The Hammett Classic Comes to the Big Screen
Okay, so here’s the thing: Dashiell Hammett’s classic 1929 hardboiled novel Red Harvest, featuring the private detective known only as The Continental Op, has been the basis for at least five movie adaptations, at least three that are well worth your time. But Hammett has never been credited on the screen as the original source material. Ever.
In the novel, originally serialized in Black Mask, the Continental Op is summoned to the Montana mining town of Personville (often slagged by the locals as “Poisonville”) by the local newspaper editor, but the editor is murdered before the two can meet. The Op starts to sniff around, and soon discovers the town is being torn apart by two competing criminal gangs, originally summoned there by various business interests to squelch a miners’ strike.
Caught between the two gangs, the Op plays them off against each other, hiring on to both sides. It’s exceedingly violent (one chapter is titled “The 29th Murder”), but the Op perseveres in the end. If you haven’t read it, read it NOW!
It’s dynamite material, and it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come sniffing around…
ROADHOUSE NIGHTS (1930)
The first adaptation of Red Harvest came from Paramount only a year after the book’s publication. But the largely forgotten Roadhouse Nights, starring Helen Morgan, Fred Kohler, and Jimmy Durante, bears little resemblance to the novel. It’s an odd film: a pre-code Prohibition-era gangster flick with musical numbers, that promised “Comedy and Thrills in One Grand Riot.” It’s as though the producers bought the rights and then cannibalized it for parts. Most of the major elements of the book’s plot were completely scrapped, including most of the characters’ names. So much so that there’s been some dispute over the years about whether it even really is an adaptation of Hammett’s book. After all, the only writing credit goes to Ben Hecht for his “original screenplay.” But Hammett was paid for the film rights, and was known to have griped about it. According to Nathan Ward’s The Lost Detective, “They changed everything but the title,” he complained, “and then they changed that to ‘Roadhouse Nights’.”
It would be another thirty years before someone else took a stab at the material, audaciously transferring the whole thing to feudal Japan, but ironically Yojimbo (1961) is far more faithful to its source, at least in tone and mood. Released the same year Hammett passed away, directed by master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who co-wrote the adaptation with screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima, and starring Toshiro Mifune, the film is rightly considered a masterpiece, and did amazing well at the box office. Mifune, Kurosawa’s go-to star, is an unnamed rōnin (a samurai without a master), a master swordsman who arrives in a small village where rival crime lords are fighting for control. Both sides at various times try to hire the newcomer, known only as “Mullberry,” obviously not his real name, as a bodyguard.
Kurosawa certainly was aware of Hammett, and freely admitted that a major source for the plot was the 1942 film noir classic The Glass Key (based on Hammett’s 1931 novel The Glass Key, which also revolves around a city being controlled by gangster). But I have to scratch my head over that one. The complex friendship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig that lies at the heart of The Glass Key, just isn’t here, while the meat-and-potatoes gangs-at-war plot of Yojimbo is clearly based on Red Harvest.
The only thing Kurosawa really took from The Glass Key, as Chris Casey pointed out to me, “is the capture/beating/escape scene of the antagonist.” Although that particular sequence seems to have made its way into all the subsequent version.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)
Three years later the spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) popped up, the first of a lucrative trilogy directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, in his first lead role, as “The Man with No Name” (the other films were For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). The plot, by now, is familiar. A nameless stranger (Eastwood) wanders into the small town of San Miguel, where a feud between two families vying to gain control of the town is raging. The stranger decides to play each family against the other, selling his skills as a gun man to each side, but sliding his loyalties back and forth, mostly following Kurosawa’s plot exactly. Oh, the violence moves a little faster (guns and dynamite will do that), and the music (by Ennio Morricone) gets punchier, but this is pretty much the same film.
The writing credits to the film name go to Adriano Bolzoni, Mark Lowell, Víctor Andrés Catena and Sergio Leone for the story, and Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil and Leone again for the screenplay, but the film’s been long considered an unofficial remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. In fact, the American release of the film was delayed for three years because distributors were afraid of being sued by Kurosawa. And it turns out Leone was sued by Kurosawa’s production company. Successfully.
Leone was forced to surrender fifteen percent of the worldwide gross and turn over distribution rights of his film in Japan and the Far East to Kurosawa’s production company. Said Kurosawa, “(A Fistful of Dollars) is a very fine film, but it is my film.”
The Hammett estate, of course, got nothing.
MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)
Given how much dough was raked around by the world by Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, it’s surprising it took another twenty six years before anyone came near Red Harvest again, but pulp fans the Coen Bros. finally reached out. Anyone looking for the alleged traces of Hammett’s The Glass Key in Yojimbo can find them easily enough in the brothers’ 1990 gangster flick, Miller’s Crossing (1990), which upped the ante by serving up a tasty original Irish stew clearly inspired by–if not directly based on–both that novel and, once things finally start cooking, Red Harvest.
Written by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, and directed by Joel Coen, Miller’s Crossing brings us back to square one. Forget feudal Japan or the American southwest of the 1860s — we’re right back in the good old days of Prohibition. An unnamed U.S. city is controlled by two rival gangs of bootleggers. An Irish gang, led by Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) is pitted against that of his Italian rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) over the fate of Jewish bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), whom he suspects is behind a scheme to rip him off. It’s a set-up right out of Red Harvest. But the man caught up between the two, who decides to play the two factions off against each other, is not unnamed this time.
He’s Tom Reagan (played by Gabriel Byrne), Leo’s right-hand man and best friend, and it’s that mercurial friendship, a direct swipe from The Glass Key, that serves as the film’s emotional core, echoing that of Paul Madvig and Ned Beaumont in Hammett’s novel of the same name. The relationship between the two is complicated—are they just good friends or is it something more? Nor is it always obvious where Tom stands at any given moment—he’s the ultimate angle player. One particularly shrewd character tags Tom as “straight as a corkscrew. Mr. Inside-Outsky,” while also casting aspersions on his relationship Leo.
It’s simply a great film, my favourite of the lot here; a rich, complex feast, a bloody wrestling match of loyalty, honour, friendship and love plitted off against greed, power, pragmatism and survival, from the opening credits that play as a haunting Celtic melody, all pipes, heartbreak and melancholy, swelling up to the final, wrenching close-up of Reagan, who discovers he may have had a heart (once) after all. In between there are enough betrayals, double-crosses and stupidity to make any noir fan feel right at home.
Sure, Hammett goes uncredited, but the Coen Bros. are obviously fans, and could probably talk your ears off about Hammett, detective fiction and the pulps until the cows come home.
It’s also worth noting that Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and Miller’s Crossing are all highly regarded films, despite the fact they’re all a little light on giving any direct credit to Hammett. Which brings us to…
LAST MAN STANDING (1996)
This trigger-happy action flick, a surprisingly humourless cut-and-paste job, was directed by Walter Hill and starred Bruce Willis, who by then must have been looking for something to reassure himself that Die Hard wasn’t a fluke, as a nameless gunman on the run. It also featured Bruce Dern, Chrisopher Walken and oddly, a Cybil Shepherd-looking Alexandra Powers.
It’s credited as an official remake of Yojimbo, with both Kikushima and Kurosawa specifically listed in this movie’s credits as having provided the original story, but it repatriates Hammett’s Prohibition-era setting, with the story boiled right down to its absolute essence, and then lightly slathered with some spaghetti western sauce. Stranger wanders into town, sets bad guys against each other, bang bang bang bang!
The closest it comes to acknowledging its parentage is when Smith cracks, in voiceover, “It was all out of some dime novel.”
Willis, packing two shoulder-holstered .45s, calls himself “John Smith,” which is pretty much the same as being nameless, because nobody believes it’s his name. The town this time, is Jericho, a dusty flyspeck just north of the Texas/Mexicos border that could have been the setting for A Fistful of Dollars, and the rival gangs are Irish and Italian (a nod to Miller’s Crossing?). Willis tries for a taciturn Eastwood-like scowl but simply looked constipated, while we’re lead point by point through Yojimbo once more, but with the body count jacked up as high as it will go. As Peter Travers in Rolling Stone put it, “Nice going, guys, but it’s been done.”
Which, of course, begs the question, when is it going to be done right?
All these films are entertaining in their own way, and I’d recommend Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars and Miller’s Crossing without a second’s hesitation, but when is somebody going to finally step up and make a real movie of Hammett’s Red Harvest under its own title?
- ROADHOUSE NIGHTS | Buy the DVD
(aka “The River Inn)
(1930, Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation)
Black & White
Screenplay by Garrett Fort
Story by Ben Hecht
Based on the novel Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Director: Hobart Henley
Produced by Walter Wanger
Starring Helen Morgan, Fred Kohler, Jimmy Durante, Charles Ruggles, Leo Donnelly, Tammany Young, Joe King, Lou Clayton, Eddie Jackson
- YOJIMBO | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
Black & white
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa & Ryūzō Kikushima
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Katō, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Atsushi Watanab
- A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
Original title: Per un pugno di dollari
(1964, Jolly Films)
Story by Adriano Bolzoni, Mark Lowell, Víctor Andrés Catena & Sergio Leone
Screenplay by Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas Gil & Sergio Leone
Directed by Sergio Leone
Music by Ennio Morricone
Starring Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volontè, Wolfgang Lukschy, Sieghardt Rupp, Joseph Egger, Antonio Prieto, José Calvo, Margarita Lozano, Margarita Lozano, Daniel Martín
- MILLER’S CROSSING | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
(1990, 20th Century Fox)
Written by Joel Cohen & Ethan Cohen
Directed by Joel Cohen
Produced by Ethan Cohen
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J. E. Freeman, J.E. Freeman, Mike Starr, Steve Buscemi, Tom Toner, Richard Woods
- LAST MAN STANDING | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
(1996, New Line Cinema)
Based on Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa & Ryūzō Kikushima
Screenplay by Walter Hill
Directed by Walter Hill
Music by Ry Cooder
Starring Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken, Bruce Dern, David Patrick Kelly, Karina Lombard, Ned Eisenberg, Alexandra Powers, Michael Imperioli
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Chris Casey for the nudge.