Hammett: German Director Wim Wenders American Debut, Starring Frederic Forrest

The gifted German director Wim Wenders (“Alice in the Cities”) made his American screen debut in 1982 with Hammett, a stylish, fact-based feature of the legendary novelist Dashiell Hammett (and longtime companion of playwright Lillian Hellman).

The initiative came from Francis Ford Coppola, who was impressed with the German works of Wenders and suggested to produce this fictionalized biopic at his American Zoetrope.

Based on the novel by Joe Gores, the story, which is set in the 1920s, centers on detective novelist Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest, well cast), who early in his career gets involved in a mystery that reportedly shaped his literary works and perhaps even his personal life.

While writing for pulp magazines, Hammett is asked by Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), his old boss at the Pinkerton agency (and the model for the writer’s “Continental Op” character), to help crack a particularly tough case.

Hammett accepts, finding himself in the seedy streets of San Francisco, searching a missing Chinese prostitute (Lydia Lei).
Hammet makes allusive references to screen version based on Dashiell’s pulp fiction. Thus, Elisha Cook, who’d appeared in the 1941 film adaptation of Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon,” which was john Huston’s feature debut, is cast as Eli the Cab Driver.

Cinematographers Philip H. Lathrop and Joseph Biroc invest Hammett with the look of a classic 1940s Hollywood detective yarn.

Unfortunately, the picture suffered from a long, protracted production (several years). “Hammett” was finally removed from Wenders and the studio (Orion) imposed cuts and reshoots (rumored to be done by Coppola).

It was not a good experience for Wenders, who meanwhile decided to make a black-and-white, self-reflexive film, “The State of Things,” about the difficulties experienced by a filmmaker with his producers!

The end result is sharply uneven, compromised film, stronger on mood and visuals than on coherent story. Forrest (“The Rose”), who gives a strong evocative performance in the titular role, was rumored to be the next big star in Hollywood, which never happened.

Wenders’ next English speaking film, “Paris, Texas,“ would be artistically acclaimed, winning the top prize of the 1994 Canes Film Fest.

Running time: 96 Minutes.
Directed by Wim Wenders