Dashiell Hammett was the original hard-boiled noir crime writer, clearing the path for Raymond Chandler and, more recently, James Ellroy to follow with their depictions of the corrupt criminal underbelly of West Coast USA.

This film is born out of Joe Gore’s book, which fictionalised Hammett’s life, putting him front and centre in one of his own dime-store detective novels. Having left Pinkerton’s detective agency to pursue a full-time writing and drinking career, Hammett soon finds himself embroiled in a seedy tale of sleaze, corruption and murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

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Hammett’s old partner from the agency comes to town, ostensibly working a case about a young Chinese prostitute he believes is in danger. He persuades Hammett to help him look into it, but quickly goes missing after an altercation with a man following the pair in Chinatown. Hammett does very little to look for trouble, but it seems to keep cropping up as a man named Salt appears with information about the girl, and finally the girl herself appears uninvited in Hammett’s apartment. Before long, he’s reluctantly on the trail of scandal and murder through the grimy opium dens and casinos of Chinatown.

This premise – allied with Francis Ford Coppola and Wim Wenders' involvement - sounds like a noir-aficionado’s dream. The picture is an unabashed homage to classic era Hollywood noir and films such as Hammett’s very own Maltese Falcon. John Barry’s seductive, wistful score works in perfect synch with the gorgeously designed Chinatown sets of Dean Tavoularis to evoke the kind of fatalist noir settings Wenders is clearly enamoured with.

However, they also seem to serve as reminder that this Eighties noir throwback isn’t in the same league as the films it wishes to emulate: there’s something slightly amiss throughout. The shoot was reputedly troubled and dogged by delays and disagreements – it is one of Coppola’s doomed Zeotrope studio productions. There are rumours that Coppola was unhappy with Wenders’ directorial efforts and thus re-shot and re-edited much of the film himself, although Wenders denies this.

It would certainly explain some of the films’ oddities. It is, at times, all over the place. There are several scenes which seem to lead nowhere, and several more which are clearly only included for clumsily handled exposition purposes. The script, too, doesn’t offer us quite enough of the snappy zingers we’d expect from Hammett’s own typewriter and some of the plot contrivances introduced to get characters from a to b, are simply bewildering – look out for a small Chinese girl holding a pair of red shoes.

There’s also something too theatrical about the whole thing: the smart-arse, gutter- speak of pulp noir detective stories is delivered crisply, and perfectly pronounced at all times – flying in the face of the way characters talk in Hammett’s own The Maltese Falcon, a perfection of delivery that all noir performers must aspire toward.

Despite these problems, Hammett does become an enjoyable watch, chiefly held together by an engaging performance from Frederic Forrest as Hammett himself. While he isn’t as quick-tongued as Bogart’s Spade, there is a raffish, bewildered and unbothered quality to his portrayal of the author caught up in a plot more ludicrous than one he’d write.

Once the story begins to hurtle along towards its conclusion, much of its early cheapness is forgotten. The narrative is as convoluted and complex as we’d expect from any good noir, with the dismissal of one shady villain leading to the uncovering of several more lurking in the shadows. Hammett does his best to keep up with these developments, but it works in the films’ favour that he seems just as lost as we are. He’s generally reluctant to pursue any of it, but when the string seems to be forever dangling in front of him he can’t help but pull away at it.

The premise of the film and the people involved perhaps lead to raised expectations for Hammett, which will most likely be unfulfilled. However, while it’s no masterpiece, there’s plenty of good to be mined from it if you go looking for it. Just like Hammett would.

Reviewed on: 07 Nov 2011
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The novel writer Dashiell Hammett is involved in the investigation of the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful chinese cabaret actress in San Francisco.
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Director: Wim Wenders

Writer: Joe Gores, Dennis O'Flaherty, Thomas Pope, Ross Thomas

Starring: Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, Roy Kinnear, Elisha Cook Jr., Lydia Lei, R.G. Armstrong, Richard Bradford, Michael Chow, David Patrick Kelly, Sylvia Sidney, Jack Nance, Elmer Kline, Royal Dano, Samuel Fuller

Year: 1982

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: US


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