-law, this movie is guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 65

Perp Profile

Studio: Scorpion Releasing
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 294 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Crime
• Drama
• Mystery
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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