November 14, 2007 6:04 PM   Subscribe

In 1917, Dashiell Hammett, working as a Pinkerton detective in Butte, Montana, was offered $5000 to murder union organizer, Frank Little. Or was he? Maybe not. Anyway, Hammett quits being a detective and starts writing fiction. He draws on his Butte experiences to write Red Harvest about a lone detective who sets opposing factions in a corrupt city against one another and watchs the bodies pile up. Lots of people have wanted to make movies from Red Harvest. Akira Kurosawa did. Or did he? Maybe not.

But Fistful of Dollars is certainly based on Yojimbo and there's a lawsuit that proves it. So, in 1996, when Walter Hill released Last Man Standing, he was sued by the Italian owners of the Fistful copyright. But Hill had permission to remake from Kurosawa so the Italians looked foolish. Hill mentions Hammett in interviews but Dash gets no credit. Nor did he get credit for the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing which may be a blend of Red Harvest and The Glass Key. Certainly the Coens borrowed at least a movie title from Red Harvest. But, after all these years, the only movie directly based on Hammett's novel is a Jimmy Durante comedy.
posted by CCBC (25 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, thank, I love Hammett's work. This will give me a quiet relaxing read beside the warm glow of the internet tonight.
posted by mattoxic at 6:11 PM on November 14, 2007

I think most of the major plot elements in Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing" are from Hammet's "Red Harvest". They added some interesting twists of course.
posted by bukvich at 6:11 PM on November 14, 2007

Nice post. The Hammett/Kurosawa/Leone lawsuit spree has been fascinating to me for a long time. I guess I can now add a couple of more the next time it comes up in conversation.
posted by sleepy pete at 6:21 PM on November 14, 2007

Really great post, thank you.
posted by Divine_Wino at 6:29 PM on November 14, 2007

Oh wow, I didn't know Hammett was in the mix. I just finished watching Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Magnificent Seven and the three Eastwood/Leone movies. I'd never watched any early Clint Eastwood--he was incredible back in the day (especially in Fistful and Good, Bad, Ugly, but Few Dollars More was good too).

Also, if you haven't seen them, I highly recommend watching Seven Samurai and Magnificent Seven back to back, if only to see the nearly-perfect recreation James Coburn does of his character. Both Samurai Japan to Cowboy Old West are perfectly fitted and yet the characters could be identical twins. It's seriously eerie.
posted by DU at 6:34 PM on November 14, 2007

Brilliant post. I love all of Hammett's work, but Red Harvest is the best of the lot.
posted by Rangeboy at 7:11 PM on November 14, 2007

Great post! My father grew up in Butte, and is also a big fan of crime fiction, so I was exposed to all this growing up.

An interesting Hammett anecdote is his use of the word "gunsel", which many incorrectly assume means "gunman". In the linked passage, Gardner also reflects the era's prudishness in not telling his readers that "gunsel" means gay man...

Quinion on "gunsel".
posted by Tube at 7:37 PM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Neat post, thanks; there's tons of great stuff here I didn't know. I read Red Harvest earlier this year and it jumped to the top of my fave hardboiled detective story list - it's tightly plotted pitch-perfect crime writing from start to finish.
posted by mediareport at 7:46 PM on November 14, 2007

I could barely follow what was happening in Red Harvest when I read it, but I loved it nonetheless. Great post.
posted by chinston at 7:48 PM on November 14, 2007

I'm guessing now, because I don't have my Hammett books to hand, but there is a part in (I think the Glass Key, by context, but it could be Red Harvest or another Continental OP story) that goes:

"So we went out there, shot the joint silly, murdered some dagoes, spilled gallons of liquor, and left the place burning."

Now, my New York Irish aside, I got nothing against my Italian brothers and sisters, but that is just hard like two day old shit (peace Phife). That line in my mind defines the vast bulk of the great, awful, hardboiled noir that I love so well.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:04 PM on November 14, 2007

In case anyone wanted to know about the Pinkerton Detectives, which is still in business after 157 years.
posted by parmanparman at 8:13 PM on November 14, 2007

Weird. I just read The Maltese Falcon today. I'm going to have to rent the movie and try out some of his other books.
posted by stavrogin at 9:00 PM on November 14, 2007

Wim Wenders was obsessed with Hammett. He even lived in the same apartment in San Francisco.

He also made a movie in Butte Montana.

see also: this mefi thread
posted by shoepal at 9:03 PM on November 14, 2007

The giant pit that had started to eat up the uptown area had been closed; when the pumps stopped, it slowly filled with water, becoming the largest body of poisonous water in the world, with a red surface like Bordeaux wine, but definitely more lethal.

No shit. Look where this neighborhood is in relation to the rest of the city.
posted by dhartung at 9:08 PM on November 14, 2007

this post = the best of the blue.

posted by CitizenD at 9:15 PM on November 14, 2007

I've always wondered why Red Harvest hadn't been made into a film. Guess I know now. Damn, I wish I hadn't left my collection of Hammett novels at home - I'll have to get it over break. Great post.
posted by dismas at 9:27 PM on November 14, 2007

goddamn cocksucking pinkertons.

al swearengen
posted by CitizenD at 10:07 PM on November 14, 2007

My favorite fact about Hammett as a Pinkerton detective is that supposedly his first case involved a man who stole a ferris wheel. Never knew if it was true, but it's mentioned again in this magazine feature. Orson Welles also talks about it at the end of this 1939 radio version of Hammett's The Glass Key. [MP3]
posted by LeLiLo at 10:32 PM on November 14, 2007

One of my teachers in college used to show the first half of Seven Samurai, then at the "intermission" break, switch to Magnificent Seven for the second half.
posted by absalom at 5:49 AM on November 15, 2007

Still prefer Chandler though...Or was it Ross?
posted by Wrick at 9:08 AM on November 15, 2007

One point that really stuck in my mind in Ellroy's article (and that Divine_Wino also makes above) is just how unlikeable the Op actually is: smart certainly, but also embodying a kind of lumbering, wheezing dullness. Coming to Red Harvest and the Op short stories after I'd read not only all of Chandler, but also The Maltese Falcon, probably the first thing that I noticed was how differently the main detective was written.
posted by hydatius at 9:29 AM on November 15, 2007

Why is it that whenever I read about the Pinkertons, I think of Blackwater?


Great post though.
posted by quin at 11:24 AM on November 15, 2007

posted by Smedleyman at 1:31 PM on November 15, 2007

My dad's from Butte, too. Word around Montana used to be that all the tough kids were from Butte. Fights would sometimes get finished with curbies (like in American History X). Not sure what the kid's are like there nowadays, but Butte's definitely a shadow of it's former self.

One of the most surreal memories of my childhood was driving through the streets of Butte late at night, waking up in the neon-lit twilight to see the gigantic head of the Lady of the Rockies sitting on the street waiting to be taken up the mountain. Bright and white, staring always into the oncoming traffic. Man, it was weird.

And every time pollution comes up in a conversation, I try to bring up the Berkley Pit. I did a job-shadow with a mine reclamation firm in Butte and got to do a little basic work with some of the water from the pit. If I remember right, the pH was a point more acidic than Coca-Cola, and using lime to precipitate the sludge yielded something like 60ml of junk out of 100ml. The water's foul. Not sure if the gift shop/museum shack is still in operation at the pit, but it's worth a stop. Last time I was there (a few years back) they still played a periodic noise blast meant to scare away birds after the flock of geese died after landing on the water in 1995.

Have got to check out some of Hammett's work now...
posted by msbrauer at 7:02 PM on November 15, 2007

posted by Smedleyman at 1:21 PM on November 16, 2007

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