After making a big splash in the realm of international cinema with The American Friend (a fine adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley), German director Wim Wenders got an invitation to come to Hollywood and make his first American feature. Francis Ford Coppola had just founded Zoetrope Studios, and Wenders was among the handful of talented young directors he picked to help launch the company.
The project Wenders received was an interesting one: a fictionalized take on the life of iconic crime novelist Dashiell Hammett. The real-life version of Hammett worked at the Pinkerton Detective Agency during his early years, then used those experiences as inspiration for a series of genre-defining crime novels. The film takes things a step further with an intriguing “what if?” scenario, imagining that Hammett (Frederic Forrest, Apocalypse Now) takes a break from writing for a little while to take on one last case. Essentially, Hammett becomes Sam Spade.
It's a promising idea for a movie, and Wenders was eager to tackle it. He shot the film on location in San Francisco, making a series of alterations to the script as he went. Alas, the finished product wasn't exactly what Coppola and the financiers had asked for. The powers-that-be had imagined an old-fashioned detective story, and Wenders had delivered something considerably dreamier and artier. Eventually, it was determined that Wenders would re-shoot the entire film under Coppola's heavy supervision. This time, it would be shot exclusively on studio lots, to make it look more like the crime movies of the 1940s. Unfortunately, a lot of time passed between the first shoot and the second, so the vast majority of the supporting cast had to be replaced and the filmmakers had to wait for Forrest to lose some of the weight he had gained in the interim.
The end result is, to put it gently, a mess. Hammett is a movie that's clearly head-over-heels in love with the work of the author at its center (and particularly with cinematic adaptations like The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key), but it's so messy and disorganized that it often feels like more like a high school theatrical production. The film's deliberately artificial look proves more of a liability than an asset, as the filmmakers make the crucial mistake of emphasizing that artifice on multiple occasions (something the filmmakers of the 1940s would never have dreamed of doing, even when the sets were particularly cheap). Given the handful of attractive exterior shots that remain from Wenders' first shoot, it's hard not wish that version had been left intact.
The plot is one of those knotty affairs that start with a simple mystery and slowly turn into a foggy web of duplicity and double-crosses. Hammett is sitting in his office working on his latest novel when his old pal Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle, Young Frankenstein) turns up. Jimmy wants Hammett to help him track down a Chinese prostitute who is reportedly living in some part of San Francisco's Chinatown district. Hammett agrees, but then Jimmy disappears and the writer finds himself sucked into a world of pistol-packing dames, blackmail schemes and corruption.
All of this becomes purposefully difficult to track after a while, which seems to be the film's way of reminding us that the plot is usually the least interesting aspect of these movies. It's about the flavor of the hard-boiled dialogue, and about the pleasure of watching the world-weary protagonist engage in a series of memorable conversations with a diverse gallery of colorful characters. Unfortunately, both the dialogue and the supporting characters aren't half as memorable as they should be. There's a surprisingly amateurish quality to a lot of the supporting performances, as actors overplay their scenes in a misguided attempt to recapture an old-fashioned brand of acting. As with the set design, the sincerity is missing.
There are only two things that feel consistently satisfying, and they're almost good enough to save the movie. The first is John Barry's smoky score, which sets precisely the right tone in the opening minutes and consistently suggests a cinematic world far richer and more absorbing than the one we're actually given. The second is Forrest's performance, which has a relaxed, Bogart-esque quality that might've seemed remarkable in a film that gave the actor better lines. Sporting the real Hammett's white hair, black mustache and tired eyes, Forrest embodies the character with a natural ease that makes you understand why people thought this movie would be worth shooting twice.
Fortunately, the film's critical and commercial failure didn't prevent Wenders from going on to make many other fine films (he shot The State of Things between the two versions of Hammett, and made Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire just a few years after). Years later, he went back and asked if there was any chance that his first version of Hammett could be released on home video, so viewers could compare and contrast the two versions. He was told that the first version had been destroyed. Now that's a melancholy ending worthy of a Hammett novel.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 1982