Something's rotten in San Francisco in this, Shakespeare's only private-eye melodrama, says Appellate Judge James A. Stewart.
"This is an entirely fictional story about the writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett, who—in the words of one of the 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 movie opens gently, establishing atmosphere. As the camera pans up a run-down building, we hear a typewriter clacking and the sounds of activity on the street. Soon we're watching Sam Hammett (Frederick Forrest, The End of Violence, 21 Jump Street) tap out a pulpy tale of detection. The typewriter's tapping turns into the patter of rain as the story he's writing fades into the picture. His tough heroine, Sue Alabama, looks a lot like his lovely neighbor Kit (Marilu Henner, Taxi).
Stumbling to consciousness after a troubled sleep, Hammett finds James Francis Xavier Ryan (Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein, Everybody Loves Raymond) in his apartment. His former Pinkerton Agency partner asks him how come his detective hero (The Continental Op) doesn't even have a name, but he's in San Francisco on a missing persons case, trying to track down Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei, Doctor Detroit). He needs help, but Hammett's not interested. Jimmy recalls their time together ("I taught you well. I bet you read other people's mail, look around their medicine cabinets, eavesdrop…"), before reminding Hammett of the promise he made after Jimmy saved him from a bullet. Soon, Hammett and Jimmy are off to Chinatown, beginning Hammett's tour of the underworld he left behind, to visit only with his typewriter.
American B-movies, including the noir tales Hammett evokes, were a big part of German director Wim Wenders' life. Thus, it was no surprise that the New German Cinema figure made his American directorial debut with this movie. It didn't lead to a long career in America, though, as he clashed with Zoetrope Studios and (IMDb notes) ultimately reshot about 80 percent of the movie. He fictionalized his conflicts during the making of Hammett in the movie State of Grace. The finished product was nominated for the Golden Palm Award at Cannes and the Edgar Allan Poe Award. Wenders even made a couple more films here, including The End of Violence.
The finished product in Hammett is a homage rich in atmosphere, full of all-too-familiar lines ("Don't be a chump!" Hammett tells an man whose gun is trained on Kit) and characters that you just know will turn up in Hammett's future novels. It assumes you're familiar with noir films in general—and in particular, the two classic Hammett adaptations—The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Here and there, shady characters bring up the merits and drawbacks of Hammett's manuscript, which has been stolen and is circulating. The reliance on backlot sets gave Wenders control over the imagery in this production, but never let me forget that this is a movie and blunted the power of a couple of action scenes. (The movie is adapted from a Joe Gores novel.)
Frederick Forrest plays Hammett with a touch of William Powell's Nick Charles, adept in all situations, whether on the mean streets or in society, and adept at theorizing on his feet. He's a talented fighter, ready to grab the grab the man sneaking up behind him, and a talented writer, able to rattle off a list of synonyms for "gunsel." He dusts himself off after fights with a heroic yet Chaplinesque dignity. I enjoyed one scene where he surveys his professionally-trashed apartment with dismay, cracking a smile when he sees that his typewriter has survived. Marilu Henner looks like Myrna Loy here, but her Kit isn't as fearless as the Thin Man dame; she's a librarian reluctantly pressed into service as an operative. She's fearful in dangerous situations, but not to the point of histrionics. She does well as a sarcastic friend and neighbor of Hammett who has been introduced to a seedy world she's not accustomed to.
As Crystal Ling, the star of a stag film that serves as the MacGuffin, Lydia Lei is both innocent and seductive as she begs Hammett for a haven, hinting at a toughness we'll see later. If you vaguely remember a character like her Crystal on an old Bret Maverick episode, it's no wonder—an entanglement with the TV gambler is among Lei's few credits. Roy Kinnear has a small part that calls up memories of Sydney Greenstreet, and other character actors, including David Patrick Kelly, Sylvia Sidney, and Elisha Cook Jr., get strong turns in small roles here.
The look of the film is another character, taking this beyond the typical homage. This transfer often gives it a slight yellowish tinge, but generally favors the scenes shot in shadows that look almost like black-and-white. One scene, with Hammett being questioned by police as a red light glares overhead, seems as surreal as Sin City without any CGI help. Another scene that stuck out has Hammett asking questions in a bar, but seen from a distance so that he becomes just another guy in a crowded bar. Motifs that appear throughout include the typewriter, reminding us that these characters will appear in Hammett's work later; dreams, such as when Hammett imagines himself with Crystal in Mexico, that show the author's rich imagination; and the windows through which we view several scenes, reminding us that there's always a bad guy shadowing Hammett on his investigations, and that the movies are a window on a fictional world.
The blend of noises as Hammett moves between his fiction and his reality is excellent, although Lei's voice is softer than Forrest's in their scenes together. Although ambient noise is used to good effect, there's a nice jazz background score.
Extras? One would have liked to hear Wenders' account of the "forced interruptions," as he puts it on his site, during the making of Hammett, but Paramount just gave us the movie here, without even a theatrical trailer.
Wim Wenders' Hammett is a mild-mannered movie, but you might wish it came in a plain brown wrapper for one reason: If you look at the photos on the DVD case carefully, there's a spoiler.
Not guilty. If you're buying The Thin Man, you'll want to pick this one up, too.
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