Monday Movie: Hammett, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Hammett originally ran as a Criterion Prediction.
Wim Wenders’ Hammett is a strange case. The very concoction seems off. Wenders had flirted with the noir territory with The American Friend. Clearly he’s fascinated with the films of Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray and he takes stylistic cues from them frequently. Hammett is in the mold of classic film noir, and Wenders decides to have fun with the material while putting a more modern edge to it, and yet somehow the movie isn’t self-serious.
Hammett outs politicians, pedophiles, creeps and sadists. There’s a tasteful revision in that Wenders fills in those blanks that the Hayes code would have blacked out. Granted, the great artists of the genre, both behind and in front of the camera, smuggled the tawdry bits by as they were masters of innuendo.
Well, Wenders brings us a little closer to the material that was formerly in the shadows of film noir. Child prostitution, porno rackets, and opium dens, are the backdrops for this odd adventure. But Wenders doesn’t run headfirst into the sleaze the way Brian De Palma and Robert Rodriguez would in their later neo-noirs (The Black Dahlia, Sin City). As a matter of fact, Wenders doesn’t ever “run” into anything. Hammett retains the snappy dialogue of its forebears but doesn’t color over the sordid details that make the noir genre so indelibly tawdry. Most importantly, Hammett doesn’t come off as a downer. There’s an elevated social acumen and a penchant for entertainment. It follows the tropes and lays a few new cards on the table as well.
Wenders utilizes Dashiell Hammett’s past as a Pinkerton agent and uses it as a jumping off point to illustrate the fallacy of the agency’s reputation as muscle for hire. Dashiell refers to their methods of strikebreaking being the reason why he left (which is reputed to be true), and there’s even a reference to the IWW, as Elisha Cook Jr. plays a cab driver who then refers to himself as an anarchist with “syndicalist tendencies.” It serves as a solid means of character motivation. Hammett, as portrayed here, is resourceful, clever, smart, and strong but not so much a traditional “tough-guy.” Like all noir protagonists, Hammett gets his ass kicked at every other corner, and it feels as if he doesn’t want to resort to violence, mostly this reluctant sleuth intends to write more than anything.
While the period is realized and the film is fun to watch, Hammett’s narrative is a little disjointed. The first act starts promisingly by establishing the mood but loses its way for a few paces. However, the second half comes together once the story finds its juice.
The cast is stellar. It’s a veritable who’s-who with Peter Boyle, R.G. Armstrong, Jack Nance, David Patrick Kelly, and Marilu Henner but the casting of Frederic Forrest in the lead is outstanding. At first, his delivery felt detached, but as the film got going so did ease of his performance, and he really grows into the role.
Not Wenders’ best but a thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of the genre and the man who was a pioneering figure in its conception, Hammett is an odd one but a fun one at that.