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PostPosted: Tue Jun 14, 2016 5:39 am 
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Joined: Mon Nov 08, 2004 4:30 pm
Location: Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire, UK
I think that I may have finally connected with this film! I have always enjoyed it but more for the gorgeous atmosphere that is conjured up! It's a film that for some reason also always makes me thirsty when I watch it!

The San Francisco setting is beautifully period stylised too, though I responded a bit more to it this viewing for the way that it seems to be amusingly literalising the way that nothing in Hammett’s world is ‘on the level!’, even before we get a couple of actually canted angles during a chase scene!

I wonder if some of the problems with the film, but also its unique perspective, arise because its main theme seems to be about how events in a person’s life then gets turned into their fictional work. However it gets (interestingly) slightly muffled because the ‘real life’ of Dashiell Hammett that we are presented with is already noir-stylised to an unrealistic extent. We’re already a generation removed at the start, even before that, with the disclaimer that this is an entirely fictionalised piece on Hammett. We’re in a world of jazz underscore, venetian blinds, gorgeous women throwing themselves at our lead and receptive to (or at least not protesting to) a pat on the behind, nebulous conspiracies and enabling networks around both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys.

It already feels like a hard-boiled crime novel, even before the events from Hammett’s lost novel start playing out for real in the final scene. Are the characters trapped in archetypal events? Is everything and everyone already subordinate to Hammett’s writer’s perspective (he does remain in a position of power throughout despite the regular, but essential for a tough guy hero beatings, with a regular knowing grin and even an amusing scene of telling the cabal of bad guys to shut up while he explains their motivations to them!).

Or, due to the loss of the manuscript at the beginning of the film which is another stylised recreation of real events, and then appears to have been read by Fong at least in the meantime, are characters playing into what Hammett wants them to be in their behaviours and actions in that final scene? Jimmy (played by Peter Boyle) is really the key character in all this, as he is the subject of Hammett’s original novel and slightly confrontationally calls Hammett on details that have been changed when they first meet, asks Hammett whether character names are difficult to come up with and then comes up with a few off the top of his head for an extra flourish!

Jimmy is also the instigator of the convoluted blackmail plot that makes up the bulk of the film. He turns up and disappears from the narrative a number of times, and once even calls Hammett on the telephone in order to distract him away from his typewriter again and provide him with a clue to follow. He is kind of the deus ex machina shadowy figure kind of pushing Hammett along in his investigations.

None of the other characters in the film really have that same driving force effect on Hammett’s investigation – they’re all there to have their big scene whilst remaining relatively subordinate, as our hero regularly walks out on them. Then Jimmy has his big scene which replays the ending from the manuscript but ends more tragically (perhaps because there is even less of a love story there this time around), and in a sense the death of Jimmy is the death of Hammett’s previous manuscript that he lost at the beginning of the film. Literally in the sense that Jimmy’s fall into the canal takes the typed pages with him, but more importantly it seems to be suggesting that this whole film is Hammett re-thinking his story before diving in to do another draft of it. Interestingly the tragedy is transferred from the duplicitous femme fatale (with the face of the girl next door) getting her comeuppance as Jimmy sadly has to do his duty and onto Jimmy himself in the final scene while Crystal Ling's fate is left bleak but up in the air, which is something that perhaps suggests where Hammett has shifted the emphasis to in his new draft! Maybe Crystal was right to throw herself at the author to soften him up!

That very first scene involves Hammett finishing his story and then lying back on his bed to read through it. It might not be too big a leap to think that everything that follows on is the story itself being thought through, and shot through with writer’s fears of losing the typed manuscript after all that work, along with characters from the narrative popping up to admonish, involve and even seduce or punish the author by immersing him into the world he created!

In some senses that plays into the stylisation of even the ‘real world’ scenes, or into the ways that the women don’t mind that pat on the behind or get over being kidnapped pretty quickly! And even into the way that the beatings of Hammett feel anti-dramatic and the way Hammett himself regularly has an almost self-satisfied smile even during the dramatic investigative sections, or after people have been murdered, as if he is slightly breaking character and enjoying revelling in the evocative world that he has created!

It is as if the film starts out ‘fake’ showing us the final scene from the manuscript being typed, and then turns into ‘reality’ for the majority of the film, before Hammett recomposes it into his latest novel at the end which in the beautiful series of little vignettes appearing in tinted bubbles acts both as a reminiscence over events of the film but also in the more stylised silent re-showing of characters performing slightly different actions suggests maybe a further generic ‘crudening’ into archetypal hard-boiled fiction characters!

Some of that division between ‘art’ and ‘reality’ is blurred here, but I think it works to suggest a world that is being shown entirely through the eyes of our title character. (I’ve only watched the theatrical version of the film, and heard vague rumblings that Wenders’ intended film was a little different. Does anyone have more information about this? I’m particularly curious as to whether Wenders might have been trying to play up the ‘worldview of the author’ aspect of the film, whilst others may just have been wanting a blackmail noir piece with a marketable author’s name attached?)

It’s a really fascinating film even in its theatrical version though, much more about writing and worldview (wish fulfilment and challenges to that) than it is about blackmail and betrayal. I sort of think its in the same vein as Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (or Liv Ullmann's Faithless!), though Hammett feels a bit subtler (or more muted) in exploring its themes of the ultimate power of the person in control of the typewriter. Maybe its all a game of hide and seek between the creator and their subjects?

(It might be a bit more of a leap but I also thought a bit about Bioshock: Infinite whilst watching this, particularly the solipsistic sense of creating drama and Hammett's shady past as a Pinkerton agent thrown at him by a couple of characters!)


Last edited by colinr0380 on Sun Jul 03, 2016 6:05 pm, edited 6 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 14, 2016 11:57 am 

Joined: Sun Oct 14, 2007 5:31 am
It absolutely floors me that American Zoetrope didn't bother to save Wenders' original version. I haven't seen this film in a number of years, but I remember being taken with Forrest's performance but few other facets. Your review inspired me to revisit it and read the novel it's based on.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 14, 2016 12:19 pm 
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Joined: Mon Nov 08, 2004 4:30 pm
Location: Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire, UK
I love that moment in the Sylvia Sidney scene where Sidney's head of the orphanage calls out Hammett using a pseudonym to speak to her, calling him by his real name and saying that she's been around the area longer than he has! Frederic Forrest's reaction in that scene is wonderful, as Hammett is briefly taken by surprise that he has been recognised and then gives her a wide grin and apologies for having tried to pull the wool over her eyes! It's almost the surprised but amused reaction of an author finding his characters have their own inner lives that he had not previously considered!


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