- Film Chronicle
He was a Pinkerton operative turned bestselling author; a strikebreaker who later joined the Communist Party; a free-spending man-about-town with an intimate knowledge of lowlifes and yeggs; a husband and father occasionally, and a ladies’ man always; someone who when writing could be as austerely disciplined as his private-eye heroes, and at other times a self-destructive alcoholic; a patriot serving his country in both World Wars (in spite of coming home from the First with what would turn into a lifelong case of tuberculosis), then in 1951 a prisoner serving a six-month sentence for refusing to testify to a witch-hunting Congressional committee; a genre writer who in the space of eleven years learned, mastered, then grew dissatisfied with the genre which had made him famous. A complex figure, Dashiell Hammett, whose involvements with film were no less complex.
Generally, Hammett preserved a certain distance from the studio world. Unlike his disciples Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, he wrote no fiction about it. Perhaps, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, another novelist lured to California, Hammett was simply too word-based, too literary (his letters to Lillian Hellmann often refer to books read, rarely to films seen) to be fully at home in Hollywood. He could not respect an industry which after the advent of the talkies might pay a lot of money for scripts and still not value writers. As William H. Mooney’s study Dashiell Hammett and the Movies puts it, Hammett’s entry into Hollywood was “surreptitious.” Still, he entered it. He lived in Los Angeles, off and on, he wrote screenplays for the movies and made friends among movie people, and greatly to the benefit of his finances he saw his detective fictions adapted by others into films. After his death yet more adaptations were made. Among all these [End Page 126] films can be found a number of potboilers and routine vehicles for studio stars, some out-and-out failures, and a few masterpieces.
Hammett’s early short stories, most featuring the unnamed Continental Op as detective, were published in Black Mask magazine, then in its glory days under the editorship of Joseph T. Shaw. Eventually Hammett produced novels, serializing them first in Black Mask, and after revision bringing them out in book form. Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key appeared in astonishingly quick succession between 1927 and 1930. Hollywood soon sent out feelers to the newly famous author. In 1930, Hammett sold a seven-page story outline to Paramount, and a year later the studio developed it into City Streets, Rouben Mamoulian’s second directorial assignment. The film is available on the used DVD market and worth watching, though not for any particularly Hammettesque touches in the story, which is more generically underworldish. A girl associated with a bootlegging mob (Sylvia Sidney) falls for a sharpshooting yet innocent country boy (Gary Cooper). Trapped into committing a crime, she does a stretch in prison, while he joins the mob and is corrupted by its flash and money, but not so corrupted that he cannot eventually rescue her from the clutches of the lecherous boss and outwit every thug in sight. Ending happily, with the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset to the accompaniment of strains from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, City Streets completely lacks the sense of hubris and doom that marked such gangster melodramas of the period as Scarface, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar, but on the other hand it also lacks the heavy...