Sunday, January 29, 2012

All roads lead

The Film Noir Festival currently underway at the Castro Theater in San Francisco concludes Sunday with a tribute to Dashiell Hammett. The author of The Maltese Falcon and other classic works of detective and crime fiction will be celebrated with the screening of six films based on his work. It is a not-to-be-missed all-day affair - and one with more than one connection to Louise Brooks.
The Film Noir Festival tribute is fitting.

Arguably, the noir aesthetic sprang from Hammett's work. His hardboiled characters and grim plots - which served as a counterpoint to the work of S.S. van Dine (another leading mystery writer of the time) - set the tone for a good deal of the noir fiction and film which followed. And secondly, Hammett lived in San Francisco in the 1920s. It is here that he wrote the novels and stories for which he is still read today.

Before beginning his life as a writer, Hammett worked for the Pinkerton detective agency. And it was as a private detective that he came to San Francisco. One of his assignments involved gathering evidence for the defense of Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle at the time the famous comedian was tried for murder.

Hammett wrote most of his now classic work during the eight years he lived in San Francisco. From apartments on Eddy, Hyde, Monroe, Post and Leavenworth streets he pounded out story after story, drawing inspiration from almost everything around him. Notably, more than half of Hammett's stories take place in the city, as do his novels The Big Knockover, The Dain Curse, and, of course, The Maltese Falcon. Also set in San Francisco is his longest series -- three novels and 28 stories -- concerning an unnamed operative for the Continental Detective Agency.

In the single best source for information on the writer's time in San Francisco, The Dashiell Hammett Tour: A Guidebook (City Lights, 1991 / expanded and revised edition 2010, Vince Emery Productions), Hammett expert Don Herron wrote, "Hammett's San Francisco stands as one of the great literary treatments of a city - it has been compared with Joyce's Dublin and Dickens' London for its evocation of place and time. . . . In the Continental Op tales, the nameless detective goes to every neighborhood in the city and encounters every level of society, from bankers with wandering daughters in Pacific Height's mansions to cheap gunmen living in furnished rooms in Tenderloin hotels who do their drinking in North Beach speakeasies."

All told, some 32 films or television episodes have been based on a Hammett story or novel. On Sunday, the San Francisco Film Noir Festival will screen six of them.

Roadhouse Nights(1930, Paramount, 68 min.)
At 12:00 noon: This rarely shown film - the first based on a Hammett book - is loosely based on the author's classic gang-war novel Red Harvest, a story which proved too brutal and cynical for pre-Code Hollywood. In this Hobert Henley-directedadaption, Hammett’s story becomes an action-comedy starring sultry torch singer Helen Morgan, Charles Ruggles, Fred Kohler (who played in the early gangster film, The City Gone Wild), and newcomer Jimmy Durante. Not on DVD.

The Maltese Falcon (1931, Warner Bros. 80 min.)
At 1:20 pm: This first of three adaptions was made the year after Hammett's landmark novel of the same name was published. This pre-Code version, directed by Roy Del Ruth and sometimes titled Dangerous Female, flaunts a sexier tone than John Huston's more famous 1941 remake. Here, Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels star as Sam Spade and Ruth Wonderly (the Brigid O'Shaughnessy character), with other parts played by Una Merkal and the doomed Thelma Todd. And don’t miss an “appearance” by Louise Brooks, whose photograph hangs in Spade’s apartment as a curious piece of set dressing.

City Streets (1932, Paramount, 83 min.)
At 3:00 pm: In City Streets, Gary Cooper plays a carny sharpshooter who goes crooked in order to free his love (played by Sylvia Sidney) from prison. Paul Lukas, Willam Boyd and lovable Guy Kibee round out the cast. This film was made from the only story Hammett wrote specifically for the screen, and it's brilliantly realized by director Rouben Mamoulian and cameraman Lee Garmes. Restored print courtesy the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Not on DVD.

Mr. Dynamite (1935, Universal, 67 min.)
At 4:45 pm: Originally conceived as a second Sam Spade novel, Mr. Dynamite is the most rarely seen of all films based on Hammett's work. Edmund Lowe stars as a disreputable private dick hired by a gambler to solve a murder within the casino. The cast includes Jean Dixon, Victor Varconi and lovely Esther Ralston (who starred in The American Venus). Directed by Alan Crosland. Archival print courtesy of Universal Pictures. Not on DVD.

The Glass Key (1942, Paramount, 85 min.)
At 7:00 pm: Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake add lots of sex appeal to this second adaption of The Glass Key, Hammett's gritty behind-the-scenes novel of the dirty work that goes on in big-city politics. Director Stuart Heisler is at his rapid-fire best, eliciting terrific support from dashing Brian Donlevy and thuggish William Bendix. Not on DVD.

The Maltese Falcon (1941, Warner Bros. 100 min.)
At 9:00 pm: Noir City's 10th Anniversary celebration closes with an encore screening of the film version of the most influential work of crime fiction ever written. This classic film features legendary performances from Humphrey Bogart (whom Brooks knew and wrote about), Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and San Francisco's own Elisha Cook Jr. Written and directed by John Huston.

One other event Hammett fans won't want to miss takes place next month at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. On Tuesday, February 21st, Myrna Loy biographer Emily Leider will speak about "Nick and Nora's San Francisco." Leider's event will be presented by the San Francisco Historical Society and Museum.

According to the San Francisco biographer, whose Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood was published late last year by the University of California Press, her talk will focus on three figures: Hammett, who wrote The Thin Man and created its sleuthing characters Nick and Nora Charles; actor William Powell (who starred as Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case), who played Nick in the 1934 MGM movie of the book which spawned five sequels; and Loy (who played in A Girl in Every Port), the actress who portrayed Nora in all six films.

Utilizing film clips and photographs, Leider will discuss Hammett’s relationship with Nick, Nora and San Francisco, and the experiences of Powell and Loy in The City while filming After The Thin Man (1936) and Shadow of The Thin Man (1941) - two movies in the series shot in part in San Francisco. Leider will also touch on San Francisco’s reputation as a “wet” city during Prohibition, and on the impact of Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 on the audience for The Thin Man.

Dashiell Hammett character Nick Charles confronts S.S. van Dine character Philo Vance (both played by William Powell) in the trailer for The Thin Man. Curiously, both Hammett and van Dine did not care for one another or their writings, and they sparred in print.

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