Review: Hammett

Wim Wenders pays homage to film noir and pulp fiction is this fictionalised story of writer Dashiell Hammett. Andy Boxall takes a look at this 1982 film produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

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The night was was stickier than melting toffee and the whisky bottle I’d been romancing was dry. The raven-haired broad who’d been keeping me company had left, calling me rotten to my core as she walked out. She should know, she taught me everything I know. I’d put it off long enough, the unopened package sitting on my desk contained my next assignment – time to put it in the player and get to know it.

In case you haven’t worked it out from that introduction, Hammett is love-letter to classic film noir packed with snappy dialogue growled by no-nonsense characters whose faces are perpetually illuminated by the strike of a match. They drink whisky or nothing, exhale plumes of cigarette smoke and only take off their fedoras when it’s been a really hard day.

Directed by Wim Wenders, Hammett is one of thee recently re-released Zoetrope Studios films, joining The Escape Artist and One From the Heart, making it an intriguing proposition for film fans.

The story follows Dashiell Hammett, a private eye turned pulp fiction writer, who’s contacted by his old friend Jimmy Ryan, who calls in a favour to help him locate a beautiful Chinese girl. With a shady character tailing them, Ryan disappears after a shootout and Hammett slowly gets drawn back into the world of intrigue he thought he’d left behind.

Noir aficionados will know the name Dashiell Hammett as the real-life private-detective-turned-author of books such as The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man and Red Harvest; and this film draws on Hammett’s own style of letting his experiences shape his writing. Adapted from a book by Joe Gores, a mystery writer who did the very same thing, it’s steeped in noir history.

It’s also notable for its difficult journey to the screen, with Zoetrope reportedly forcing Wenders to reshoot as much as 80% of the film once it had been completed, along with various cast changes due to both the changes and complicated off-screen relationships. An easy production it was not.

When things go this badly wrong before a film hits the screen it invariably leads to disaster, however against the odds Hammett is an enjoyable noir mystery that hits all the right notes. Hammett is roguishly cool and brilliantly played by Frederic Forrest, Lydia Lei vamps it up as the subject of his search, Crystal Ling, and around every corner there’s another dark alley way or quick-talking contact Hammett can extract some information from, provided he slips them ten bucks first.

At just 90 minutes Hammett’s mystery doesn’t lack pace and you’re never left wondering what’s going on, despite a parade of characters; plus Wenders and cinematographer Joseph Biroc make it look great too, especially when Hammett pieces together the con and during his final showdown at the dock.

Hammett works well as an introduction to noir for newcomers; or for those who are already familiar with the genre, an interesting and welcome addition to it. It’s just a shame the new DVD doesn’t include a documentary or commentary track to tell the story behind its troubled past.

Review by Andy BoxallSee all reviews

Directed by: Wim Wenders
Written by: Dennis O’Flaherty, Ross Thomas
Starring: Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, Roy Kinnear
Released: 1982 / Genre: Drama / Country: USA / IMDB

Buy on DVD:
Amazon.co.uk: DVD

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About the Author
Rather than saying one particular film holds the position of his favourite, Andy has a list of films that “click” with him, including American Graffiti, Videodrome, Grosse Pointe Blank, Ghostbusters, American Psycho and Suspiria.

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  1. Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Andy and company:

    I’d read Joe Gores’ ‘Hammett’ about a year before Wender’s film came out
    and was pleased to see the film kept in line with Gores’ novel.

    Fredrick Forrest makes a decent enough Hammett. Though the film shows signs of slipping off the rails late in the second half.

    Enjoyed the rogues gallery of San Francisco’s much less than squeaky clean civic leaders. Including Ross Thomas and the cameos of Elisha Cook, Jr., Peter Boyle, R.G. Armstrong, Sam Fuller and Marilu Henner throughout.

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