Friday, June 17, 2005

It Came from Netflix! The Dain Curse

Dashiell Hammett has had as much effect as any 20th century writer on the modern American novel, not to mention the larger media scene. His spare, tough style is in the same school as Hemingway, and it’s quite possible he’s been read more, especially in terms of unassigned leisure reading.

Hammett remains best known because of the movies adapted from his spare collection of five novels. John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is the best of the lot (albeit only after the book had been earlier brought to the screen with markedly inferior results), which is a bold statement, considering that The Thin Man, one of the most infectiously joyous movies ever made, was also taken from his work.

However, his novel Red Harvest has had the long-lasting cinematic impact, despite never being officially adapted. However, Hammett’s scenario of a private eye who comes to a town so completely corrupt that the only hope of redeeming it is to coax the two rival gangs that run it into killing each other off wholesale was borrowed by Akira Kurosawa for his classic samurai film Yojimbo. From there, Sergio Leone ripped-off Kurosawa’s film almost shot for shot for his later For a Fistful of Dollars, the film that made not only its director, but expatriate star Clint Eastwood and the Spaghetti Western genre as a whole. Hammett’s story even today pops up on occasion, as in the depression era-set Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis. Due to the time period and setting, it’s the closest thing to an official adaptation of Hammett’s novel that we’ve yet seen.

It’s an impressive achievement to have created both the Great American Private Eye (Sam Spade, who predated Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe) and the jaunty husband/wife mystery-solving team (Nick and Nora Charles, the precursor to McMillan and Wife, Hart to Hart and a zillion others), but Hammett somehow pulled the trick off, and while remaining a none-too prolific writer. (Of course, he lucked out in some of the most perfect casting decisions every made, including Humphrey Bogart, William Powell and Myrna Loy, among others, but still.)

Even so, when I think of Hammett, I think of the Continental Op. The Op was a nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency, a short, stout, sardonic and very tough man who basically had little life outside his work. The Op appeared in a series of short stories that ran in The Black Mask, a legendary pulp magazine that was the home to both Hammett and Chandler. He also featured in two novels, The Dain Curse, and the aforementioned Red Harvest.

Hammett had been himself an experienced operative for the famous Pinkerton Agency, and it was his experience that brought a real sense of verisimilitude to the Op’s often cartoonishly baroque adventures. As silly as they were on the face of things, they always held up in the reading.

Oddly, despite the fact that Hammett’s other three novels (including the more obscure The Glass Key) the Op himself had never been brought to the screen. However, as noted above, his adventures in Red Harvest have been emulated many times, and knock-off characters appeared, including the radio detective show The Fat Man (later adapted to a one-shot movie), and the William Conrad TV series Cannon.

Finally, in 1978 The Dain Curse was telecast as a three-part mini-series. Thankfully, it was kept a period piece as opposed to being updated (which it easily could have been), and attracted a major star, James Coburn. The tall, lanky Coburn is certainly an odd choice to play a character who more logically would be played by, say, Bob Hoskins.

However, in an interesting bit of post-modernism, the Cop was recast as his real-life model. Coburn wasn’t playing the Op as he existed on the page, but instead, with his slim build, silver hair and trim mustache, the actor was playing Hammett himself. This was indicated by naming him (the anonymous nature of the Op would have been highly difficult to pull off over the space of six hours) Hamilton Nash, a moniker obvious meant to suggest Dashiell Hammett.

After being broadcast back in ’78, the mini was awkwardly cut down to a nearly insensible three hours for syndication and an earlier VHS video release. Now the good folks at image have brought the entire thing out via a two-disc DVD, and it’s definitely worth a look.

The episodic tale revolves around the middle aged Nash’s increasingly intense fixation on Gabrielle Leggett, a much younger at the center of the titular curse. Everyone around this woman tends to die an unpleasant death, and she has been driven nearly insane by what she considers to be her guilt in this. And so, just when Nash thinks he’s done with her, she ends up in another bizarre imbroglio, and he has to come bail her out again.

There’s some really good stuff here, and they certainly did what they could to remain true to the convoluted and generally lurid twists of the book. However, I have to admit, I do have some problems with it. First, and this is my mistake, because I had rented it I tried to sit down and power through it all in two nights so that I could return the discs. This was a mistake.

However, it’s not enough to just watch the three separate chapters on different nights, or whatnot. For the most effect, I’d think you’d want to actually break off between the four separate stories. The Dain Curse was originally a series of four novellas printed in Black Mask. While there is a clear through-line (and Hammett reworked it more in that direction when he recast it as a book), the fact remains that there are four different discrete stories here, which fit awkwardly into the show original three-night format.

The most important reason to break off between the various chapters is that they are supposed to take place over a span of, at least, a year or two. Watching the whole thing at once, more or less, makes it difficult to get that sense of things. Nash knows he has no change of a future with Gabrielle (the age difference between them is much noted), but he loves her, and drops everything when the opportunity to become involved with her again presents itself. Again, this is a woman who is weaves in and out of his life over a goodly period of time, and I wish the show had perhaps communicated that end of things better.

The actual events are pretty outrageous, as much of the Op stuff was. There are weird religious cults, drug use and addiction, and murders, murders and more murders. Through it all, Nash alone clings to the belief that there isn’t a curse behind it all, but that neither are the event just random. He believes that they are all being orchestrated, and is the only one seeking such an overarching solution to things.

The production is decent and professional, without being sumptuous. Frankly, it plays like a TV production. Coburn is a fine actor, of course, but I couldn’t really get past the fact that he was playing Hammett rather than the Op. Nash just wears his heart a little too much on his sleeve to suggest the more taciturn Op. Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that Coburn is one of those actors who effortlessly draws your attention.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss. Star watchers will enjoy seeing Hector Elizondo in a major role, as is a pre-Data Brent Spiner, who oddly I thought looked a lot like Toby Maguire. (Not a twin so much as a close relative sort of way, if you catch my drift.) Jason “The Exorcist” Miller is also on hand as a chum of Nash’s.

In terms of casting, one problem I had with the production was that I frankly didn’t find Nancy Addison, the actress playing Gabrielle, to possess quite the incredible beauty and/or charisma necessary to sell her as an unwilling siren who inexorably brings men to their doom. I have to say it, but I just didn’t buy everyone’s fascination with her.

The pacing was also a problem. (I know; it sounds like I’m trying to tear this thing apart, although that’s not really my intention.) Aside from the cramming-four-stories-into-three-slots aspect, the show’s just a little too leisurely. Hammett’s stripped down text races through your eyeballs, and chances are if you read The Dain Curse you’ll finish it in one sitting, and have spent rather less than six hours doing so.

On the other hand, it’s still a pretty nifty piece of work. Certainly detective fiction aficionados would do well to give it a look.

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