Archive for Dashiell Hammett

The Funny Papers

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 26, 2009 by dcairns

Been reading Vol.3 of the collected Popeye, which is fantastic stuff. Reputation had it that this is the point where E.C. Segar’s newspaper strip really hit the heights, but I wouldn’t quite agree — for me, the stuff really started to work on me partway through voulme 1, and since then everything I’ve read of Popeye, Olive Oyle, Castor Oyle and Wimpy’s adventures has been simply terrific. I particularly enjoy the evolving portrayal of depression-era slang — the phrases used by the characters go through distinct phases, reflecting either the lingo of the day, or Segar’s exposure to it. Partway through volume 1, the word “punk” took hold: “This is a punk country,” “You punk wife!” etc. The exclamation “Good night!” an expression of alarm or dismay, was popular from day one, but has become less common recently. The dismissive “Ah, be yourself!” just made it’s first appearance in Vol. 3, and looks set to be around awhile.

x9s

Meanwhile, I also picked up The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (unwieldy title!) edited by Paul Gravett, which reproduces a chunk of Secret Agent X-9, a detective yarn illustrated by Alex Raymond (before he created Flash Gordon, I think) and written by Dashiell Hammett. Fun stuff (although the pages are printed out of order in my library edition).

Initially, the shock is how clunkily written it is, considering it’s Hammett. Some of the dialogue is pithy and slangy, but a lot of it is comically bald exposition. The plotting is helter-skelter and action-packed, following the traditional pulp dictum that if you get stuck, have a man come through the door with a gun.

x93

The second shock is how good it is regardless of the sloppiness. Hammett must have been writing fast, and probably without a game plan. But his convoluted scenario is suspenseful and engaging, some of his characters are very winning (there’s a good vamp, and a verbose fat man somewhat in the Greenstreet vein), and there are occasional bon mots: “This is jolly!” remarks X-9 sourly, while balancing on a plank between two tall buildings, one of which is one fire, supporting two falling persons (the accident-prone heroine and her insane father) and being shot at by an army of gangsters disguised as cops.

Also, it appealed to me that the gang boss X-9 is trailing is known as “the Top”.

I’m thinking of getting the movie serial version of this, in hopes that it might have the same naive charm and frenetic brio.

x94

Lloyd Bridges again!

Dead Set.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2008 by dcairns

The detective sergeant has no name. He works for a superior known only as The Voice. He works out of a place called The Factory, a department called Unexplained Deaths.

This nameless investigator is protagonist of Derek Raymond’s Factory series of crime novels, which I’ve just started reading – predictably enough, in the middle of the sequence. How The Dead Live is sensational and I immediately wanted to film it. One problem — I wanted to film it with Stanley (PERFORMANCE) Meadows in 1965, twenty years before it was written, two years before I was born.

But never mind, I’ll happily film it now if anybody will let me. The French have filmed two Raymonds, but the language of the books is so integral they must be losing masses of good stuff. How the Dead Lives alternates between madly uneven existential philosophy and pulp posturing in its narration, and shamelessly dated (even for the mid-eighties) cockney patter and noir bullshit in its dialogue. I found it utterly irresistible. You have to imagine dialogue as excessive as Clifford Odets’ in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS of Abraham Polonsky’s in FORCE OF EVIL, only wrapped round a clenched London fist of slangy argot.

“‘I don’t think you quite understand,” I said. ‘I’ll put it this way. The more you don’t tell me right answers to what I want to know, the more I start to suspect — and as another police officer I’d better remind you straight off, you be careful you don’t pot the wrong colour on this one, darling. Because if you do you could lose the whole of this frame fast and find yourself on your ear with a pension worth five times fuck all. Now your best course is to start telling me what I want to know immediately, otherwise I’ll dig it up by myself and God help you, are you reading me? It’s London that wants the answer to this Mrs Mardy business fast, and I mean very fast. I’ve got a firework up my arsehole from my folk, and that means I’m going to have to put one up yours, it’s called self-help, alright?’”

Storywise, How the Dead Live starts like Red Harvest and ends like Poe — maybe The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, for instance. It’s smeared over with death throughout, although there’s only really one fatality within the novel’s time-frame. Raymond is obsessed with the Big Sleep. His prose reeks of decay. His hero is a ragged scarecrow of a man, the world he moves through is slipping into putrescence. At the centre of the book is a vast manor house collapsing with damp, its contents rotting away.

Usher

“Now I saw by the final light what I had only sensed in the dark the time before. Now appeared the murderous abandon of the park — shrubs that had once been planted in orderly groups shrank like wet beggars; the flailed and thrashed, unpruned, under diseased elms staggering in the gale. I stopped the car, got out and looked up at the ruin of the house, high, wet and hideous.

“As I stood there I suddenly felt afraid — not of what confronted me but in a general way. I thought and felt that the secret of existence was perhaps to get old with beauty, ironically, coming closer and closer to you as you aged; innocence, everything that you had rejected or ignored as a young man, entering you like music all the time until in the end there was no more time. Then much of what had seemed so hard would be over, after too much work in cities, after patrolling too many streets for too long, after studying too many faces with the sly, fixed look of the dead.”

It’s purple and overripe and totally sincere, like Poe or Cornell Woolrich. The best bits are incredibly sharp, the worst bits are still kind of brilliant. By the end I had settled on Bill Nighy to play the detective sergeant in my dream movie, although there’s a brilliant actor called Danny Webb who’s more the right age and could also be great. He has the same mad, icy eyes as the late great Nigel Green.

“‘Considering who you are and what you do,’ he said, ‘I think you’re all right.’

‘None of us are ever all right,’ I said. ‘We’re all just waiting for the death express.’”

Clint and Toshiro in Poisonville

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2008 by dcairns

 ” I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.

The Man With No Name

Last Man with no name Standing

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is a book with a weird and pervading influence. The only official film adaptation is ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, a 1930 travesty starring Charles Ruggles and Jimmy Durante — which sounds like as good an example of Hollywood lousing up a great book as the preposterous feelgood MOBY DICK of the same year. But despite the dearth of faithful and official versions, Hammett’s grisly pulp nasty has dug its talons deep into cinema history.

Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (THE BODYGUARD) of 1961, is the next step on our journey. Kurosawa borrows the central conceit of Hammett’s book, in which an “operative” (detective for Hammett, samurai for Kurosawa) destroys the competing gangsters of an utterly corrupt no-horse town by hiring himself out to the highest bidder and provoking all-out warfare among the crooks. I’m not aware of A.K. actually acknowledging the source of his material, but what clinches it for me is that one scene of YOJIMBO is swiped not from Red Harvest but from another Hammett, The Glass Key. In fact, I think Kurosawa’s inspiration here derives specifically from the 1942 Stuart Heisler film of Hammett’s novel, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

The Prisoner

Toshiro Mifune / Alan Ladd has been rumbled by one set of mobsters. Beaten to a pulp, he awakens imprisoned in a back room with two gamblers for jailors — one a slimey weasel type guy, the other a hulking pituitary case. Staggering towards the exit, Mifune / Ladd earns himself another skull-rattling haymaker from the watchful colossus.

Thugs with ugly Mugs

Of course, Kurosawa’s framing and blocking (using his usual multiple-camera filming technique, with long lenses and widescreen framing) is not reminiscent of Heisler’s Academy Ratio film noir, chiaroscuro, wide-angle lens approach at all. But the content of the scene is almost identical. The fact that Kurosawa clearly drew on another Hammett source in making YOJIMBO clinches the argument that he was consciously drawing on the American writer’s work. As far as I know this small point is an original observation and I’m branding my initials on it.

It also makes A.K. seem slightly cheeky for suing the makers of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Sergio Leone’s unofficial remake of YOJIMBO, released just three years after the samurai refit. The story goes that Leone’s Italian and German producers were supposed to buy the remake rights but somewhere along the way they just kinda sorta forgot. The movie is certainly a bare-faced retread and some scenes are actual shot-for-shot reconstructions. Leone extradites Hammett’s operative out of Japan and back to the United States (or anyhow the Tex-Mex border as recreated in Spain) but also transports him back in time to the wild west and makes him a gunslinger.

While Kurosawa’s film marks a key moment in the advance of cyncical attitudes into the samurai genre (as Kurosawa began to lose faith in humanity), its jet-black humour resurfaces in slightly milder form in the Leone film and helps give birth to the whole modern action genre. While James Bond had made his big-screen debut two years before Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (known more prosaically in the movie as Joe), the central motif of the action blockbuster – Sudden Violence Followed By A Quip — was cemented into place by Eastwood’s sexual cowboy (whose first quip is a paraphrase of a Mifune line). Not only that, but the whole spaghetti western genre was abruptly inflated from a tiny exploitation ghetto into a genuine INDUSTRY. The hills of Almeria were hotching with imported buckaroos.

One peculiar footnote to the above is that Walter Hill’s updating of the Red Harvest format from Wild West to depression-era dustbowl town, LAST MAN STANDING with Bruce Willis, which enacts Hammett’s story in pretty much Hammett’s original setting, came and went in a blur of sepia-tinged dust and left no lasting impression on anybody.

Another oddity is that the Coen brothers, who derived the title of their first feature, BLOOD SIMPLE, from a line in Hammett’s book, reversed the terms of Kurosawa’s pilferage by unofficially adapting The Glass Key into MILLER’S CROSSING, avoiding a straight plagiarism suit by adding a soupçon of Red Harvest to the stew.

Based on this track record I would argue that Red Harvest is possibly the most influential book never to have been filmed under its original title or with its author’s name attached, except for that first version, ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, on which Hammett is credited, but which bears no resemblance to his book whatsoever…

“Don Willson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.

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