HAMMETT flopped like a flounder in 1982, a real disappointment from Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio, one of several consecutive duds the Apocalyptic Godfather wunderkind was associated with: stylized but empty efforts that chewed up substantial amounts of Corleone/Kurtz money and undermined his stellar reputation.
Taking famed detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, impersonating him with a then-hot young actor (Frederic Forrest) and dropping them into 1928 San Francisco’s Chinatown had the makings of a slick period crime drama, but only Joseph Biroc’s pretty color camerawork emerges with honor.
Completely studio-bound, in elaborate but obvious sets, directed as if he was working in the dark by Wim Wenders (in his American debut), plotted into boredom by screenwriters Ross Thomas and Dennis O’Flaherty–who couldn’t seem to decide whether they were doing a noir parody or straight mystery, it begins in an artsy, confused crawl and refuses to come alive even in injections of fisticuffs and pistolery, both sloppily handled.
The acting is by and large bad, with line readings right out of an audition. Forrest and Peter Boyle would be funny if they weren’t supposed to be serious. R.G. Armstrong as a mean cop, and Walter Hill alumnus David Patrick Kelly as a gunsel make stabs at colorful lowlife: just shots in the dark on an half-conceived, forgettable waste of time, talent and money.
Blame-Trivia has it that executive producer Coppola re-shot a great deal of Wender’s material, but Herr Wim vehemently denied this; the controversy has never been settled, so feel free to sort through the speculation on sites that see more in the movie than I did. Coppola did mangle One From The Heart and Rumble Fish, and devoted Wender’s fans stayed awake through Paris, Texas without resorting to rat poison, so I question their veracity. We quote from someone who wrote in to a particular film info site, commenting on the quick shot of a 1920s Market Street streetcar passing by: “only one in a thousand viewers might recognize it, and only one in possibly two thousand might appreciate the verisimilitude it provides”. Here I would venture that one person’s ‘verisimilitude’ is another’s needlessly costly artistic excess, but maybe I’m ‘one in three thousand five hundred’? Math to the side, whoever bore the brunt for all that went in, or was changed, or was never there to start with—didn’t save the 97 minute fiasco from the drain circle.
With Marilu Henner (she married Forrest during filming: it lasted until the following year), Roy Kinnear, Lydia Lei, Elisha Cook, Richard Bradford, Sylvia Sydney, Jack Nance, Royal Dano, Hank Worden and cult fave director Sam Fuller.