It's tempting to see Hammett as a real life variation of The American Friend with Francis Ford Coppola as Dennis Hopper's Ripley and Wim Wenders as Bruno Ganz's picture framer who gets conned into becoming a hitman. Part of Francis Ford Coppola's ill-fated attempt to recreate the old studio system with a stock company of players and his own studio, Zoetrope, that had a troubled history to match any of his own directorial efforts, the wunderkind lured Wenders to Hollywood with the promise of artistic freedom in an artist-friendly environment with Joe Gores' fictional novel about the revolutionary crime writer and former private eye Dashiell Hammett getting involved in a semi-fictional mystery involving the cops, the crooks and the big rich while writing Red Harvest as bait. Set in 1928 San Francisco, it presents the tubercular Hammett as a half-decent man in a 9/10ths dishonest world who's given up the detective racket for short stories for pulp magazines, drinking too much and coughing his lungs up all the way until his old mentor turns up to call in a favor that leads to a web of murder, corruption and blackmail, it's easy to see the attraction. Instead things went a little haywire...
When the film was in development in 1978, Wenders had originally wanted Sam Shepherd - not only was he gaunt enough to play Hammett and was a writer himself but, more importantly for the director, he could actually type, something most actors who tested for the film had real problems with. Instead, Coppola wanted Frederic Forrest, one of his stock company of actors at Zoetrope, to play the lead: it turned out to be an inspired choice, but was indicative of how far the film would veer from his original intentions. After 40 scripts and countless legal and copyright problems with the Hammett Estate that ensured little of Gores' novel remained (and nothing of the Red Harvest connections), Wenders shot around 90% of the film before an unconvinced Coppola persuaded him not to shoot his planned ending until they had a rough cut of the film to see if it would really work, only for the director to realize they had film that was more about Hammett the writer than Hammett the detective. Cue yet another rewrite, while reshoots were delayed a year, by which time Forrest had gained so much weight for One From the Heart that they had to wait another year for him to slim down again while Wenders went off and shot The State of Things. Out went original co-stars Brian Keith and Ronee Blakely (by then the ex-Mrs Wenders) to be replaced by Peter Boyle and Marilu Henner, while Sylvia Miles part went out altogether, with only Frederic Forrest and Sam Fuller seemingly retained from the original cast. (Although there are claims that the bulk of the film was reshot by Coppola himself, Wenders is adamant that his American friend didn't shoot a single shot of it).
The result, Wenders felt, offered "More story, less soul." Damned with faint praise by the critics, audiences stayed away in droves when it finally saw light of projector in 1982. It's not a forgotten masterpiece and it's certainly no Chinatown, but it is a better one than it first appeared. While it's a film that felt slightly disappointing at first sight, on repeat viewings it's one of many pleasures for the film buff and more open-minded crime-writing fan. Forrest immersed himself in the role and is uncannily like the real Hammett, giving what's still his most effective performance (even briefly reprising it in the 1992 TV movie Citizen Cohn), while Wenders' visually inventive direction ensures that the film often feels more like the genuine Thirties item than a knowing pastiche.
Although Wenders' original version was shot on location, the finished version is possibly the last great backlot picture, rarely straying from the studio. Luckily it's a great backlot, with Dean Tavoularis' wonderful design that takes everything from the backstreets of Chinatown to the houses of the big rich complimented by the gloriously rich colors of Joseph Biroc's cinematography (just enough of the original shoot made it in the final cut for Philip Lathrop to get a credit for `other photography'). John Barry's score, all smoke, piano and clarinet, compliments the mood beautifully even if one major theme had already made an appearance in Body Heat. And the film is often beautifully cast: Elisha Cook Jr (The Maltese Falcon) and Sylvia Sidney (City Streets) provide the cinematic links to the real Hammett with David Patrick Kelly and Roy Kinnear mirroring Cook and Sydney Greenstreet's roles, Richard Bradford and R.G. Armstrong a variation on Barton MacLane and Ward Bond's good cop-bad cop duo and restaurateur Michael Chow a more sophisticated upmarket Peter Lorre, while the pool hall boasts Sam Fuller (who suggested the evocative writing shots from under the typewriter's keys) and Royal Dano with Hank Worden sittin' in the corner in a rockin' char, with Jack Nance for any David Lynch fans who walked into the wrong theatre by mistake..
The script rarely triumphs over the look and feel of the film, and one plot development is more Chandler than Hammett (although it does lead to a neat bit of business with a mirror), but it offers some nice quips ("First day on the job?" Hammett cracks when a rookie cop asks him to sign for a million dollar pay off, while Marilu Henner suggests"Shouldn't we call the police? Shouldn't we do something legal?" after finding herself held at gunpoint), has room for nice little moments like a weary Hammett finding children playing hide-and-seek outside his apartment and even offers a handy definition of the word `gunsel' (no, it doesn't mean hired gun). It's not a great film and probably never would have been had it had a smoother ride to the screen, but it is a much more enjoyable one than it has any right to be and it's strangely easy to like.
The various DVDs of the film worldwide are disappointingly extras-free - the Australian disc comes off best and that only offers the trailer (Paramount's Region 1 DVD doesn't even offer that). Wenders did try to find the deleted footage for a special edition DVD, but it seems to have all been destroyed years ago.