American Zoetrope

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It’s San Francisco, 1928. The rat-a-tat-tat sounds of a type-writer lead to a second-story window where a writer is observed at work. Images from the story he’s creating appear onscreen: A detective…A Dame…A car which crashes…A Chinese puzzle box…She disappears…He lights a cigarette… The words “The End” appear…and we’re back with the writer. He is Samuel Dashiell Hammett (FREDERIC FORREST) - Sam to his friends. After tucking his manucsript into an envelope, he takes a shot of whiskey and goes to bed.

While Hammett is sleeping, a man quietly enters his apartment. He looks around, turns on a light and begins reading the manuscript. He frowns, swears. Hammett awakens and stares at the figure as if at a ghost. It’s Jimmy Ryan (PETER BOYLE), an old friend from his Pinkerton days; more importantly, Hammett’s prototype for his fictional detective. Jimmy is uncomfortable with Hammett’s idealized portrait and perhaps envious of his success: After a few moments of edgy banter, they go out for a drink. Enroute, they bump into Emily Riordan (MARILU HENNER), Hammett’s downstairs neighbor and almost-girlfriend. After introductions and some help with grocery, they continue.

At Pops Pool Hall, Hammett tells Pops (ROYAL DANO) who Jimmy is. Pops is flabergasted but covers himself. The sudden appearance of a black-coated Punk (DAVID PATRICK KELLEY) throws Jimmy into a panic. He rushes into the billiard room and right out a side door. Hammett follows in bewilderment, noting an ill-conceived gun in Jimmy’s overcoat.

Jimmy’s blind panic propels them pell-mell into Chinatown. He won’t allow Hammett even a moment to mail the manuscript, nor will he level with him. He claims he’s in from Tacoma on a simple case involving a missing Chinese girl called Crystal, but before more is revealed, they’re lost. The sound of exploding firecrachers causes Jimmy to bolt into a dorway - and disappear.

In pursuit of his friend, Hammett surmbles into a brothel filled with girls and dunken customers, and quickly stumbles back outside where he comes upon Lt. Manion (R.G. ARMSTRONG) and Sgt. Brandford (ICHARE BRADFORD). The cops warn him keep out of this part of town.

As Hammett continues through Chinatown, he’s tailed by Elmer Salt (JACK NANCE), an odd sort of fellow who finally reveals that he, too, is looking for Jimmy Ryan. Together, they go to Cookie’s Star Bar. Jimmy’s nowhere in sight but someone else is: the sinister Punk. Salt, terrified, runs out.

Back at home, Hammett dejectedly admits to Emily that he has been led on a wild goose chase and lost his manuscript as well.

Next morning. Salt is at the door. He shows the writer a picture of Crystal and warns him to keep Jimmy away for her. Later, both Lt. Manion and Pops speak derogatorily of Jimmy Ryan. Hammett defends him but he’s worried; his imagination is piqued. He start sleuthing in earnest: A trip to the library is largely ineventful except for another encounter with the Punk, but a stopover at the Occidental Mission House is fruitful. Its respected director, Donaldina Cameron (SYLVIA SIDNEY), a protectress of young Chinese girls, reveals that Crystal is owned by one Fong Wei Tau but that she was last seen in the company of Salt. She also says that a man of Jimmy’s description came to see her recently.

Fong Wei Tau (MICHALE CHOW), a smooth-talking nightclub operator, is convinced Hammett knows the girl’s whereabouts, and has him badly beaten for refusing to divulge information. Hours later, Hammett regains consciousness in a back room of the club. A young Chinese girl who also believes he knows Crystal helps him escape. As she leads hi through an Opium Den, he is astonished to come upon Jimmy - stoned and glassy-eyed. Hammett drags him outside into an alley where they’re promptly arrested by Lt. Manion.

At City Hall, Hammett emerges from the grilling to find Salt, frantic for information about Crystal. It’s clear, now, that Hammett has become implicated in this case because of his association with Jimmy.

AT home, Hammett finds Jimmy regaling Emily with tall tales but still withholding vital information. They quarrel bitterly; Jimmy inadvertently drops the name “Hagedorn” before passing out in Hammett’s apartment.

The vicious Punk tries to prevent Hammett’s entering Hagedorn’s apartment but Hammett overpowers him and finds the man (ROY KINNEAR) in a sauna. Hagedorn offers Hammett a large sum of money to reveal the girl’s whereabouts, and ge definitively states that Jimmy Wright knows where she is. Hammett immediately returns home - but Jimmy has disappeared yet again. While carefully examining the picture of crystal, he discovers the words “Acme Photo Studio” on the back. Grabbing Emily by the hand, he takes off yet again.

The owner of the studio is Salt’s mother, Heloise (SYLVIA MILES), an eccentric woman who spills out her hatred of Crystal who was hidden in her home by Elmer for quite some time. She Kicks them out and leaves with her mousy assistant (MICHAEL A. NEIL). Hammett orders his faithful driver, Mike (ELISHA COOK), to follow them. The path takes them onto a ferry, into Oakland and to Salt’s home. Inside, Hammett finds Salt, beaten half to death and barely conscious. He admits he gave Jimmy’s name to his assailants.

As he return to San Francisco, Hammett begins putting all the pieces together. They don’t add up to anything honorable in regard to Jimmy. In a last-ditch attempt to salvage his image of his old Pinkerton buddy, the writer makes brief stops once again at Fong’s and Hagedorn’s. Both confirm his suspicions that Jimmy was playing against the other in an extortion game. Fong sends him to a flophouse where Jimmy is staying. Hammett finds Jimmy, hastily packing a suitcase and entirely without remorse for his trickery and double-dealing. He admits that Crystal had died some time back bu that he had not revealed this to either Fong or Hagedorn. He performs one decent action: he gives Hammett back the missing manuscript, conned form Fong who had stolen it in the hope that it might contain clues about the girl.

Hammett walks slowly and pensively back home, soon to begin a new story. His image of Jimmy Ryan is shattered; he’ll need a new model for his hero. And a new name. We hear thoughts... Spade... Sam Spade.

Hammett Frederic Forrest
Jimmy Ryan Peter Boyle
Kit Conger Marilu Henner
English Eddie Hagedorn Roy Kinnear
Eli the Taxi Driver Elisha Cook Jr.
Crystal Ling Lydia Lei
Lieutenant O'Mara R.G. Armstrong
Detective Tom Bradford Richard Bradford
Fong Wei Tau Michael Chow
The Punk David Patrick Kelly
Donaldina Cameron Sylvia Sidney
Gary Salt Jack Nance
Doc Fallon Elmer L. Kline
Pops Royal Dano
Barber Lloyd Kino
Director Wim Wenders
Screenwriter Joe Gores (Novel)
  Thomas Pope (Adaptation)
  Ross Thomas
  Dennis O'Flaherty
Producer Ronald Colby
  Francis Ford Coppola (Executive Producer)
  Fred Roos
Editor Marc Laub
  Barry Malkin
  Robert Q. Lovett
  Randy Roberts
Cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc
  Philip H. Lathrop
Original Music John Barry
Art Director Angelo P. Graham
  Leon Eriksen
Production Designer Dean Tavoularis
  Eugene Lee
Set Decorator Steven Potter
  George R. Nelson
Sound Cameron Frankley (Sound Editor)
  Richard Bryce Goodman
  Anthony Milch (Sound Editor)
  James E. Webb


The Motion Picture

The film, from a screenplay by Dennis O’Flahery, explores this “central tension” by placing Hammett in a fictionalized situation not unlike those he himself created. Set in San Francisco in 1928, the true-to-life aspect shows Hammett after he has left wife, advertising job and sleuthing, and begun to create a reputation for himself as a writer of detective stories. Success was just around the corner. The fictional aspect begins with an encounter between Hammett and an old buddy from Pinkerton days, Jimmy Wright. Recognizing himself as the hero worship of the older man; perhaps it’s the age-old struggle of the artist for a higher form of truth. In any event, the pedestal is way too high for Jimmy Wright’s comfort, but they put aside the momentary tension and go out for a drink.

They are barely seated at a local bar when inexplicable, sinister things begin to happen. Jimmy claims he’s in from Spokane on a simple case. But he won’t level with Hammett, and he’s nervous as a simple case. The sudden appearance of a local thug causes him to rum, and thus the writer becomes implicated in a labyrinthine chase, his onlyy clue an missing Chinese girl called Crystal. Hammett’s objective is to keep Jummy from getting hurt--- tho’ his well-honed instinct for rooting out rot plays no small part in keeping the adrenalin going.

Along the way, Hammett makes the acquaintance of a nononsense young woman named Emily who joins his efforts to resolve the dilemma Jimmy’s clearly incapable of solving himself. Hammett also learns some unpleasant facts about his old pal, the most sobering being Jimmy’s participation some years earlier in a murderous strike bust. As in all good thrillers, the facts - if not the truth - are finally revealed. Tiredly, newly disillusioned, Hammett returns to his typewriter. As he hits the keys, we hear the words. Will this experience with Jimmy knock the fictional detective off the pedestal? He plays with names a while, and soon we know who’ll be his new protagonist…Spade…Sam Spade.

Production Notes

Executive producer, Francis Ford Coppola, and producer, Fred Roos, optioned the right to Gores’ book in galley form. Their work on Apocalypse Now and The Black Stallion caused a delay in launching the project which began filming February 4 th in San Francisco at many of the same spots once frequented by Dashiell Hammett, returning to Los Angeles for eight weeks of location and studio work.

An aficionado of the detective thriller, Roos determined that the film should be a loving and authentic homage to a category of Hollywood movie which has come to be called film noir. Not precisely a genre like the gangster movie or the western, the noiresque film was made during the 1940’sand early 1950’s, and protrayed a world of dark, slick city streets, eeriness, betrayal and corruption. Some authorities cite John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon as the beginning of the original cycly, and Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil as the end of it. Other classic noiresque films include Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Farewell, My Lovely, Out of the Past and Kiss Me Deadly. Such contemporary films as Taxi Driver and Chinatown may be seen as part of the same tradition.

Noiresque films are characterized by a certain style, by subtle qualities of tone and mood, achieved to a major extent through lighting. Film scholars generally agree that these films were greatly influenced by the chiaroscuro lighting techniques brought to Hollywood by German Ex-patriates like Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Max Ophuls, Douglas Sirk among many others, and it is poetically fitting that Hammett should be directed by Wim Wenders, a young German filmmaker.

While in Europe, Fred Roos Heard Good things about an off-beat thriller called The American Friend, directed by Wenders. He flew to Paris to see it, and then right on to Munich for discussions with Wenders which led to his being hired to direct Hammett. Wim Wenders in one of the youngest and most esteemed members of the New German Cinema, a name critics and scholars have given to the body of work created by that country’s filmmakers over the past fifteen years. More that any others of this highlypraised group (Which includes Fassbinder, Herzog, Straub, Schlondorff), Wenders was influenced by American movies. “ I was born in Dusseldorf in ’45, two months after the war ended. Everything about German culture was suspect,” he has said. “I saw 30 or 40 Ford and Hawks films before I saw any European movies.”

This influence is apparent in each of Wenders’ six features, and overtly acknowledged in “The American Friend,” which stars Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz, and includes the presence of such noiresque directors an Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller. A trilingual film (German, English, French), shot partially in the United States, it explores - as “Hammett”- the ambiguities in male friendships.

Wenders moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to begin work on his first all-American feature. He selected Joseph Biroc, a distinguished cinematographer who shot literally dozens of noiresque features, as his director of photography. The production design is by Dean Tavoularis who did not onlt the two “Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now,”but also created the vivid, authntic settings for the 1975 re-make of “Farewell, My Lovely,” starring Robert Mitchum.

The central role of Dasheill Hammett is played by Fredric Forrest, who has received great praise for his work in two films released in 1979, The Rose and Apocalypse Now. His association with Messrs. Coppola and Roos began with The Conversation, and upon completion of Hammett, he will once again star in Coppola’s new film, One From the Heart.

Brian Keith plays the Burnt-out detective, Jimmy Wright. No Stranger toe the Genre, Keith starred in the NBC series, Archer, the central character in Ross MacDonald’s mystery noverls. He is also to be remembered as the staunch defender of law and order in Sam Pexkinpah’s 1960 TV series, The Westerner, and for his outstanding work in Reflections in a Golden Eye. Keith has just returned from Broadway where he starred in the play, Da.

The Role of Emily Riordan is played by newcomer, Mauilu Henner, one of the stars of the hit TV series, Taxi. The versatile young actress has worked on the stage (Grease, Over There, Pal Joey) and was outstanding in her two previous films, Bloodbrothers and Between the Lines.

Hammett’s supporting cast is headed by three truly inimitable performers: Sylvia Miles, Sylivia Sidney, Elisha Cook. Sylvia Miles received Oscar nominations for Midnight Cowboy and the 1975 version of Farewell, My Lovely. She was the star of Andy Warhol’s X-rated Heat and has appeared in innumerable plays, the most recent being Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre, in Great Britain.

Sylivia Sidney Began working on roadway at age 15. She received an Oscar nomination in 1974 for “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” and starred in such noiresque classics an Dead End, Fury, You Only Live Once, Blood on the Sun, The Woman Alone. Still active at age 76, Elisha Cook recently completed “Carny,” a film starring Gary Busey, Robbie Robertson and Jodie Foster. A memer of the original cast of the 1941version of The Maltese Falcon, Cook is assured a measure of screen immortality for his participation in that film as well as in The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, Don’t Bother to Knock and Rosemary’s Baby, amongst many, many others.