As troubled productions go, this one takes some beating; With Francis Ford Coppola producing, Wim Wenders’ film started pre-production in 1975, but took seven years to hit the big screen, and only having been almost entirely re-shot. It’s hard to work out where the joins are, but it’s been suggested that the producer imposed the Zoetrope house-style of stylised interior studio sets; that seems right, because the brief, striking exterior shots are remarkable, but also seem to have come from a different movie. With Coppola promising to re-cut Godfather 3, it would be interesting if he’d dive back into his archives to find the original Hamett, and give us a look what remains of Wenders first version, since the glimpses here are tantalising.
Leaving production difficulties aside, Hammett is a pretty good detective movie with a post-modern twist. Dashiell Hammett was an ex-Pinkertons’ detective, and knew what he wrote from his own experience, and that of his colleagues. In a clever opening, we see Hammett’s friends play the roles of his characters in a fictional story, then cut to the writer moving away from his typewriter, encountering the real characters from his acquaintance. This film-within-a-film angle is interesting, and the film plays on the idea in subtle ways. Hammett is hired by an associate (Peter Boyle) to find a missing Chinese girl, but that’s only the start of the intrigue. It turns out that there’s a grand blackmail scheme going on, and the gumshoe only a small cog in a whirling machine of criminality.
Forrest is great as Hammett, terse, well-spoken and a super-pro, while Taxi star Marilu Henner reveals hidden depths as his librarian girl. There are also great little scenes for the likes of Roy Kinnear, Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jr, Samuel Fuller and even Jack Nance (Eraserhead). And even if the plot gets a bit murky midway, the last few scenes bring things to a satisfying conclusion is proper noir style, there’s no pastiche here, just a loving genre tribute.
Hammett, perhaps because of a rather chequered past, is rarely exhumed or talked about, but it’s a really great little film that found no favour at all with audiences. I saw this on BBC 2 when I was at school, and liked it; a more mature watching reveals a caustic reflection of Hammett the man, and a tight little mystery to boot.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this title. Trailer below.