August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
So far it’s been a good century for Dashiell Hammett. Last year saw the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of his first novel, Red Harvest , and this year is the seventy-fifth anniversary of his most famous and best-selling book, The Maltese Falcon . Vintage Books celebrated with new editions of all of Hammett’s titles, including a previously unpublished novella and a collection of his early pulp stories.
Hammett’s influence not only pervades the genre of crime fiction —as Raymond Chandler shrewdly observed, he “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse”—but extends beyond it. Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and even the cyberpunk science fiction writer William Gibson all owe debts of varying degree to Hammett.
Incredible as it seems, Hollywood never asked Hammett to adapt one of his own books for the screen, but he had sensational luck with other screenwriters. The Maltese Falcon had already gone through two successful versions before John Huston’s 1941 film, the one we remember today; it was Huston’s first directorial effort and one that he later admitted he translated for the screen by simply ripping out pages from the book and circling lines of dialogue.
Huston’s real contribution was, as the critic Pauline Kael noted, “a hard, precise directorial style that brings out the full viciousness of characters so ruthless and greedy that they become comic.” The film set the standard for private-eye movies up to the present day and established Humphrey Bogart as the most durable and intriguing leading man in American movies.
The 1934 film version of Hammett’s The Thin Man was not merely a monster hit but created a franchise of several successful sequels, all of them featuring the cynical, sophisticated married private eyes Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. In 1942 The Glass Key , Hammett’s tale of big-city political intrigue, became the last of his novels to be made into a feature film, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
Only one Dashiell Hammett novel has never been filmed: Red Harvest , published in 1929. That book was immediately recognized as a masterpiece; Herbert Asbury, author of The Gangs of New York , wrote in a review, “It is doubtful that even Ernest Hemingway has ever written more effective dialogue.” André Gide, of all people, admired it in The New Republic . David Selznick bought the film rights and assigned the project to Ben Hecht, but Red Harvest proved to be too violent and its depiction of police and union corruption too nasty for Hollywood to handle. The script was written and rewritten until it finally became what the studio called “an action comedy,” Roadhouse Nights , the screen debut of Jimmy Durante—not exactly the protagonist Hammett had in mind.
Hammett’s tax problems, and opposition to his Communist politics, kept the story from being adapted in his lifetime. It remains unfilmed, but many believe it has inspired several films in different genres. Its plot is easily recognizable to old Western movie fans, despite the twentieth-century gangster trappings: A mysterious, unnamed gun-for-hire arrives in a remote mining town named Personville—or “Poisonville,” as the locals call it—and the place is torn apart by two equally corrupt warring factions. The stranger hires offto both sides, plays them against each other, and eventually leaves in the wake of a cleansing carnage.
It’s the same basic story line used by Akira Kurosawa in his samurai film Yojimbo (1961) and by the Italian director Sergio Leone in his Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964). In fact, the two films were so similar in plot that Kurosawa sued Leone, forcing an out-of-court settlement, but neither director acknowledged his debt to Hammett. In 1996 Walter Hill purchased the rights to Yojimbo from Kurosawa’s estate and turned the story into a gangster film, Last Man Standing , with Bruce Willis, thus bringing the theme full circle.
In a double borrowing from Hammett, the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) takes the protagonist played by Alan Ladd in The Glass Key and places him in an urban face-off between Italian and Irish mobs. The Coens have never been shy about their love for Hammett: Their first film, Blood Simple , took its title from a line in Red Harvest . So adaptable is Red Harvest ’s theme that some see it as the basis for the decade’s most-talked-about new television series, Deadwood , set in a real-life Poisonville of a mining town that preceded Hammett’s vision by half a century.