In the midst of the book reading and movie watching challenges hereabouts, I decided to combine the two to write about one of my favourite authors, whose small body of work has been the basis of, or has influenced, some of my favourite films. Dashiell Hammett wrote just five complete novels and a handful of short stories. He wrote a new kind of detective fiction, drawing from his own experiences as an actual private detective for California’s Pinkerton Agency. The style became known as “hard-boiled” – lean descriptions of ugly people in ugly places doing ugly things. Sympathy was hard to find, but Hammett was careful to make his anti-heroes just heroic enough – as cynical as things got, there was always one guy willing to crack wise and (eventually) do the right thing. And hopefully get paid for it. I’ve broken my deranged rambling into two parts, for easier digestion. The first covers the thematically-related Red Harvest (1929) and The Glass Key (1931). The second will cover his most famously adapted books, The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Thin Man (1934).
1) ‘Red Harvest’ and ‘The Glass Key’
The Pinkerton Agency was notoriously involved in labour disputes and strike breaking in the era that Hammett worked for them. This experience informed his books Red Harvest and The Glass Key, two novels with a number of shared elements, in particular the backdrop of a small town being fought over by violent gangs and unscrupulous local magnates. Hammett had created a new type of detective fiction in his short stories through the 20s, combining a flair for the drama of fiction with the dour and seedy grit of his real life experience. His first novel, Red Harvest, was the brilliantly executed culmination of this period, and was a true watershed in crime fiction.
The protagonist is the Continental Op, the nameless actor in many of his stories to date with whom he laid the template for the PI who lets people believe he is more crooked than he really is. His client is already dead by the time the Op reaches “Poisonville”, and he solves that murder before fulfilling his contract to clean up a town riven by violent factions, playing them against each other, even though at times it seems like he is the only one who wants the town cleaned up.
If there are pieces of the story that seem familiar, that should not be surprising, as many elements have been incorporated by future storytellers. These include Akira Kurosawa and the Coen Brothers, but although the influence of Red Harvest is clear on the films Yojimbo and Miller’s Crossing, the filmmakers themselves identify the works in question more closely with another Hammett novel, The Glass Key.
The Glass Key shares a similar storyline of a powerful local figure attempting to hide behind, and profit from, criminal gangs, and a smaller player pitting opposing sides against one another to quell gang war. Miller’s Crossing, unfairly one of the more overlooked Coen Brothers movies, is in part a very close adaptation of the book, but there are a number of significant departures. They skillfully take the core of Hammett’s story and adapt it where necessary to make the result more characteristically a Coen Brothers film, something even starker and more unsettling than the source material.
The Glass Key had already been adapted by Hollywood a couple of times before. I haven’t seen the 1935 version but the more famous of the two is the 1942 noir classic featuring an amazing Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. As with Miller’s Crossing, the makers of The Glass Key were careful to make the material fit their ends, and in this case the result is both a Hollywood movie of the era and an important development in the budding noir genre. The former part of that of course means that the plot is simplified and the politics are reduced to the background in favour of the love story. Again though, the license is taken adeptly, and the resulting film, while not a completely faithful adaptation, is stronger for it.
The Glass Key is a wonderful film and well worth looking up. I was very fortunate to be able to see in a cinema once and it remains one of my favourite movie experiences. Miller’s Crossing is also very much recommended. I have skipped over Yojimbo here but that film certainly deserves its strong modern reputation, and of course it endowed the influence it drew from Hammett’s novels on the several notable films that were in turn influenced by it. A movie of Red Harvest was made in 1930 which I have not seen, but which has a poor reputation. The books themselves are both very strong. Hammett had a gift for devising involved plots and then executing them without confusion, and that shows up in these novels more than any others. The characters are typically boldly drawn and the action is paced and addictive. Red Harvest in particular is considered perhaps Hammett’s finest work. The author himself, however, cited The Glass Key as his favourite of his own novels.