By Maureen Lee Lenker
Dashiell Hammett’s name is synonymous with hard-boiled detective fiction. If he didn’t invent the genre, he surely perfected it in the novels and short stories he wrote in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. A Pinkerton detective himself before turning to writing, he employed an authenticity and realism in his work. His detectives, two-bit criminals, and femme fatales inhabit very real teeming city streets and speak in a vernacular not previously seen in fiction. “All my characters were based on people I've known personally, or known about,” he once said.
Raymond Chandler, the other giant of hard-boiled detective fiction, credited his skills and inspiration to Hammett. Chandler called Hammett “the ace performer” in The Simple Art of Murder, his (Chandler’s) examination of what makes good detective fiction.
But today, Hammett’s legacy is perhaps most accessible through the long shadow he cast on Hollywood via the rise of the distinctive style of film noir. With characters like Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade, Hammett weaved tales that inspired countless films in his day that remain classics in ours. Here are our five favorite Hammett films.
5. Watch on the Rhine (1943)
Like many celebrated American writers of the 30s and 40s, Hammett actually tried his hand at screenwriting with Watch on the Rhine being his most notable effort. Based on a play by his longtime lover Lillian Hellman, Hammett wrote the script for this Bette Davis vehicle about an American woman and her German husband who is secretly a member of the Underground Resistance. Hellman assisted with extra dialogue and scenes, but she was unavailable to adapt the play herself and recommended Hammett. Though tonally it’s quite different from many of his detective stories, it still has mystery and intrigue at its heart. Hammett was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on the film.
4. Satan Met a Lady (1936)
Satan Met a Lady was the second of three film adaptations of Hammett’s most beloved work, The Maltese Falcon. It’s a very loose take on the novel with the head detective bearing the name Ted Shane (instead of Sam Spade). Bette Davis stars as Valerie Purvis, the titular lady cut from classic femme fatale cloth. The title “Satan Met a Lady” refers to Hammett’s description of Sam Spade in his novel as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.” Having already purchased the rights to The Maltese Falcon for a 1931 screen adaptation, Warner Brothers decided to be economical and play fast and loose with source material they already owned. The film was not well received at the time, but it’s worth a second look if only for Davis’ early performance as a hardboiled dame –something she excelled at as her career exploded.
3. The Glass Key (1942)
Based on a novel of the same name, this is the second of two adaptations of this tale. The Glass Key is a film noir starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Ladd and Lake were an indelible Hollywood pairing, making movie magic opposite each other in this and other noirs This Gun for Hire and The Blue Dahlia. This was another case of a studio reusing film rights they already owned – Paramount developed the film specifically as a vehicle for Ladd after he impressed them in This Gun for Hire. Lake was re-paired with Ladd for the same reasons. The film is a convoluted mystery tale of corrupt politicians, gangsters, morally ambiguous women, and a man trying to uncover the truth while guided by his rule-bending moral compass. In short, it’s the stuff of classic film noir and a fabulous adaptation of Hammett’s personal favorite of his novels.
2. The Thin Man (1934)
More screwball comedy than film noir detective story, The Thin Man remains one of the most iconic adaptations of Hammett’s work. Nick and Nora Charles, brought to life by William Powell and Myrna Loy, were purportedly based on Hammett and his own witty banter with on-again, off-again companion Lillian Hellman. The mystery itself is convoluted – the real attraction of the film is the sparkling chemistry between Loy and Powell (and their terrier Asta). Nick Charles is a retired detective, trying to settle down with wife Nora, but they both find themselves pulled into intrigue when the daughter of an old client turns up asking for help. Audiences lapped up their screwball scenarios and biting back-and-forth so much that the film spawned five sequels, none of which were directly inspired by Hammett’s stories. With this first entry in the series that borrowed more from Nick and Nora’s relationship than Hammett’s hard-boiled tone, Hollywood gave us one of the most beloved screen couples and ensured Hammett’s pop culture legacy.
1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The third film to adapt Hammett’s novel for the screen remains the gold standard – The Maltese Falcon disproves any argument you’ve ever had about Hollywood remakes never being as good as the original. Considered by many to be the foundational picture of the film noir style, The Maltese Falcon launched the careers of director John Huston and star Humphrey Bogart. Huston used much of Hammett’s original dialogue from the novel to write the script. Bogart’s quippy, hard-boiled delivery, no nonsense demeanor, and penchant for playing men with good intentions but a questionable moral compass made him the perfect choice to bring private detective Sam Spade to the screen. With the character of Sam Spade, Bogart and Hammett united to create the archetype of the private detective. Mary Astor delivers a compelling and unforgettable performance opposite him as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Warner Brothers mainstays Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet round out the unforgettable cast. The item at the heart of the plot – the black bird—has become a subject of Hollywood lore and legend itself. Today, collectors and journalists still struggle to get to the bottom of what happened to the original Maltese Falcon prop. From its shadowy shooting style to its distinctly drawn characters to its twisty central mystery, this movie is really the stuff that dreams are made of.
With Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles remaining iconic figures in Hollywood history, Hammett carved himself a lasting legacy in both film and literature.