Cast: Samuel Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest), Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), Kit Conger (Marilu Henner), "English" Eddie Hagedorn (Roy Kinnear), Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei)
Director: Wim Wenders
Theatrical release: 09/17/1982
DVD Date: 01/11/2005
Running Time: 97 minutes
Note(s): Screenplay adapted from the novel Hammett by Joe Gores.
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Review: Paging through the mystery section of an online video service I stumbled across Hammett, I had wanted to see when it first came out on DVD a few years ago but wasn't available at my local video store.
The movie opens with Hammett (Frederick Forrest) completing his latest manuscript for publication in a weekly crime magazine. The setting is 1928 San Francisco and as Hammett drifts off to sleep the screen fades to a visual representation of a scene from Hammett's story with his private investigator (played by Peter Boyle) confronting the ubiquitous dame (Marilu Henner) about a strand of missing pearls. She confesses to taking them and he gives her an hour to beat it (though gives her only 15 minutes before calling the cops). Hammett awakens to find his old Pinkerton partner, Jimmy Ryan (also played by Peter Boyle), in his apartment. Jimmy is the real-life inspiration for the PI in his pulp crime stories. Hammett and Jimmy take off to a local bar where Jimmy tells Hammett he's in town looking for a girl, Crystal Ling, living in Chinatown. When a punk with a gun shows up, Jimmy takes off. Hammet tries to follow but loses him.
Up to now (some 30 or so minutes into the film) the pace moves along briskly. At this point it accelerates and then some. Hammett steps into the shoes of a private investigator, looking not only for Jimmy but why he's disappeared. The girl, Crystal Ling, later appears in his apartment but that only complicates matters for him. If Jimmy is looking for Crystal and Crystal is with Hammett, where is Jimmy?
Hammett is first and foremost a visually stunning film. The minimal sets are designed for atmosphere, not to dazzle, with muted primary colors, high contrast between light and dark, stark lighting producing mysterious shadows, and unusual camera angles, all contributing to a surprisingly fresh look. The noirish feel to the movie is exceptionally well done. The music by John Barry, for example, is subtle, appropriate to the time and setting, and vaguely familiar in a good way. The solo piano and horn pieces add depth to narrative.
The performances are generally first rate. Frederick Forrest seems perfectly cast as Hammett, Peter Boyle less so as Jimmy Ryan. The supporting characters, especially Marilu Henner, are superb; it really makes you appreciate how important supporting performances are to a movie.
The very few plot holes (and yes, there are some) are quickly overlooked and all but forgotten by the end of the movie. I haven't read the book (it's being added to my list, though), but one wonders if the continuity of the story is more complete in the novel. Screenplays need to take shortcuts here and there and if the movie is reasonably faithful to the book, it is logical to assume that some scenes here and there were omitted which would have provided for a more seamless transition.
Still, Hammett is a terrific movie. It was made over 25 years ago (though just released on DVD in 2005) but it has a timeless quality to it that makes it appear as if it were more recently produced. Look for it at your video store or if it's not available, order it from your favorite online service.
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