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HAMMETT(director: Wim Wenders; screenwriters: Ross Thomas/Dennis O’Flaherty/adaptation by Thomas Pope/based on the book by Joe Gores; cinematographer: Joseph Biroc; editors: Barry Malkin/Marc Laub/Robert Q. Lovett/Randy Roberts; music: John Barry; cast: Frederic Forrest (Hammett), Peter Boyle (Jimmy Ryan), Marilu Henner (Kit Conger/Sue Alabama), Roy Kinnear (English Eddie Hagedorn), Elisha Cook Jr. (Eli the Taxi Driver), Lydia Lei (Crystal Ling), R.G. Armstrong (Lt. O’Mara), Richard Bradford (Detective Tom Bradford), Michael Chow (Fong Wei Tau), David Patrick Kelly (The Punk), Sylvia Sidney (Donaldina Cameron), Jack Nance (Gary Salt), Elmer L. Kline (Doc Fallon), Royal Dano (Pops), Samuel Fuller (Old Man in Pool Hall); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Fred Roos/Ronald Colby/Don Guest; Orion Pictures/Warner Bros.; 1982)
“Wenders was justifiably upset with the studio for its cutting up of his baby and forcing on him too many reshoots and script rewrites.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Wim Wenders’ (“The American Friend”/”Alice in the Cities”/”Lisbon Story”) first American movie is stylishly shot and is an atmospheric winner, but it’s too stilted to overall be effective. It’s a fictional biopic of celebrated pulp fiction writer Dashiell Hammett, who is shown during his early days as a new writer eking out a living by penning short stories for pulp magazines and battling TB. It purports to tell about the art of writing such fiction, by the writer actually living out the same experiences as his fictional hero private detective Sam Spade. Writers Ross Thomas, Dennis O’Flaherty and Thomas Pope based it on the novel by Joe Gores. Wenders was justifiably upset with the studio for its cutting up of his baby and forcing on him too many re-shoots and script rewrites, which made a mushy mess of things. It’s a studio-bound film set in 1928 in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Sam Dashiell Hammett (Frederick Forrest) is an ex-detective with the Pinkerton Agency, who is now a cynical and struggling pulp fiction writer. He is reluctantly pulled back into being a gumshoe by his ex-Pinkerton agent pal Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), his old boss who taught him the tricks of the trade, when he pays him a surprise visit in his office and tells him that he’s now a shamus on a big case and needs his help. Jimmy is looking for a supposedly missing China doll prostitute and blackmailer of 17, Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei), who ran away to a Mission House to escape her white slavery bondage ever since her China living parents sold her to American Chinese crime lords when she was 9. Hammett runs into all sorts of trouble from the likes of Chinatown crime boss Fong, the unfriendly corruptible cops Lt. O’Mara and Detective Bradford, wormy pornographer Gary Salt, the mysterious homosexual criminal lawyer Eddie Hagedorn, and the mouthpiece’s squeaky-voiced lover and punky gunsel (David Patrick Kelly). Anarchist cabbie Eli (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Kit Conger, the sexy red-headed librarian who lives downstairs (Marilu Henner), are the only ones in this town Hammett trusts to help him, as he makes his rounds in the rickety Chinatown underworld to find out what’s up with Crystal, stag movies, underage prostitutes, the city’s rich folks sudden interest in Chinatown, and surprisingly finds that his mentor Jimmy has been using him and is nothing but a loser involved in an unscrupulous blackmail scheme. Which shows, you might never know all you can about your best friends even if you think you know all about them.

It has the feel of the 1940s noir genre films, but doesn’t quite excite in the same way as does The Maltese Falcon. It lacks having a Sam Spade around with Bogie’s charisma; instead there’s too much of a reach relating this tale as the main reason Hammett succeeded as a writer of Sam Spade mysteries. There’s also just too much confusion over such a simple double-cross plotted story and too much lyrical pining for that old time Hollywood nostalgia, and not enough tension or wit to hold one’s interest throughout.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”