The Schrödinger’s Cat of noir adaptations
Nick Kolakowski on the filming of Dashiell Hammett’s novel
Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was published in February 1929, an auspicious moment in American history. The glitter and rot of the Roaring Twenties had reached a crescendo; by October, the Wall Street Crash would usher in a decade of privation so acute it threatened the foundations of Western capitalism. In his query letter to Knopf, Hammett termed the book an “action-detective novel,” but it was much more than that; in describing the Continental Op’s attempts to clean out “Poisonville” of gangsters and corruption, he managed to capture something essential about how American entrepreneurism could bend to darker ends.
As one (unnamed) man tasked with cleaning up an “ugly city of forty thousand people,” the Continental Op takes the only logical path, manipulating Poisonville’s powerful gangs into tearing each other apart. Hammett narrates the violence in precise, clean prose. For example, during one of the story’s many raids on a criminal hive:
“Men crawled all over me, opening the valise, helping themselves to the contents, bombs made of short sections of two-inch pipe, packed in sawdust in the bag. Bullets bit chunks out of the car’s curtains.”
“Reno reached back for one of the bombs, hopped out to the sidewalk, paid no attention to a streak of blood that suddenly appeared in the middle of his left cheek, and heaved his piece of stuffed pipe at the brick building’s door… A sheet of flame was followed by deafening noise. Hunks of things pelted us while we tried to keep from being knocked over by the concussion.”
It’s the sort of prose that translates seamlessly into film. However, the Continental Op doesn’t fit the stereotypical action-star image. He’s short (“She was an inch or two taller than I, which made her about five feet eight,” he describes at one point), viciously cynical (“I sneered at her in a friendly way”), and willing to engage in all sorts of unethical behavior if it means getting the job done. Yes, he’s also a solid detective and gunfighter—perhaps the only two attributes that would boost his life expectancy in a firefight-happy place like Poisonville—but as written by Hammett, he’s a character that many matinee idols of past decades, worried about their image, would have shied away from.
Perhaps that’s why Red Harvest has never enjoyed a faithful cinematic adaptation, unlike Hammett’s other works. But hold on, you say: Hasn’t it been adapted several times? Didn’t Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” echo Hammett’s plot, with samurai in Edo-period Japan taking the place of American gangsters? Wasn’t “Last Man Standing” (1996) a literal adaptation, right down to its Prohibition time period and Western environs?
To put it mildly, the whole situation is a little peculiar.
But first things first: There was a 1930 adaptation of Red Harvest, titled “Roadhouse Nights” and produced at Paramount, that chucked virtually all of the novel’s grittier elements in favor of comedy and musical numbers. “They changed everything but the title, and finally they changed that,” Hammett complained, according to Nathan Ward’s biography The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett. (And to be fair, Hollywood mangling his novel didn’t stop Hammett from taking up producer David O. Selznick’s offer to write screenplays for absurd amounts of money.)
After that, the cinematic afterlife of Red Harvest gets even stranger. In 1961, the same year that Hammett died, Kurosawa released “Yojimbo,” in which a wandering ronin clears a village of rival clans via deception and expert swordplay. Noir fans spied the parallels with Red Harvest, but scholars differ on how much of an influence Hammett’s book actually had on the production. In a 2005 Salon article, Allen Barra described how prominent film critic Manny Farber called Kurosawa’s film a “bowdlerized version” of Red Harvest, while Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie dismissed the plot similarities as mere coincidence (“Kurosawa has always acknowledged his sources”). Kurosawa himself reportedly cited Hammett’s The Glass Key as his influence, although it’s more difficult to see the parallels there.
“Yojimbo,” in turn, inspired Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” the first Spaghetti Western to feature Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man With No Name. (Unfortunately, Leone didn’t clear his inspiration with Kurosawa, who fired off an infringement lawsuit that was eventually settled out of court.) If we believe that aspects of Red Harvest ended up woven into “Yojimbo,” then Hammett’s ideas found themselves on an unexpected around-the-world tour, looping through Japan to Italy—and with Hammett’s estate presumably seeing not a single penny from it.
In the mid-1990s, when writer/director Walter Hill decided to remake “Yojimbo” as “Last Man Standing,” he gave onscreen credit to Kurosawa and his co-writer Ryuzo Kikushima. Bruce Willis, nameless and given to brandishing twin .45s at the slightest provocation, wanders into a dusty Texas town and promptly sets off a war between rival gangs; much of the plot may have been transliterated from the Japanese version, but anyone familiar with Red Harvest would note the Prohibition Era setting, the corrupt cops and murderous bootleggers, and assume that some of Hammett’s literary DNA had also found its way into the script.
“I don’t think any honest person could make a ’20s gangster film and not acknowledge a debt to Hammett,” Hill is quoted as telling Metro Silicon Weekly, San Jose’s alt-weekly, back in 1996, “and when I finished a draft of the screenplay, I remember thinking, ‘Damn, this almost reads like Hammett.’ But to tell you the truth, I was as much inspired by the works of James M. Cain. But I don’t think Akira Kurosawa’s film is anything but his own. Borges once said that all fiction was either a telling of the ‘Odyssey’ or the Crucifixion. Now, go sue all the people who’ve used those themes.”
Over the past several decades, other directors (including Bernardo Bertolucci and Neil Jordan) also tried and failed to produce a more faithful version of Red Harvest. But until someone actually seizes the rights and accomplishes that seemingly impossible feat, Red Harvest seems doomed to remain the Schrödinger’s cat of noir adaptations: often made—and yet never made.
Clear words from this author about the controversy surrounding the book launch of Jeanine Cummin’s „American Dirt“. An article in the New York Times about this with the headline: „The Publishing Industry Is Broken„. Nick Kolakowskis Love & Bullets erscheint 2020 in der TW-Edition bei Suhrkamp.