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During Francis Ford Coppola's famously self-indulgent, post-Apocalypse Now period when he believed he could actually start and maintain his own maverick film studio, he lured director Wim Wenders into making his first U.S. film, a fictionalized biopic about writer Dashiell Hammett (Coppola's first choice was Nicholas Roeg, who quit after finding he couldn't work with Coppola). In some ways, Wenders' swipes at Coppola in his later film, The American Friend, are more entertaining than the movie the pair made together — but Hammett (1982) is nonetheless fascinating, a very strange approach to biography, and an interesting take on film noir. Frederic Forrest plays Dashiell Hammett circa 1928, before he was a famed novelist and was still working as a Pinkerton detective, writing pulpy magazine stories for The Black Mask in his free time. When the inspiration for his stories, another detective named Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), disappears after asking for his help, Hammett finds himself searching for his friend and his missing manuscript, getting caught up in a web of organized crime, Chinatown's underbelly, dirty politicians, and dishonest dames. It's an interesting concept, but one ill-suited to the German Wenders, a brilliant filmmaker with a terrific visual sense but simply the wrong choice to direct a picture about such an American icon. Which may be why the big fingerprints of Coppola are all over the movie — after delivering his first cut, Coppola made Wenders reshoot roughly 80 percent of the project (replacing, interestingly, Brian Keith as Ryan and shooting all new scenes with Boyle). There are better Hammett films to be seen, from adaptations of his work like The Glass Key, The Maltese Falcon and Yojimbo (based on Hammett's novel Red Harvest), to the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple and even 1977's Julia, about Hammett's long-time lover Lillian Hellman. But like all of Coppola's and Wenders' individual works — even their unsuccessful efforts — there are moments of brilliance in Hammett. Coppola's regular art director, Dean Tavoularis, does an extraordinary job of dressing his sets, giving the film (perhaps deliberately) a claustrophobic feel — as with Coppola's One From the Heart, which was shot entirely on a soundstage, the producer/director's post-Apocalypse obsession with control leaked into Wenders' film, with many exterior locales shot indoors. And they look it. Often, this works, as with the waterfront scenes that take place in Hammett's head as he writes his stories. At other times, it's oddly distracting, when supposedly real-life scenes are shot on obviously constructed sets. Meanwhile, Forrest is superb as the hard-drinking writer, Marilu Henner does a fine job as both Hammett's sexy neighbor and the femme fatale of his fantasies, and there are abundant appearances by recognizable character actors like Elisha Cook, Jr. (memorable from The Maltese Falcon). And the score, by John Barry, is one of his best. Not an entirely successful film, but one that should be seen by fans of detective thrillers, Coppola, and Wenders, if only out of curiosity. Paramount's DVD release of Hammett is the third or fourth version to be released on home video, offering a very clean, richly saturated anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very clean and clear — perhaps too clear, with the overdubbing of some dialogue of such obviously different quality and Foley effects (footsteps, especially) coming through overly loud and fake, which is occasionally distracting. Sadly, there are no extras — with this title's checkered history, a learned commentary track would have been fascinating. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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