Hammett by K. A. Laity

hammett

Oh a whim (sorry) I decided I really needed to finally see Wim Wenders’ Hammett, which might also be Francis Ford Coppola’s Hammett. Or not. In any case, it’s not the film Wenders envisioned. In the 70s war-fatigue fueled the neo-noir revival that gave us films like Chinatown, Farewell My Lovely, and Altman’s The Long Goodbye. As Robert Porfirio wrote in his Sight & Sound essay on existentialism in noir (when French criticism and philosophy finally made it’s way to the States), the existential in noir is embodied by ‘a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept.’

This really fit the 70s indie filmmakers neatly. While most will think of Coppola and Scorsese, this also fits Akerman, Kopple or Barbara Loden’s Wanda. Wenders’ project for Zoetrope ran into problems with his talky lack of fast action apparently. The big money didn’t like it and demanded a reshoot on set instead of on location. It probably did ultimately doom it (though we’ll never know per the link above). But there are things to recommend watching the film, even if you’re not obsessed with films about writers.

Coppola was determined to make Frederic Forrest a star after Apocalypse Now. He gave him a starring role in One From the Heart, the Tom Waits musically-fuelled film and in this. Forrest makes a decent Hammett, with more than a passing resemblance to the writer. In a not-unfamiliar trope we start out with a re-creation of one of Hammett’s stories. I’m not sure how much of this comes from Joe Gores’ novel which is credited as the source of the story, with three adaptors also credited. To say the story feels hackneyed is legit. It’s supposed to be Hammett struggling to break through, writing poorly.

It probably doesn’t help that the tough PI is played by Peter Boyle and the femme fatale by Marilu Henner. It’s hard not to see the larger than life Boyle in comic mode. And Henner is far too much gal-next-door to be believable as a femme fatale. Like Forrest she was much better suited to television work and benefited from the intimacy of the small screen.

There are a wealth of cameos from vintage noir and crime actors like Royal Dano, Sylvia Sidney, Richard Bradford, R. G. Armstrong, and even Sam Fuller, plus the one and only Elisha Cook Jr. and the magnificent Roy Kinnear playing the full Sydney Greenstreet with aplomb. Then-newer stars like David Patrick Kelly and Jack Nance provided entertainment and kudos that, despite reproducing vintage racism, they actually employed Asian actors for the film like Michael Chow, Lloyd Kino and Lisa Lu. Lydia Lei is an excellent femme fatale, but the story can’t really rise above its historical baggage.

Neo-noir is difficult. I’m retooling my film course with mandatory online teaching for at least the next two weeks and have to change my original selections for films available through the library database. It’s not always easy to choose.

k a laity noir