Hammett [1982]

A self-taught writer who had worked as a Pinkerton detective, Dashiell Hammett pioneered the hardboiled detective novel and rose to great fame before success seemed to make his life unravel. This documentary, an episode of the American Masters series of PBS, features interviews with Hammett's daughter as well as scholars and biographers, and tells the story of the writer's life in a suitably unsentimental manner. Readings from some of his best-known works, including The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, and The Thin Man, are accompanied by reenactments of scenes from the books, which indicate how Hammett's own experiences had colored his writing. And as might be expected, Dashiell's most famous character, the cynical private eye Sam Spade, is seen as portrayed on the big screen by Humphrey Bogart. Working as a screenwriter in Hollywood exacerbated Hammett's hard-living lifestyle, and people who knew him at the time, including screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., recall how his writing skills seemed to simply disappear. Newsreel clips illustrate his involvement with left-wing political causes, and critics note how his romance with writer Lillian Hellman seemed to give him something of a second career as editor and literary teacher. This is a fascinating look at a man whose career is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. --Robert J. McNamara

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