Hammett (Wim Wenders, 1982)
Wim Wenders directs Frederic Forrest in a fictionalized biopic about Dashiell Hammett. What can possibly go wrong? Add in a number of other character actors equally as good as Forrest (including Elisha Cook, Jr.-- yeah, the guy who was in The Maltese Falcon as the gunsel) and a script by the late Ross Thomas, who wrote a pretty mean crime novel himself, and you're pretty much destined for cinema gold. Needless to say, the public ignored it-- the film grossed a total of forty-two thousand dollars in the theaters. In the intervening twenty-six years, the film has been criminally neglected, held up as a paragon of cinema virtue by a handful (at best) of fanatics, including myself and megacritic Jonathan Rosenbaum (who considers Hammett Wenders' most underrated film; I'd have to say that's kind of a gimme), who are, in this case at least, profoundly ignored. Well, it's time that that stops, and Hammett is brought back to the place where it belongs, as one of the best films ever made.
No one except Wim Wenders, Francis Ford Coppola, and (one assumes) a few selected folks at Zoetrope has ever actually seen Hammett. Once Zoetrope got a copy of it, they recut the film (Wenders is on record as saying the released version is very little like the film he actually shot) to Coppola's standards. That's what got released, and that's what we've all seen. Well, the eighteen or so of us who've seen it, anyway. And I have to say, with as much salt as necessary given that, say, the director's cut of Apocalypse Now is godawful compared to the original, that if Wenders is correct and Coppola basically destroyed the movie, then my god, what a masterpiece it must have been, because Coppola's cut is still just as much a spectacular screwball comedy/crime story now that I'm watching it in 2008 as it was when I first saw it in 1983 (on HBO, I think). I have a lot more film-watching experience thanks to the intervening fifteen years, and I'm relatively certain it's not just a case of nostalgia; this is a really, really great film that's just been profoundly ignored by, well, everyone. Frederic Forrest, who's long been one of America's finest character actors, plays Dashiell Hammett, who should put one in mind of Hammett's more famous characters. Peter Bole is his old pal Jimmy Ryan, who comes to him with a vague, and somewhat incomplete, tale of a missing Chinese prostitute, Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei), and asks Hammett to help him find her. We get the usual "I'm retired from detective work, blah blah blah" speech before the two head out, and quickly find that tracking down Crystal Ling will step on pretty much everyone's toes. Before long Hammett and Ryan get separated, and now it's personal, since Ryan seems to have disappeared, and Hammett is left with only the help of his gorgeous neighbor Kit (Marilu Henner), a schoolteacher who knows nothing at all about detective work, and an ex-yippie cabbie (Cook Jr.).
It would, of course, be an abomination to compare Wenders' Hammett to Huston's The Maltese Falcon, but indulge me as I draw the wrath of the film gods, for Wenders' movie has all the spit and crackle of Huston's, but without Huston's meddling with the characters (and the famously blown ending). The usually laconic Forrest hams it up in true wiseguy style, while Peter Boyle, whom I don't think I've ever seen play a tough guy before, absolutely owns his role. I could just keep on going down the list of impressive performances (David Patrick Kelly, Henner, Jack Nance, Lei, Cook Jr., Roy Kinnear, cameos from Samuel Fuller and Hank Worden, and oh so much more), or talk about Wenders' directorial style, which always shines through in a Wenders film, or the awesome script, or the many, many in-jokes to both Hammett's writing and the various film adaptations of it (and a final answer to the question of the double-meaning of "gunsel"), or any of the other things that make this movie an absolute delight to watch. But I won't, because I've already talked too much when you should be going out, right now, and renting the recent and long, long overdue DVD release of this brilliant, brilliant movie. **** ½