Retro Review Hammett: A Gorgeous Homage to Classic Pulp Mysteries


Director Wim Wenders made his American film bow with the ultra-stylish Hammett. Based on the speculative novel by Joe Gores, the story concerns real-life detective novelist Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forest), who early in his career is involved in a complex mystery that will profoundly influence his later works. While hacking away 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 out on a particularly difficult case.



Before long, Hammett is prowling the nooks and crannies of San Francisco in search of a missing Chinese prostitute-blackmailer (Lydia Lei). Among the several delectable “inside jokes” in Hammett is the presence of Elisha Cook, who’d appeared in the 1941 film adaptation of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, as Eli the Cab Driver. Cinematographers Philip H. Lathrop and Joseph Biroc work overtime to invest Hammett with the “feel” of a classic 1940s detective yarn.


"Hammett" (1982) Trailer


There was some dispute over whether Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) or Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) directed the version of Hammett that was released in 1982, but it’s now commonly accepted that Wenders did in fact helm the picture, including the majority of re-shoots.


Part of a tradition where authors take part in cinematic adventures akin to the their novels (Old Gringo, Time After Time, Shakespeare in Love etc), the movie posits hard-boiled detective writer Samuel Dashiell  (‘Dash’) Hammett’s involvement in a kidnapping case and a lost manuscript in the Chinatown district of his then hometown of San Francisco.

A shame Chinatown had already been taken as a title for a period Neo-Noir…


Chinatown - Trailer | Austin Film Society


Hammett pre-dated and was an influence on Raymond Chandler and many other writers of detective fiction and is best known for his novels The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, both of which were successfully adapted for the screen.



Hammett had a fascinating life, working as a Pinkerton detective before becoming a writer, then joining up in WWII despite his frail condition and later blacklisted in the 1950s, when his relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman became the stuff of literary legend.


His singular personality and striking looks (lean, prematurely gray, with a pronounced widow’s peak) have meant that he has been portrayed on screen by both Jason Robards (Julia) and Sam Shepherd (Dash and Lilly) as well as of course by Frederic Forrest in Hammett.


Julia, 1977 - Trailer


Sam Shepherd and Judy Davis in Dash & Lilly (1999)


Hammett is a good, but not great movie, buoyed by an impressive turn by Forrest (One From the Heart, Apocalypse Now) and a strong supporting cast that includes Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond/Joe), Marilu Henner (Taxi) and English actor Roy Kinnear (The Three Musketeers/The Hill) in a Sydney Greenstreet/Robert Morley type role.


Screen veterans Royal Dano, Elisha Cook Jnr, R.G. Armstrong, Sylvia Sidney and Richard Bradford also appear, giving the movie an authentic noir feel.


You’ll also recognise David Patrick Kelly of ‘Warriors, come out to play-yay!’ fame:



Warriors! Come out to play-ay!

Another memorable score from John Barry:

JOHN BARRY 'Hammett' Original Motion Picture Soundtrack 1982

Check out Hammett


Stephen Arnell

Culture Comment Content Provider. Portrait courtesy of artist Darren Coffield. 'Non satis me tempo'