1982 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 /97 min. / Street Date November 1, 2005 / 14.99
Starring Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner, Roy Kinnear, Elisha Cook Jr., Lydia Lei, R.G. Armstrong, Richard Bradford
Cinematography Joseph Biroc
Production Designer Dean Tavoularis, Eugene Lee
Art Direction Leon Erickson, Angelo Graham
Film Editor Janice Hampton, Marc Laub, Robert Q. Lovett, Randy Roberts
Original Music John Barry
Written by Ross Thomas, Dennis O'Flaherty & Thomas Pope from the novel by Joe Gores
Produced by Ronald Colby, Francis Ford Coppola, Don Guest, Fred Roos
Directed by Wim Wenders
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Francis Coppola' American Zoetrope studio had nothing like the impact he'd hoped for. Interestingly, its slate of unusual film subjects might have been similar to the list submitted to Warners a decade before, when the failure of THX 1138 put the Zoetrope 'experiment' on the back burner. Freshly returned from eight years of larger studio pictures, Coppola happily geared up a bustling enterprise outfitted with new techologies that were going to revolutionize the way pictures were made.
One of the better shows actually to be finished at Zoetrope is Hammett, a lovingly detailed ode to the famous father of hardboiled detective fiction. Typical of Coppola, he did it the hard way, handing off his new 'digital cinema' techniques to German director Wim Wenders (The American Friend). The film was shot once and then re-tooled and partially re-shot anyway, and turned out to be rather expensive.
Ex-detective and newly-minted writer Sam Hammett (Frederick Forrest) is reluctantly pulled back into the shamus racket by his old pal Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), who shows up looking for a supposedly kidnapped China doll prostitute, Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei). Aided by trusty cabbie Eli (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Kit Conger, the sexy librarian downstairs (Marilu Henner), Hammett scours the Chinatown underworld and finds that Ryan hasn't been telling him the truth.
Paramount probably didn't feel they were getting their money's worth in the Zoetrope deal, as the pictures delivered were heavy on artistic ambition and low on commercial guarantees. Hammett is perhaps actor Frederick Forrest's best film but despite being a Zoetrope star he was never a popular name on a marquee, and the devotees of hardboiled fiction formed a small subset more likely than not to pooh-pooh film versions of their literary heroes than show up in droves. For all its grace notes, Hammett is a picture for the back aisles of a dusty used book store.
The production is quite good, with our intrepid semi-alcoholic writer moving among atmospheric 1920s locations -- frame houses, soggy gin joints and steamy Doss houses in Chinatown. Colors are warm, the art direction isn't out of hand (no One From the Heart flashiness) and we see glimpses of what look like authentic San Francisco streets, complete with antique stretcars -- throwaway virtuosity or clever effects?
Wim Wenders walks the line between heightened realism and all-out fantasy. 'Sam' Hammett slugs his way through his short stories, basing them on real adventures and made-up daydreams of his detective hero Jimmy Ryan. These romantic reveries of midnight meetings on foggy docks blend well with Hammett's own neighborhood life. He's greeted warmly on the street by regular pals, his bartenders and the boys at the local pool hall (Sam Fuller and Royal Dano). His 'girl Friday' is an impossibly available looker in the downstairs flat who always receives him in a slip and holding a liquor bottle. 1
The adventure of course mirrors the kind of stuff that shows up in pulp detective fiction and Hammett's best-known story, The Maltese Falcon, and this is the section of the tale where we're slightly short-changed. R.G. Armstrong (Major Dundee) and Richard Bradford (The Chase) are a pair of semi-honest cops right out of the Sam Spade handbook, while Roy Kinnear and David Patrick Kelly's impersonations of "The Fat Man" and his sawed-off gunsel come off as carbon copies, gutless and threatless. Having the real McCoy 'cheap gunsel' Elisha Cook Jr. only pays off in a couple of references to old labor-movement bomb-throwing: "Were you really a wobbly?" The actual mystery that Hammett spends so much time uncovering isn't all that compelling, and it lacks resonance with larger ideas, as did the water scandal of Chinatown.
Still, Hammett delivers a fine good time with our detective hero bickering and conniving with various denizens of the city on the bay - wheezing doctors, sinister Tong gangsters, Lydia Lei's obscenely seductive Crystal Ling. Jack Nance makes an early appearance as a neurotic pornographer/blackmailer, and Sylvia Sidney is a welcome sight as a charity social worker. There are enough chases, beatings and other amusing detective happenings to fill out the running time. The only regret is that the final showdowns with the bad guys lacks bite and surprise. Hammett simply chastizes the naughty rich behind the extortion plot, and watches while schemers closer to home cancel each other out with guns and double-crosses.
Paramount's DVD of Hammett is beautiful, as pretty as the picture looked in the empty Westwood theater where I saw it in 1982. John Barry's smooth score is good, but evokes different feelings than the picture we see, which looks like it was filmed in a San Francisco hastily reconstructed after the big quake -- a rickety wooden town on impossibly steep hills. The scariest thing in the picture is imagining one trying to drive a 1920s clutch taxi on those inclines.
There are no extras, which is a shame because I remember a lot of talk about Hammett's production woes that I frankly can't recall clearly, just that it involved considerable re-shooting. Associate and early film noir proponents Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, then assistant directors, told me about playing extras in a restaurant scene that never made it to the final cut.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good ++
Supplements: the bottle was empty, like my caseload
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 9, 2005
1. This should be good news to a certain Savant family member often incensed by the movies' idiotic persistence in characterizing all librarians as sexless, anal-obsessive and obnoxious. Marilu Henner puts library science back where it belongs, in the Adult Section.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson