Clint and Toshiro in Poisonville

” 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

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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18 Responses to “Clint and Toshiro in Poisonville”

  1. Bertolucci longed to make Red Harvest for years. Marilyn Goldin wrote one of the scripts. On the new Criterion box set DVD of The Last Emperor one of the documentaries recounts a trip to Los Angeles when Bertolucci realized his Red Harvest would never be made.

  2. I’m sure Bert could have gotten anything made after Last Tango, but he chose to do 1900 which was a bold move but limited his options later. His dream cast, Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, went on to do The Missouri Breaks together instead.

  3. Actually he wanted to make Red Harvest long before Last Tango.

    Oh well. These days he’s been having serious back problems. I hope he can pull it together to work.

  4. i love red harvest. dashiell hammett boiled his dialogue so hard that the pan got fused to the stove

  5. dcairns Says:

    Sorry to hear about Bert’s back! I’m laid up with flu myself so I feel in sympathy with all suffering humankind.

    Alex, have you seen Ace in the Hole? I’m reminded of the line, “I’ve met some hard eggs in my time, but YOU — you’re twenty minutes!”

  6. Ace in the Hole viewed back to back with Sweet Smell of Success and La Dolce Vita tells you everything you need to know about the practice of journalism.

    And in regard to the Fellini. . .

  7. dcairns Says:

    Terrific article! Am relying on you to do equally great work on the post above!

  8. […] Shadowplay comparan las apariciones de Toshiro Mifune en Yojimbo y Clint Eastwood en A fistful of […]

  9. “Red Harvest” is simply Hammett’s best, a template for what all good noir fiction should aspire to.

  10. I agree, although I have a strong fondness for THE DAIN CURSE, mainly for its constantly regenerating structure.

  11. You know, “Dain Curse” is one I must confess to not having read but it’s always been on my short list. Your comment about the constantly regenerating structure has piqued my curiosity.

  12. David, I think you would have to put “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” on that list. At its core, that film is about press mythologizing of public figures.

    “Print the legend.”

  13. I don’t quite get where Liberty Valance comes in, or what list you mean.

    But I hope you enjoy The Dain Curse — it’s several mysteries packaged together, and adds up to a coherent whole in a beautiful way. The detective KEEPS SOLVING the case, but it won’t stay solved!

  14. David referenced “Ace in the Hole”, “La Dolce Vita”, and “Sweet Smell of Success” as a classic trio of films for understanding the ethics of journalism. I threw in Liberty Valance as one more important offering.

    Okay, now you’re really intriguing me with “Dain”. It’s simply a must-read after I finish the other four books on my nightstand.

  15. Ah, got you. One could add Network too.

    I think you’re bound to enjoy Dain. Red Harvest is the best book, TDC has the most ingenious story/stories — it is kind of like several shorts successfully fused together.

  16. I may be the world’s only fan of Last Man Standing, if only for Hill’s consciously Leone-inflected directorial manner striking sparks off his iconic cast. If you haven’t seen it it’s on TV this week, sadly it usually turns up in badly cropped versions on crappy channels.

  17. I keep meaning to watch it, but then I miss the beginning, and then I tend to find the sepia tone a bit overpowering. I think it’s too easy a solution to the question of colour: “Oh, just make everythign brown.”

    But this is my totally uninformed impression based on not having WATCHED it, mind you.

  18. […] Una excelente entrada en blog ajeno narra cómo el manuscrito de Hammett ha servido de inspiración para clásicos del cine en la constante reinvención de la narrativa épica por excelencia de nuestra generación: del policiaco a Kurosawa, para ser reencacuhado en el reencauche del Western de Sergio Leone, y volver a escena en los grandísimos hermanos Coen en Blood Simple. […]

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