“This is an entirely imaginary story about the writer Samuel Dashiell Hammett, who… in the words of one of his most gifted contemporaries… helped get murder out of the Vicar’s rose garden and back to the people who are really good at it. The detective story has not been the same since.”
I was hoping from the opening titlecard bearing this message that Hammett (1982) would become a new favorite film of mine. I’m an enormous fan of the real Dashiell Hammet’s work, and I had no clue there was a film inspired by the writer himself until I stumbled across this at while browsing the period films on Netflix. (I have, of course, seen about a million of the films inspired by and adapted from his stories.)
Hammett is, as that opening titlecard suggests, not a straight biopic of the writer. Instead, the script has him getting thrown into a mystery much like those he concocts in his mind, playing amateur detective himself rather than sitting behind his typewriter.
The concept of the film is incredibly interesting, adapted from a novel by Joe Gores, which I’m very eager to read… to see if it carries out the concept better than the film does. Unfortunately, Hammett is far from achieving “instant favorite” status in the TMP book of movies.
Though set in the 1920s, the film is visually confused. Most of the costumes look more ’40s than ’20s while some of the sets (particularly the exteriors — alleyways and the like) have a distinctly grungy look that is hard to staple down to a specific period. Frederic Forrest, starring as Hammett, spends the majority of his time in fully stereotypical noir film P.I. garb — the long, heavy trenchcoat and the hat ever-so-slightly tipped to one side. There are a few moments that hit the ’20s mark visually, but they don’t come along very frequently.
Also troubling is the quality of the performances in this film. While visually Hammett at least attempts to connect to some period, the actors seem to put in much less effort. Successful period pieces/noir throwbacks must emulate the style of dialogue delivery and speaking that was used during the early decades of filmmaking, and there seems to be very little attempt to do that here.
The script is the film’s strongest asset, which makes the total film’s failure all the more disappointing. There are plenty of great nods to Hammett’s stories and films of the past written in — nonsensical diversions (like an early scene in which Hammett loses his manuscript after being trapped in the middle of a dragon parade), sudden gunfire, mysterious obstacles to the investigation, femme fatales, a somewhat twisty ending. There’s even a little bit of montage action to finish off the film. But none of this is enough to redeem the whole picture.
In short, I expected a whole lot more from this film. The only sector in which it even partially delivered was the script, but the success of that aspect of the film was hampered by the failures of just about everything else. The score: 1/5