Francis Ford Coppola founded his American Zoetrope as a workplace for artists outside the machinations of the studio system. But it didn't always work as intended, and in some cases, he only has himself to blame. On the strength of a road trilogy that included Alice In The Cities, Kings Of The Road, and The Wrong Move, German director Wim Wenders was a rising international star when Coppola lured him to Zoetrope for his American debut feature Hammett, a stylized homage to noir and pulp fiction. But by the time the final version was released in 1982, only 30 percent of Wenders' footage remained, and the rest was completely reshot by Coppola, whose mere "executive producer" credit is just a technicality. While Wenders went on to make The State Of Things (which commented on the differences between European and American productions) and the Palme D'Or-winning Paris, Texas, Coppola and Paramount had a wounded duck on their hands.
A Coppola or Wenders commentary track might have sorted things out a bit—or at least settled an old score—but the bare-bones DVD release leaves viewers with a fascinating mess. The finished product is clearly more Coppola than Wenders, since its period soundstage aesthetic so closely resembles One From The Heart, The Cotton Club, and other '80s Coppola productions. Not all of the pieces fit together, but Hammett's shaggy-dog nature actually works to its benefit, since gumshoes like Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade don't solve cases so much as get kicked around by them. Based on a Joe Gores novel, the film imagines the writer as private eye, playfully blurring the line between an author and his fictional creations while putting the polish on old genre archetypes. The film is like a cheap, dime-store replica of Chinatown, but it has its artificial charms.
Chief among them is Frederic Forrest's winning performance, which captures the world-weary cynicism of a detective who's been around the block a few times. A former private eye, Forrest has resigned himself to turning his exploits into fiction, but when a former boss (Peter Boyle) calls in a favor, he's obligated to get involved. What starts as a simple missing-persons case in Chinatown turns perilous when extortion and murder come into the picture, and Forrest starts running afoul of San Francisco's moneyed elite. At a certain point, Hammett gets unreasonably convoluted, but since its hero seems just as hopelessly confused by what develops, it's easy to just soak in the rich atmosphere, courtesy of Coppola's ace production designer Dean Tavoularis and a terrific John Barry score. But those who haven't seen the movie are hereby warned: Unless you like your whodunits spoiled in advance, look away from the DVD's back cover.