WEIRDLAND: Dashiell Hammett's legacy, Dark Crimes

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dashiell Hammett's legacy, Dark Crimes

Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man invented a new kind of crime fiction. It was hard-boiled, but also light-hearted; funny, with a hint of homicide. Now, for the first time, the stories of After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man have been published as novellas.

In 1934, The Thin Man was made into a popular motion picture, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — and a wire-haired terrier — which spawned five sequels, including After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man. And although the screenwriting couple of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich usually completed the screenplays, MGM Studio needed the stories and characters that only Hammett could write.

Now, for the first time, the stories of After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man have been published as novellas — The Return of the Thin Man. They have been edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.

On Hammett's heavy drinking, a quality which he invested in Nick Charles: "You know, there was a famous photo session of all of the former writers for Black Mask magazine. Raymond Chandler was also a Black Mask writer. And this photo — which was made in, what, 1935, 1936, one of the only known photos of Chandler and Hammett together — afterwards Chandler wrote to someone saying that Hammett had had at least 12 drinks during the time that they were together, and didn't show the least effect from them. Nick Charles is in many respects like Hammett, just as Nora is in many respects like Hammett's girlfriend, Lillian Hellman, to whom The Thin Man, the published book, is dedicated."

On Hammett's attitude toward the characters he'd created: "I think he was fed up with Nick and Nora Charles — not fed up. He was tired of them pretty early on, and he was fed up with the studios for the exploitation of the characters that he saw. Just before he finished the last draft for Another Thin Man, MGM bought all rights to the characters Nick and Nora Charles and asked so that they could develop the series without him. They paid $40,000 for those character rights. And Hammett wrote to Lillian Hellman just after that, 'There may be better writers than I am, but nobody ever created a more insufferably smug set of characters than the Charles, and they can't take that away from me, even for $40,000.'" Source:

"Good writing is more than clever plotting sprinkled with witty dialogue, and there’s a difference between drafting a tale for other hands to finish and honing your own work as close to perfection as you can get it. “Red Harvest,” “The Maltese Falcon,” a handful of Hammett’s Black Mask tales — those works aim for that perfection. These screen stories, meanwhile, were penned not for posterity, but for a studio paycheck. “The Return of the Thin Man” is a fine curiosity, but hardly a fresh capstone to Hammett’s distinguished career." Source:

Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor in 'The Maltese Falcon' (1941) directed by John Huston, based on Dashiell Hammett's novel.

"Early classical noir was limited largely to shooting on studio sets rather than using real locations, as can be seen in such films as 'Scarlet Street', 'The Maltese Falcon', 'The Big Clock', 'The Big Sleep', or -one of the very best examples- 'The Blue Dahlia'. These films dramatized what in essence was a closed world, characterized visually by the tight framing of a trapped, claustrophobic milieu often viewed through high-angle shots." -Encyclopedia of Film Noir (2007) by Geoff Mayer & Brian McDonnell

Turner Classic Movies and Universal Studios Home Entertainment present a 3-disc collection including The Glass Key (1942), Phantom Lady (1944) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).

"A ruthless political boss and his personal advisor become entangled in a web of organized crime and murder which involves the alluring daughter of a rising gubernatorial candidate in The Glass Key, a stylish remake of the 1935 film based on Dashiell Hammett's popular pulp fiction. A man arrested for murdering his wife can't produce his only alibi - a mysterious woman he met in a bar - so his loyal secretary goes undercover to locate her in Phantom Lady, based on the crime novel by Cornell Woolrich. A WWII veteran is accused of killing his unfaithful wife and races against time to find the real murderer with the help of a sympathetic stranger in The Blue Dahlia, adapted for the screen by hard-boiled detective writer Raymond Chandler who received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay." Source:

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd in a promotional photo of "The Blue Dahlia" (1946) directed by George Marshall

The Blue Dahlia has become inextricably linked to the infamous 1947 Los Angeles murder case known commonly as The Black Dahlia. Victim Elizabeth Short was found dead, her torso severed in half, in January 1947. It has remained an unsolved crime to this day. Elizabeth Short was known as The Black Dahlia before she died because of the dark color of her hair and her penchant for wearing black. The nickname was a play on words of The Blue Dahlia, one of the popular films of the day. On April 21, 1949 Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake reprised their roles from The Blue Dahlia for a half-hour radio broadcast version of the story for The Screen Guild Theater. Source:

Mia Kirshner as Elizabeth Short in "The Black Dahlia" (2006) directed by Brian De Palma, based on James Ellroy's novel

"Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important 
to me." -James Ellroy

-What about The Black Dahlia?

-James Ellroy: The LAPD will not let civilians see the file on the Dahlia case, which is six thousand pages long. When I started working on the novel, I was still caddying. I was living in Westchester County and realized that I could get, by interlibrary loan, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald-Express on microfilm. All I needed was four hundred dollars in quarters to feed the microfilm machine. Man, four hundred bucks in quarters—that’s a lot of coins. I used a quadruple-reinforced pillowcase to carry them down from Westchester, on the Metro-North train. It took me four printed pages to reproduce a single newspaper page. In the end the process cost me six hundred dollars. Then I made notes from the articles. Then I extrapolated a fictional story. The greatest source, however, was autobiography. Who’s Bucky Bleichert? He’s a tall, pale, and thin guy, with beady brown eyes and fucked-up teeth from his boxing days, tweaked by women, with an absent mother, who gets obsessed with a woman’s death. It wasn’t much of a stretch. Source:

Josh Hartnett as Dwight 'Bucky' Bleichert, a former boxer and a Homicide-Warrants Division detective in "The Black Dahlia" (2006)

"Sam Spade as an Ideal and Dream Man: "Spade was given Hammett's own first name of Sam. The last name was said to have been connected to a boxer of Hammett's period, John Spade. In a swift summation of the detective he invested with fame in book form and Humphrey Bogart christened with his own unique stamp of no-nonsense machismo, Hammett stated: "Sam Spade is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them, in their cockier moments, thought they approached... a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of everybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client." -"Pulp Fiction to Film Noir: The Great Depression and the Development of a Genre" (2012) by William Hare

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