Monday, 19 November 2012


My interview with Mariella Frostrup about Dashiell Hammett was on Open Book yesterday; the show will be repeated Thursday and is available on IPlayer (you can link to it here; it starts 18 minutes in). It's a good programme--Rachel Johnson plugging her novel Winter Games, bright young thing English gels falling for Hitler's Lifestyles of the Reich and Famous, without anyone ever mentioning the Mitford sisters (!) and a discussion of writing sequels to famous novels which immediately precedes my talking about Hammett.

Which is appropriate, given that the hook for Open Book is the publication of The Return Of The Thin Man, a new book presenting Hammett's treatments for the first two sequels to the original Thin Man movie under the guise of two 'recently-discovered' works of fiction. Our discussion of the book itself was edited from the show, sadly, because although I pointed out that this is by no means new Hammett fiction, it is very enjoyable indeed. You can see clearly not only his sense of sharp dialogue, but also his visual sense of how movies work, and what will be funny visually as well as (or instead of) verbally. But these are very much film treatments, and the first, and better, of the two, After The Thin Man, is actually a combination of two treatments, the second done after Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, MGM's resident sophisticated comedy writing pair, had done a screenplay based on the first version. Presumably the finished product, like the film itself, reflects their contributions too. The discussion of Nick Charles also lost the image of Hammett himself, posed on the original cover of the novel, every bit as elegant and handsome as his detective hero.

Hammett's is a fascinating life, often used as a metaphor for some sort of inevitable artistic failure of American artists--all those lost generation boys, as well as, say, the abstract expressionist painters who followed them in the post-war era. Fitzgerald's career forms an eerie parallel with Hammett's, right down the relationship with a younger woman who would become a more successful writer. They were in Hollywood at the same time, and Fitz seemed to be leery of Hammett, perhaps feeling once shy after Hemingway. But as I say in the programme, I think there's a definite influence, and William Nolan made the interesting point about a Hammett short-story in Colliers 'This Little Pig', which may have influenced Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories (Hammett also appeared in the very first issue of Esquire). Hammett was close to Nathanel West, and I don't have any doubt that, as I say, he was a huge influence on West's Miss Lonelyhearts and Day Of The Locust.

A few Hammett stories were also lost along the way; I mentioned that went Gertrude Stein went to Hollywood, she announced the two Americans she wanted to meet were Hammett and Charlie Chaplin. As usual, she didn't get it particularly correct. Dorothy Parker literally knelt and kissed Hammett's hand, and, in one famously unguarded bit of writing, Hemingway himself praised him in a story. Red Harvest was published two years after The Sun Also Rises, but the character and style predate it, and of course it had first appeared in serial form in Black Mask. I went into the parallels between the two writers, who were very much contemporaneous; I don't see a direct influence but I think they were working, in different ways, in the same direction at the same time.

The discussion of the films was brief, and didn't make the cut either (it is, after all, a book programme!) but
the Thin Man and Maltese Falcon both benefit from being cast perfectly (in fact, the second of the three Maltese Falcon adaptations, Satan Met A Lady, attempted to turn it into a Thin Man-type story, with Bette Davis and Warren William failing to match Myrna Loy and William Powell. The first Maltese Falcon, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, is a pre-code wonder that messes with the plot in order to preserve its characters' sizzle. The famous and wonderful 1941 version was put together, literally, by John Huston by cutting and pasting passages from the novel into his screenplay (the killer final line, however, is his).

We also cut short the discussion of Hammett's political career--he was a man who was determined to make a stand, which he did twice for his country, and which he did not only to support his political beliefs, but also to stand up for free speech itself. That was the work of the last part of his life, when he was too weak physically, from the tuberulosis, the emphysema, the venereal diseases, the drinking, and the smoking, to even continue writing, he still found the strength to stand up for what his believed in. That makes him an American hero as much as an American tragedy. That and his great writing.


Anonymous said...

Did you mention the Flitcraft story - every writer's dream, surely - to get something like that past an editor (given it had nothing much to do with the plot)?

Michael Carlson said...

No, no time for that. But it is great, and I'm not surprised it wasnt edited out by Cap Shaw or whomever's just too damn good