The television series Twin Peaks revels in its ostentatious ‘eightiesness’ (to coin an awful word). The terrible hair, the flat lighting, the soppy melodrama, the overpowering musical score, the clichéd characters – all of these things would render the product a boring, trite mess were it not for the fat vein of insanity running through the middle of it. Each element that would otherwise ruin the style of Twin Peaks is somehow made better by the experimental mood of the show, especially in the first season. Hammett is much like Twin Peaks, but without any of the insanity, or surrealism. Instead it’s a middling, unremarkable detective story that is both boring and incomprehensible.
Dashiel Hammett (Frederic Forrest), the real-life author, is drawn into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Crystal Li, a Chinese girl freshly arrived in Chinatown. Along the way he loses the manuscript for his novel, his dignity and possibly his sanity as he struggles against the odds to save the girl. He encounters all manner of threat as he fights through the Chinese underworld, all the time trying to avoid the corrupt police officers and powers-that-be as he does so.
The film, which was ostensibly directed by Wim Wenders but, in reality, was mostly re-shot by Francis Ford Coppola, is a product of the Zeotrope studio system. This means is that the film was completely shot at Coppola’s Zoetrope studio lot. This seems to give every scene a flat, lifeless quality in its composition, but it’s in the lighting of each scene where this is most obvious – shadows fall in strange places, and no obvious care has been taken in making the light appear in any way natural. In one scene, Hammett visits the county coroner to check for any sign of Crystal Li. After Hammett gives the coroner a bribe, the coroner walks out, leaving Hammett alone in his office. Hammett sits at the desk and for the rest of the scene, which runs well over one minute, there is a giant unsightly shadow of the telephone on the coroner’s desk obscuring Hammett’s torso.
It’s an ugly, poorly lit, poorly shot film. For a film that fetishises the aesthetics of film noir, it makes extraordinary failings in a number of key areas. For all of film noir’s stylistic choices, mostly borrowed from German expressionism – heavy shadow, chiaroscuro, evocative music and terse, meaningful dialogue – these choices were never at the expense of the central plot. Hammett attempts to cover up a weak, incomprehensible story with all number of film noir conceits, hoping that if one throws enough dames and trilbys at a film, all its problems will go away.
Film noir revivalism is something that Twin Peaks did effortlessly. It succeeds so completely because it doesn’t intend to copy the style, but reinvent that style and makes it its own. Hammett doesn’t do this, unfortunately. Hammett seeks to copy films from the past, without adding anything. Instead of watching this film, watch The Killers, The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity.