From “Red Harvest” to “Deadwood”

How Dashiell Hammett's first and most important novel eluded film adaptation and still managed to find its way onto the big -- and small -- screen.

Topics: Books,

From "Red Harvest" to "Deadwood"

Dashiell Hammett is all around us. A quick perusal of serious crime writers in any bookstore reveals his illegitimate children — James Ellroy, the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, even the cyber-punk icon William Gibson. This month, Vintage Books is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the classic American detective novel “The Maltese Falcon.” Vintage is also reprinting several other Hammett titles, including a collection of his best pulp stories, “Nightmare Town”; a short novel, “Woman in the Dark” (with an introduction by one of the most popular inheritors of the Hammett tradition, Robert B. Parker); and, for the beginner, “Vintage Hammett,” an anthology of stories and selections from his major novels.

This past January, Turner Classic Movies jumped on the bandwagon with a designated Dashiell Hammett day. The retrospective featured seven films based on Hammett’s books (including a 1936 version of “The Maltese Falcon,” “Satan Met a Lady” with Bette Davis), derived from Hammett’s characters (such as the surprisingly good “Another Thin Man,” 1939) or scripted by Hammett itself (“Watch on the Rhine,” 1943, with Bette Davis and Paul Lukas). Perhaps some day an ambitious programmer will put together a “Red Harvest” festival.

The 75th anniversary of Hammett’s first novel and his most important contribution to American literature — to American culture — came and went last year without notice. Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” one of the most influential American novels of the 20th century, was published in 1929. How contemporary has it remained? Check out the latest re-vision of “Red Harvest” on HBO. It’s called “Deadwood.”

Rereading Hammett after 20 years is a revelation, and also a minor shock, for any memory of his books has absorbed and been amended by all the Hammett-influenced work that came after he wrote them. Take “The Thin Man,” for instance. I had recalled Nick and Nora Charles as a pair of sexy, wisecracking private detectives who were not only smarter but hipper than the criminals they nailed. What I was recalling was William Powell and Myrna Loy from the hugely entertaining “Thin Man” movies. I had forgotten (or was too young to understand when I first read the book) that Nick and Nora were really a pair of hard-drinking cynics.



“The Maltese Falcon’s” Sam Spade, too, had softened in my memory, not so much because Bogart softened him — Bogey gleefully played him as he was written — but because commentary by two generations of critics had melded the images of Spade and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Marlowe, as Chandler had described the ideal fictional detective, walked down “these mean streets  neither tarnished nor afraid.” Spade certainly wasn’t afraid, but at times he seemed dangerously close to being as tarnished as the criminals. He does have his ethics; though his partner Miles Archer was a “son of a bitch,” Spade is willing to throw over the woman he loves, his client Bridgid O’Shaughnessy, for killing Archer. “When a man’s partner is killed, he is supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.” But he has no moral qualms about screwing his partner’s wife and then dumping her. In real life, Spade was more likely to be someone Marlowe would have come up against, rather than his partner.

In Sam Spade and the unnamed detective known as “the Continental Op,” from “Red Harvest,” Hammett gave us the first American antiheroes, and in doing so severed forever the traditional relationship between the mystery story and the crime story. Hammett never really cared much for writing mystery stories; the mystery as to who killed who in “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man” is pursued with no great urgency, and the murders that kick off the stories only seem to happen because the conventions of period detective fiction demanded them. The mystery story, by definition, must involve a clear delineation between good and evil: The criminal must be punished and the reader must have a clear sense that good has triumphed, or what would be the point of solving the mystery? In the crime story, solving a mystery can never entirely be the point; it’s a genre far more unsettling than anything that could have been imagined in the world of Sherlock Holmes, because in the real world, as we all know, the responsibility for crime spreads so far into society that no one is ever entirely free of guilt. There is no neat ending to ever make us truly feel that good has triumphed over evil.

“Red Harvest” achieved something else, too. It plays off the conventions of the western and helped create a genre that was just emerging in 1929, when it was published: the gangster novel.

The plot is simplicity itself. A detective from a national agency is summoned to investigate a murder in a Western mining town named Personville, sardonically referred to by the locals as “Poisonville.” Personville, or Poisonville, is “an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of smelters’ stacks.” (In 1927, Hammett, who would become a committed Marxist, had been what biographer William F. Nolan called a “politically involved strike breaker” for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Butte, Mont., so we can assume the novel was set there. In “Red Harvest” he would wreak fictional revenge on the anti-union goons.)

The murdered man was the town’s leading reformer; his father hires the Op to stay on and clean up the town. So far, we’re in a B western, and observing the conventions of that genre, the local robber barons hold all the power; there is practically no indication of a central authority to challenge them. Unbridled capitalism has led to a state of moral and, finally, social anarchy. The twist, which separates “Red Harvest” from the western tradition, is that the town has no good guys. Virtually everyone in Personville, from politicians to leading citizens to the police, is tapped into some form of corruption stemming from the two crooked factions fighting for control of the town (one of which is connected to the Op’s employer, the majority stockholder of the mining corporation and the owner of both of the newspapers). The classic western hero wore a white hat and killed the guys in black hats; in “Red Harvest,” everyone wears a shade of gray.

The Op, personifying his creator’s moral outrage, is determined to use his resources for “opening Poisonville up from Adam’s apple to ankles.” This means hiring out to both sides and playing both ends against the middle. He touches off a chain reaction of violence that hits Personville like a purifying fire — but in the end, who is purified? Sifting through the carnage, the Op finds “I’ve got hard skin over what’s left of my soul,” and “This berg’s getting to me. If I don’t get away soon, I’ll be going blood-simple, like the natives.”

“Red Harvest” was recognized almost immediately as a masterpiece. In the Saturday Review, the author of “The Gangs of New York,” Herbert Asbury, a man who knew a little about tough towns, wrote, “It is doubtful if even Ernest Hemingway has ever written more effective dialogue than may be found within the pages of this extraordinary tale of gunmen, gin, and gangsters.” Most of the other major publications gave it raves, qualified only by reservations over the book’s violence and candor. The book’s reputation continued to grow; in 1941 Robert Graves correctly identified it as “a literary landmark.”

Yet, for some reason, the much anticipated film version of “Red Harvest” never came off. David O. Selznick purchased the rights and put Ben Hecht onto the script. But the studio panicked when confronted with “Red Harvest’s” violence and political cynicism; it was whispered that it had something to do with the author’s pro-union sympathies. By the time the project made it onto the screen, it was titled “Roadhouse Nights” and labeled an “action-comedy” featuring Paramount’s new comedy star, Jimmy Durante. There was almost nothing of Hecht in the picture, and nothing at all of Hammett. So began “Red Harvest’s” strange journey as a great American cult novel — the book that no one has ever succeeded in bringing to the screen. As of this writing, it remains the only Dashiell Hammett novel that has not been turned into a movie.

For the next three decades, the history of “Red Harvest” gets murky. In 1951, in the midst of McCarthy-fanned communist paranoia, Hammett did six months in prison for refusing to answer questions for a federal court. In 1953, he was called before McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee, which was looking into charges that pro-communist books had been placed in 150 overseas libraries run by the U.S. State Department; one can only imagine the horror of McCarthy and Roy Cohn when they found out that the State Department had stocked American libraries around the world with a book titled “Red Harvest.” (In a bizarre postscript, hundreds of Hammett’s books in overseas libraries were burned, an action criticized by President Eisenhower, a Hammett fan.)

Hammett lost the copyrights to his books over back taxes. After his death in 1961, his longtime companion Lillian Hellman convinced the IRS that they were of little value, then purchased them at an auction for the ridiculous sum of $5,000. By the early ’60s, “Red Harvest,” along with all of Hammett’s other novels, was out of print and largely forgotten by the American public; unlike “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Thin Man” and “The Glass Key,” there was no popular film to sustain its memory. But it did not go forgotten. Over the next 20 years, rumors would surface, submerge and surface again about filmmakers who wanted to film “Red Harvest.” In 1973, Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi purchased the film rights. James Bridges worked on a screenplay and was scheduled to direct, but the project was shelved in 1975. Why it fell through is still not known.

The most publicized attempt involved Bernardo Bertolucci, who tried to kick-start “Red Harvest” with Jack Nicholson as the Op and Deborah Winger as the book’s most prominent female character. It never happened. In 1989, in an interview for American Film magazine, Irish director Neil Jordan told me he was planning a film version of “Red Harvest” and that he and his friend, production designer Anton Furst, who had just won an Oscar for “Batman,” had already scouted locations out West. Jordan’s film never got off the ground. Three years later, I interviewed Mel Gibson for the New York Times, and he expressed a passionate interest in filming “Red Harvest.” In recent years, there was a rumor that David Lynch was pursuing a film adaptation with novelist Barry Gifford to write the screenplay. James Ellroy stated a desire to do a “Red Harvest” script, but today, 76 years after the novel’s publication, there is still no film of “Red Harvest.” Why?

Attempts to unravel the mystery have so far resisted all investigation, though one of the writers who is associated with an attempt to film the book (and who asked to remain anonymous) suggests this is not a mystery at all: Hellman and, after her death in 1975, those who purchased the rights have simply demanded too much money. Whatever the reason, “Red Harvest” remains unfilmed.

Starting in 1961, though, the “Red Harvest” saga may have taken a strange new turn. That year, Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” was released. The plot was almost elemental: A mysterious unnamed stranger carrying a samurai sword arrives in a town where two corrupt factions are warring. The film is set after a ruinous war that has destroyed all central authority; the only law and order in the town comes from the balance between two opposing factions, neither one quite strong enough to engage in open warfare against the other. The stranger hires out to both sides, playing both ends against the middle. When the blood has congealed, both factions are destroyed and the stranger prevails.

Several film critics over the years, beginning with Andrew Sarris, saw the parallels between the great American gangster novel and the great samurai film classic. Manny Farber stated flatly that “Yojimbo” was “a version of ‘Red Harvest’ — a bowdlerized version.” Not everyone was so sure. Donald Richie, perhaps the leading scholar on Kurosawa’s work, said in a 1996 interview, “I think the similarity in themes is just coincidence. Kurosawa has always acknowledged his sources.” Kurosawa was a reader of American crime fiction; his 1960 film “Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru,” or “The Bad Sleep Well,” was adapted from an Ed McBain novel. But some feel Kurosawa was not so open in acknowledging his sources; his 1949 film “The Quiet Duel” owes much to Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” David Desser, another Kurosawa scholar, in his book “The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa,” states categorically that “Yojimbo is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’” and “the basic situation that motivates the plot in Yojimbo is adapted from Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’.”

If the similarities in plot between “Red Harvest” and “Yojimbo” are just a coincidence, then they are certainly an extraordinary coincidence. At the very least, both works share an obvious derivation from the themes of classic westerns, right up to the point where the hero, finding no moral barometer outside himself, sells his services to both sides. And it was most certainly not coincidence that the next time the theme popped up in a movie, the movie was a western. Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” released in 1964, was so obviously taken from “Yojimbo” that some critics noticed almost identical shot selection and camera angles. Certainly the plot was identical; a mysterious stranger, a man with no name, arrives in a town somewhere by the U.S.-Mexican border (though the film was actually shot in Spain). It’s a no man’s land, caught between two central authorities, the U.S. and Mexican governments, which end up canceling each other out.

It wasn’t the first time a western had been made from a Kurosawa film, or even the second. Everyone knows that “The Magnificent Seven” was adapted from Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai”; not as many people know that “Rashomon” was made into a 1964 western, “The Outrage,” starring Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom. Those films, though, acknowledged their origin and were approved by Kurosawa. “A Fistful of Dollars” was not. Incredibly, Sergio Leone denied the similarities between his and Kurosawa’s film. Kurosawa sued in an Italian court; after the case dragged on for a couple of years, he finally settled for a portion of the profits from “A Fistful of Dollars.” His copyright was recognized. United Artists, Leone’s distributor, retained copyrights on “A Fistful of Dollars.”

Let’s fast-forward to 1996. Walter Hill directed “Last Man Standing,” a gangster film about rival Irish and Italian bootleggers set somewhere on the U.S.’s southwestern border with Mexico — another no man’s land. The stranger, played by Bruce Willis, hires out to both sides  well, by now you know the story. The producers of “Last Man Standing” had obtained the rights to remake “Yojimbo” from Kurosawa’s estate. In 1996, while working on a story on “Last Man Standing” for the Newark Star-Ledger, a source at New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, told me that it had received a letter from United Artists saying, in effect, “‘You are now on legal notice that you have no right to use the plot of ‘A Fistful of Dollars.’ It was bizarre. Their attitude was like ‘Yojimbo’ had never been made, let alone made first. We decided to ignore the letter and make our movie.”

Even more bizarre, though, was another letter New Line received from Grimaldi Productions — the same Alberto Grimaldi who had purchased the rights to “Red Harvest.” “It was a warning,” said my source at New Line, “telling us that we did not have the right to make a film version of ‘Red Harvest’ without dealing with them. Someone from Grimaldi Productions said to me ‘”Yojimbo” practically is “Red Harvest” — it’s a samurai version of an American gangster novel.’ Many people have said this.”

The Grimaldi representative said that to redo “Yojimbo” in a 1920s American gangster setting without acknowledging “Red Harvest” was, according to New Line, “borderline dishonest.” But if so, where along the line was the dishonesty first committed? By Kurosawa in not acknowledging the influence of Dashiell Hammett? By Sergio Leone in not acknowledging his debt to Kurosawa? How could anyone charge that “Last Man Standing” was a remake of “A Fistful of Dollars” without also acknowledging that “A Fistful of Dollars” was a remake of “Yojimbo”?

The matter was debated in a flurry of letters, but nothing came of it. When the smoke cleared, “Last Man Standing” was released, and the “Red Harvest” theme had come full circle to its gangster origins.

But not before the “Red Harvest” story had branched off in two more directions. In 1985, “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” the third of George Miller’s Max movies, was released. The first half of the film is a virtual post-apocalyptic remake of “Yojimbo.” This time, all central authority has been obliterated in an atomic war. Max, played by Mel Gibson — the man who would later talk about making “Red Harvest” — arrives out of the wasteland to find “Bartertown” (Hammett would have loved the name), a crude industrial oasis ruled by two warring factions: Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity, who controls the business, and the Master, played by the dwarf Angelo Rossitto, whose workers fuel the engines for Bartertown. Thus capitalism confronts unionism in its crudest form. Miller playfully acknowledges his inspirations. Aunty Entity’s thugs are dressed in punk variations of Japanese warrior costumes, and Max, in a big fight scene, is introduced, as Clint Eastwood was in “A Fistful of Dollars,” as “the Man With No Name.”

A more direct connection to “Red Harvest” was Ethan and Joel Coen’s 1990 film, “Miller’s Crossing.” There were rumors that the Coens had tried and then given up on an attempt to obtain rights to Hammett’s first novel; they were certainly known to be Hammett enthusiasts, as their first film, “Blood Simple” (1984), took its title from “Red Harvest.” Whatever their intention, the film is a clever splicing of Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key,” Hammett’s novel of big-city political intrigue, which had been filmed twice, in 1935 starring George Raft and in 1942 with Alan Ladd. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan isn’t derived from the Continental Op but from Ed Beaumont, the protagonist of “The Glass Key.” Shrewd and amoral, Beaumont manipulates the rival gangs into destroying each other without having to fire a shot. By cross-pollinating the two books, the Coens were able to conceal their sources.

With “Deadwood,” the “Red Harvest” theme comes back to its geographical roots, a Northwestern mining town in a no man’s land. And so the theme initially inspired by a generation of western pulps and B movies comes back around to its origins. Whether Hammett’s hellish vision ever makes it to the big screen, it at least appears that every generation will get the “Red Harvest” it deserves.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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