Chinatown, San Francisco, 1928. Former private detective Dashiell Hammett, a compulsive drinker with tuberculosis who writes pulp fiction for a living, receives an unexpected visit from an old friend asking for help.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett played a huge part in popularising the hardboiled detective stories which were responsible for changing the existing style of crime fiction in the 1920s and also strongly influenced the works of certain other prominent crime writers who followed him (e.g. Raymond Chandler, James M Cain etc.). Hammett's characters and stories were largely drawn from his own experiences as a detective working for the Pinkerton Agency and his hardboiled style was almost certainly a product of his Pinkerton's training which emphasised the need for agents to remain totally objective at all times to ensure that their judgement was not impaired by emotional involvement with the victims of crimes etc. As Pinkerton agents were also encouraged to do whatever was necessary to bring criminals to justice without being too concerned about normal standards of decency or morality, it's quite likely that this inspired the cynicism and moral ambiguity that also featured in his work.The movie "Hammett" (1982) is essentially an homage to the kind of fiction that provided a great deal of material for the films noir that influenced German director Wim Wenders so strongly during his childhood and focuses on the author's career where he'd already left the Pinkerton Agency and was selling his stories to crime magazines such as "Black Mask". It provides a fictionalised account of how he might have reluctantly got drawn into an investigation being carried out by an old friend and by so doing, gained the inspiration he needed to write one of his most successful novels.In San Francisco in 1928, crime-writer Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest), (known to his friends as Sam), has just completed his latest story when he's visited by Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle) who was his mentor during his time at Pinkerton's. Jimmy taught Sam everything he knows about detective work and is now working on a missing person's case involving a Chinese girl who's been a victim of the slave trade and could be in imminent danger. Sam doesn't want to get involved but feels obliged to because, in the past, Jimmy saved his life by taking a bullet that was intended for him.The investigation takes the two men into the dangerous Chinatown underworld where Sam quickly finds that he hasn't forgotten some of the old skills that he learned at Pinkerton's. Things don't go as planned though when Sam loses his latest manuscript and Jimmy has to work alone to track down the young Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei). Trying to solve the mystery of Crystal's disappearance leads to brushes with corrupt cops and beatings before Sam discovers some pornography, prostitution and blackmail rackets that involve a number of wealthy people in influential positions in the city.Hammett is depicted as a laconic, heavy drinker who suffers alarming bouts of coughing because he's a TB sufferer. Before getting involved in the Chinatown investigation, he'd used Jimmy as a hero in his stories and his attractive downstairs neighbour Kit (Marilu Henner) as a key character called Sue Alabama. During his time in Chinatown however, he becomes involved with a whole series of people who are immediately recognisable as ones that later feature in his best known works.Despite the movie's well-documented production problems, the end-result looks well-directed, skilfully photographed and successfully evokes the atmosphere of the classic noirs. Its main deficiencies are a shortage of the witty repartee that's normally a feature of these types of stories and also a lack of realism that's caused by virtually everything being filmed in the studios. Frederic Forrest makes a convincing Hammett and the supporting cast is also very strong.
HAMMETT was one of the first books I read for pleasure back in college and I recall anxiously awaiting how it was going to be Zeotroped on screen... visually the movie reminded me of a large single set production (like 1937's DEAD END)... it's almost as if somebody like Bill Gates took a film class and decided to adapt the book as his final. Large plot chunks are missing from the book (notably a car chase and a baseball bat murder) but this movie was so unique (in those pre-Joel and Ethan Cohen days) that I remember it looking like a strange painting even after 20+ years. Forrest is a terrific under-rated actor and was a perfect choice for Dash. You won't be wasting your time checking HAMMETT out but the book has it beat. 8/10.
'Hammett' is an excellent case of Zoetrope Studios, utilizing Coppola's unusual electronic-soundstage method of production (which would be further refined in his seldom-seen 'One From the Heart,' also with Frederick Forrest). In certain respects the film is like Paul Schrader's 'Mishima,' also based on a literary figure, with a seamless interweaving with the author's fictional characters along with thw writer's real life. Watch 'Hammett' and try to sort out the various strains that pop up in different films based on his work, notably the 'Maltese Falcon.' Elijah Cooke is one of the stars of the 1982 Wenders film. Don't forget the music, the soundstage decor with the recreation of late 1920's San Francisco, and the general mood that makes 'Hammett' a worthy entry to anyone list of must-see noir films.
In the background/historical notes to his novel, "Hammett," author Joe Gores says of one character, ". . . and if you don't know who he's based on, you need to read more Hammett." The movie, more or less based upon the novel, takes Gore's dicta to heart with several key characters. The result can be a whole lot of fun if you know your Hammett; if you're a little weak in that category, the result is merely a lot of fun.Set in 1927 San Francisco, the film catches Dashiell Hammett in transition: Trying to firmly put his Pinkerton days behind him while establishing himself as a writer, dealing with the twin scourges of his World War I - induced tuberculosis and the alcoholism that will plague him almost to the end of his days, he finds himself drawn back into his old life one last time by the irresistible call of friendship and to honor a debt. By the time he's done, he finds himself having paid a far higher price, learning that he had only thought himself to be totally disillusioned beforehand."Hammett" the movie is as much an homage as "Hammett" the novel. It is a rare thing for neither a movie nor a novel to suffer by comparison to each other -- especially when the two are so divergent -- but that is exactly what happens here. The screenplay is strong, the production values uniformly excellent (check out the 1920s Market Street Railway streetcar which passes by in the background briefly in one scene, for example; only one in a thousand viewers might recognize it, and only one in possibly two thousand might appreciate the verisimilitude it provides), the direction and pacing authoritative.Frederic Forrest is virtually perfect as Hammett; by turns ravaged and buoyant, hardboiled and outraged, at every turn ultimately unstoppable. By the film's close, he makes it very clear that, for Hammett, there will be no turning back; those moodily tapping typewriter keys which formed such an eerie backdrop for much of the action will also provide his salvation, and that this is a good thing.And anyone who disputes that, as Joe Gores would say, needs to read more Hammett.