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DVD Review: ‘Hammett’

★★☆☆☆

Nominated for the 1982 Palme d’Or at Cannes, Hammett (1982) was Wim Wenders’ American debut feature and an homage to the B-movies and film noir that influenced him from a young age. His later film, The State of Things, was inspired by his experiences directing Hammett and working inside the American studio system, the film having been almost entirely re-shot by Francis Ford Coppola (who is credited as producer). The inconsistent rehash of the original footage is sadly evident throughout what could otherwise have been an interesting revisit to the noir genre.

Dashiell Hammett’s detective novels have been the source of some of the most celebrated film noir and pulp fiction. His most famous story, The Maltese Falcon, and his fictionalised struggles to write it are the backdrop to the film. Having moved to San Francisco, Hammett (Frederic Forrest) finds himself writing shorts for magazines, unable to find the inspiration for a proper novel. As a favour to an old friend, he agrees to help investigate the disappearance of a Chinese cabaret actress and finds himself back in the world he now only writes about.

From the seedy, trilby-wearing characters, everything in the film evokes the atmosphere of The Maltese Falcon and the entire noir genre, but its love of its sources frustratingly leads to a box-ticking of every noir trope imaginable. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) proved that modern adaptations of the genre could still be effective if the source material was freshened up a bit. His film was an original take on the genre, but Hammett will be incredibly familiar to anyone who has seen a few of the old classic noir films.

The real Dashiell Hammett was an incredibly intriguing character who’s novels – influenced by his drinking and experiences in the First World War – are now regarded as some of the best in the English language, so it is immensely irritating to see him portrayed in Wenders’ film as being nothing more than a quippy detective. One of the most compelling aspects of the original film noir were the back stories of their harrowed detectives (like Hammett’s own Sam Spade), and in leaving out such an essential generic aspect, both Hammett the protagonist and the film simply feel dull and uninspired.

It would be most beneficial to watch Hammett and The State of Things as a double-bill, as on its own, Hammett is unimaginative and tired. Instead, why not track down either The Big Sleep (1946) or M (1931), both of which are absolutely fantastic and beautiful films that achieve things cinematically that Hammett can only aspire to.

Oliver Sunley