Dashiell Hammett (Frederic Forrest) used to make his living as a detective with the famed Pinkerton agency, but he has left all that behind to turn to writing. His stories are based on his previous work, but he has yet to make a real breakthrough, selling short fiction to the crime magazines for the moment while he types away at what he hopes will be his great novel, and hoping his tuberculosis is held at bay long enough for him to complete it. But one day he hears from an old colleague, Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle), who draws him into fresh intrigue...
It's safe to say Hammett was not an easy film to make, having been almost completed by director Wim Wenders until ending the plot became problematic and they were forced to close production down. When it resumed over a year later, there were by necessity - producer Francis Ford Coppola's hands-on approach part of that - changes made. Changes like reshooting around three quarters of what they had, and dropping some of the cast who were around for the first version in favour of different faces for what could almost be seen as a remake if you were willing to stretch that definition. Wenders, always a big fan of American movies, could not have picked a more troublesome project to make his debut on those shores.
So much so that Hammett was not, as it turned out, his American debut as he was able to film The State of Things in the gap between starting it and finishing it, so that fact they got it finished was an achievement in itself. From some angles this could have been an examination of Hollywood popular entertainment down the years by adopting its form for a dose of inward-looking pastiche, but from other angles it appeared rather too close to those movies of the previous decade such as The Cheap Detective and The Black Bird which paid tribute to the flicks of yesteryear by making not especially hilarious spoofs of them.
Not to mention those billions of hours of television comedy sketches and adverts which sent up the Sam Spade style, although Wenders and Coppola came across as perfectly sincere. It's not that there were deliberate aims for the audience's funny bones, but in spite of the careful replication of the period and the impeccable art design you were never convinced of watching anything authentic, as if the whole movie was presented in ironic quotation marks. Consider this method of storytelling, these genre conventions, Wenders was saying, staying at arm's reach rather than diving straight into the plot so he could better survey the view from his artistic distance.
Which made for an interesting academic exercise rather than a great, cast iron murder mystery, although helping sweeten the pill were actors who must have been a lot of fun to assemble and put through their paces. Forrest did well as the essential straight man to all his co-stars, Marilu Henner was the one character he could rely on, Lydia Lei was our femme fatale, a cabaret singer who masked a career as prostitute and wealthy blackmailer (whatever happened to her?), and a selection of some of the finest character actors from vintage to modern - for the eighties - helped keep things colourful. Among the inspired appearances were Roy Kinnear in the Sydney Greenstreet role, out of his usual comfort zone but proving very capable, Elisha Cook Jr in his last film as the cab driver, having been in Hammett classic The Maltese Falcon way back when, and David Patrick Kelly as the hitman, honing his talent for evildoers. Watch Hammett for that lot and somehow the creakiness didn't matter quite so much. Music by John Barry.
German director and writer and one of modern cinema's most important European filmmakers. Wenders films tend to blend social commentary with genre material - thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy. It was his acclaimed "road movies" of the mid-seventies - Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move and the epic Kings of the Road that first brought him international attention. 1977's The American Friend was a post-modern thriller starring Bruno Ganz, and although the making of Hammett was a difficult experience, he won his greatest acclaim for the moving drama Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepherd.
1987's Wings of Desire was another triumph, and if he's yet to equal those classics, subsequent work has at least been a series of fascinating failures. Until the End of the World was an ambitious sci-fi piece, Faraway, So Close sequalised Wings of Desire, while The End of Violence, Million Dollar Hotel and Land of Plenty were dark, offbeat dramas. Wenders' latest film is Don't Come Knocking, written by and starring Sam Shepherd. His best recent work have in fact been documentaries, including the The Soul of a Man for Martin Scorsese's Blues series and the Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club.