Movies with troubled production histories can often be identified by multiple writers, multiple producers, or multiple editors. HAMMETT, directed by Wim Wenders after the novel by Joe Gores, is guilty of these, and more. Another tell are credits for additional photography, signalling that they had to get someone new because the previous D.P. was unavailable or the director of reshoots wanted someone else. In this case: “Other Photography by Philip Lathrop.”
HAMMETT is a post-modern tribute to pulp detective writer Dashiell Hammett, fictionalizing him as the star of his own mystery. After finishing his latest pulp story, writer Hammett (Frederick Forrest) gets involved in a blackmail scheme against some rich San Francisco power brokers. Hammett’s pal Ryan (Peter Boyle) drags him into the Chinatown crime scene. Hammett goes through incidents that echo events in his fiction, including THE MALTESE FALCON.
The plot isn’t very important, because due to the reshoots or just the approach to Joe Gores’ book, this is a very low-level detective story. Hammett doesn’t crack jaws, he just kind of shuffles through the mystery, which never crackles, it’s just an excuse for guest appearances by Jack Nance (ERASERHEAD), director Sam Fuller and Elisha Cook, Jr. (THE MALTESE FALCON), a moody John Barry score, and Dean Tavoularis’ fine art direction.
HAMMETT was made around the same time as producer Francis Coppola’s ONE FROM THE HEART. There are credits for “Electronic Cinema,” which was Coppola’s dream, destroyed by the box office failure of several of Coppola’s movies.
Over the years the story has grown up that Coppola directed the reshoots, but Wim Wenders claims he directed everything, and the original version is now lost. The result is film noir comfort food. Like an episode of PETER GUNN, HAMMETT is about artificial but moody sets, an evocative score, and well-cast actors kind of walking around, never in much danger.
I can’t imagine this being entertaining to someone who doesn’t care for noir, or for Hammett. Forest looks remarkably like Hammett, and he is a convincing lead. But the crime story just never catches fire.
If you go into this knowing it’s an attempt to do a post-CHINATOWN spin on hardboiled cliches–the core of the crime is about The Evils of the Powerful, and No One Is Clean–and just settle back, it’s smooth entertainment. The set for Hammett’s apartment is a film noir dream, all Venetian blind shadows and piles of stuff. There’s one of the worst back-projection screen shots I’ve ever seen. And the whole thing has a brooding, sad tone that John Barry really keys in on with his piano-led score.
This is one of those movies no one seems to like but me. It’s a good chaser for a real noir feast like TOUCH OF EVIL.
“In the final product ten shots survived from my original shoot: only exteriors. Because there wasn’t much money left, and I was too stubborn to drop it and or say, “Well then let somebody else do it.” Francis [Ford Coppola] was too stubborn to fire me so we stuck it out and we respected each other in spite of all the conflicts. So I ended up shooting the second version as well. That was entirely in one sound stage. The whole shoot never saw the light of day, except for a couple of shots from the first, maybe 5% of the film from the first version.” – Wim Wenders https://tinyurl.com/ycbhyet3