by Adrian Wootton
"Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare and tropical fish. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."
From "The Simple Art of Murder" by Raymond Chandler, 1944.
American novelist and short story writer Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) might not have actually created the "formula" for hard-boiled crime fiction - that arcane historical footnote belongs arguably to the sadly obscure Caroll John Daly - nor was he the poet of pulp, that distinction belongs to his great admirer Raymond Chandler, who would refine the sub-genre with his witty, elegant and romantic prose style. But as Chandler so eloquently described in his seminal essay "The Simple Art of Murder," Hammett was really its first truly great exponent and his sardonic, satiric, rough and tough work from the 1920’s onwards had a profound influence in defining and popularising it; not least because he also provided brilliant source material for some seminal examples of what would later be characterised as Film Noir movies, including of course The Glass Key.
At the beginning, however, nothing in Hammett’s background suggested he would bend his endeavours to literature. Born in 1894 in Maryland, a child of impoverished farmers, he had a basic education that finished at 13 and then after a variety of causal jobs he became a detective in the famed Pinkerton Agency. Travelling widely across the US, the job gave him a steady income and perhaps most importantly gained him entrance to a morally ambiguous, violent, often corrupt, environment where investigators and criminals routinely mixed. It was this real life experience of cynical detectives, bent politicians, ruthless businessman and hard bitten, often desperate, lawbreakers that would provide the gold that he would so often mine for his future writing. This world also awakened a latent leftward leaning social conscience in Hammett, which would impact his writing and life very deeply.
It was, however, only after serving in the armed forces during WW1, causing a serious bout of ill health that got him Tuberculosis (with the attendant damage to his lungs, from which he would suffer for the rest of his life) and a nurse who became his first wife, with two children soon afterwards, that Hammett in 1921 reluctantly gave up his detective career and looked for fresh employment.
After a short lived journalist course, Dashiell Hammett submitted a variety of pieces that were rapidly published by the magazine "The Smart Set" in 1922 but he only really came into his own when the magazine's recently established sister publication, "Black Mask" magazine - launched to capitalise on the rapidly increasing reading audience appetite for more realistic, action packed crime stories - began to take his fiction, commencing with Arson Plus in October 1923. This story also established one of his two most famous fictional detective creations The Continental Op, a nameless, decidedly unglamorous, middle aged, plump, ultra-cynical, blackly humorous investigator, who pitted against merciless gangsters and cops on the take, wades through the dangerous, sordid and strife ridden city streets (set mainly in a version of San Francisco), trying to do a little good in a very bad world. The Op is arguably the first real Hard-boiled Detective in Modern American crime fiction and is thus profoundly important. There were to be no less than 36 Op stories, all, more or less, published by "Black Mask" and two novels The Red Harvest (1929) and The Dain Curse both also serialised, first in "Black Mask" and each drawing on earlier published Op stories, that he repurposed and stitched together into single long narratives. The Op stories, especially the two great novels, are punchy, unsentimental, cynical tales, featuring a sharply drawn gallery of morally ambivalent characters, laced with bone dry, black humour and written in a flinty, sparse, economical style that would inspire and encourage many imitators. Hammett was a major reason "Black Mask" and the genre as a whole became so successful and provides the blueprint that Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, James M Cain, Burnett etc would adopt and embellish.
Also in this time of astonishing productivity and creative energy, Hammett created his other, perhaps even more memorable, world-weary detective Sam Spade, featured in three stories and one classic novel, namely The Maltese Falcon (1930). Spade, given more personality and sex appeal - described as "a blond Satan" - than Hammett’s apparent alter ego, the Op, is made dangerous, morally ambivalent and thus becomes a more compelling, believable and human anti-hero, whose personality traits would radically resonate through the genre, sowing the seeds for Phillip Marlowe and many other fictional gumshoes in his wake. This novel also cemented Hammett's critical reputation as plaudits, recognising its originality, rained on The Maltese Falcon and commercially its popularity was such that it went through seven reprints in its first year of publication. Following these seminal fictional creations and the serial stories featuring them, Hammett also produced the standalone The Glass Key (1931) serialised in "Black Mask" in 1930 but held back for novel publication until a year later. Although it doesn’t feature either of his detectives, it is set absolutely in the same milieu of crooked politics, gangsters, high and low society. Only this time it’s a gambler and criminal, Ned Beaumont, who is a little less crooked, a little more loyal and honest, than the rest, who decides to try and save his friend from a murder rap.
And that is, shockingly, almost it for Hammett's writing career as the, roughly ten year, stream of creativity came to an end. Dashiell Hammett only finished one more novel, his fifth, the surprisingly light hearted in tone and character The Thin Man, serialised in "Red Book" magazine and published in full form in 1934. To be honest, Hammett had actually struggled to complete this book, which he started writing in 1930 but fame, money, booze and sexual philandering all contributed to near permanent writers’ block.
Also, unsurprisingly, Hollywood had come calling, to distract him further. So there was the debut film adaptation of his work, the little seen, surprisingly racy, first version of The Maltese Falcon, directed by Roy Del Ruth and Hammett wrote his first screenplay (the OK but undistinguished City Streets) both in 1931. Also in the same year, he met and fell in love with playwright Lillian Hellman (also working for a studio), finally splitting up from his wife and began the relationship which would last the rest of his life. Although the Hays Code censorship regulations were a major obstacle to adapting Hammett's own stories (and his contemporaries’) into celluloid, "The Thin Man" was perfect for the new sound era of light romantic - soon to be screwball - comedies. Rapidly optioned, the novel was turned into an amazingly successful series of Thin Man film vehicles for Dick Powell and Myrna Loy, as husband and wife sleuths in high society, which ran for no less than six films from 1934 - 1947. Hammett himself was not only paid for the book rights but even did a bit of script-writing himself, drafting story ideas for the series but his sojourn in Hollywood was short-lived and unsuccessful, due mainly to his chronic unreliability. His writing, except for a few small things dried up almost completely, although he would sporadically work on a novel Tulip, unfinished at his death and published posthumously.
Whatever the main reason for Hammett's writing silence, it deprived the crime fiction world of one of its greatest living talents at the height of his career. But the movies, aside from The Thin Man series also kept his work very much in the public eye, as studios responded to the public appetite for more adult entertainment and their reading habits that reflected changing contemporary morals. Although he didn't have anything to do with their adaption, The Glass Key was translated into screen in the neglected but credible version in 1935 and then re-made in the much more familiar and lauded Paramount Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake - starring version from 1943, expertly adapted by screen-writer and fellow pulp scribe, Jonathan Latimer. Other efforts were made to render his detectives into the movies, including Warner Bros second attempt to film The Maltese Falcon, with the frankly unfaithful comedy version, starring Bette Davis, Satan met a Lady (1936). Fortunately, a few years later in 1941, young Warner Bros tyro script-writer and would-be director John Houston saw the real potential in Hammett's gritty, raunchy material and fashioned The Maltese Falcon as his masterful debut feature. One of the classic noir movies of all time, faithful to the spirit and letter of Hammett's novel, Huston's adaptation of The Maltese Falcon also transformed Humphrey Bogart from supporting cast heavy to screen icon leading man. Arguably, the finest translation of Dashiell Hammett ever to reach the silver screen. Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, remains one of the most deservedly admired and influential crime thrillers of the classic Hollywood era and celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2016, here at Noir in Festival.
As for Hammett himself, instead of writing (aside from, ironically, his work on a Bette Davis vehicle, Watch on The Rhine, in 1943), he speedily spent the income from Hollywood, and then during World War 2, undertook a second bout of military service which completely wrecked what was left of his health. In the post war period, his continued involvement in leftward leaning social activism got him in trouble with the rampant Cold War anti-communist politicians and even landed him in jail for some months in 1951. Out of favour and suddenly out of fashion, with his books out of print, he lived the last years of his life in very poor health, a rather sad and frustrated, if idealistic and proud, man who stood up for his beliefs despite everything. Dashiell Hammett died in New York of lung cancer in 1961, supported to the end by Lillian Hellman. In terms of legacy, Hellman worked tirelessly to ensure his work was reconsidered and gradually his brilliant, small but beautifully crafted collection of stories and novels were recognised again for their distinctiveness and originality.
Over the years, Hammett has been relatively neglected by modern cinema and only intermittently adapted, although on the occasions something has been done, it has always been interesting. Having said that, the comic spoof sequel to The Maltese Falcon, The Black Bird, that was produced in 1975, was something of a critical and commercial disaster and appears very weak in comparison to other ‘modernisations’ of classic noir, such as Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye. Wim Wenders’ affectionate, fictional version of his life, Hammett, appeared in 1982, whilst the Cohen Brothers leant heavily on Red Harvest and The Glass Key for their impressive, acclaimed gangster movie Miller’s Crossing(1990), The Fallen Angels noir TV series, adapted his story Fly Paper in 1995 and the bravura low budget Brick (2005) made numerous nods to his work. We still wait for someone to take the brilliant examples set by The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon and give us the modern epic film noir adaptation of Hammett he so richly deserves. Until then his magnificent canon of writing will more than suffice.