Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hammett and Hollywood

Waded into a sea of wankers at Toronto's Eaton Centre this afternoon, including one who talked and looked like Oliver Reeder from The Thick of It. Of course, we were at an espresso bar called Aroma, so what does that make me?
My favorite part of Richard Layman's introduction to Return of the Thin Man is its reference to Hammett during his time in Hollywood as a "stylish moneymaker."

The volume's two stories, After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man, are not novels but rather Hammett's screen stories for what became the movies of the same names (for which Hammett did not write the screenplays). Indeed, the beginning of the former reads like directions from a screenplay:
"A train whistle sounds as the Chief arrives slowly in the Santa Fe Station in San Francisco. A stateroom in the train is stacked high with hatboxes, and suitcases, books, flowers, magazines, half-empty boxes of fruit. Although it is afternoon, the stateroom is not yet made up."
And that reminds me of Lawrence Block's comment during his interview with Duane Swierczynski at Noircon 2012 in Philadelphia about Hammett as a seminal figure in the influence of the movies on novel writing. Said Block:
"I think it started the most obviously with Dashiell Hammett. He wanted to write screenplays."
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Anonymous Elisabeth said...

He wanted to write screenplays.

Well, he wanted to make money in Hollywood, which isn't the same thing.

His letters indicate that what he really wanted to write was novels, whether "mystery" fiction or otherwise, that would be taken seriously by influential reviewers. Hollywood money + celebrity (x's booze + dames) squashed that hope.

I don't think Hammett can really be considered "a seminal figure in the influence of the movies on novel writing" because his output for the movies was so small. It was like pulling teeth for a studio executive to get Hammett to provide him with a treatment, let alone a completed screenplay. If anyone has solid evidence to the contrary, it would surely add to Hammett's stature.

I think it's Hammett's enormous impact on the subsequent history of crime fiction writing that allows us to overmagnify his rather limited contributions to screenwriting.

November 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Block said nothing about Hammett's contributions to screenwriting. Rather, he said, the desire to be a screenwriter influenced Hammett's crime fiction. The question on the floor at the time was whether the movies had influenced novelists, and Block surprised people (or me, at least) by mentioning Hammett.

His idea was not that Hammett contributed anything to screenwriting but rather that Hammett wanted to write like the movies. The obvious inference is that the movies influenced Hammett, Hammett influenced almost everybody, and that therefore the movie exerted indirect influence on almost everybody.

November 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He did not address the question of why Hammett wanted to write for the movies. His own comments suggest that he might be entirely sympathetic to the possibility that a writer might turn to a given form for the money.

(Layman's quotations from Hammett's letter from Hollywood indicate a healthy and vigorous interest in money on Hammett's part.)

November 21, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

OK, I get that I misunderstood the comment.

Now where is the evidence that

the desire to be a screenwriter influenced Hammett's crime fiction ?

To borrow from Mark Twain, "Block's saying so don't make it so."

I've read 3 or 4 biographies of Hammett, a dozen or more books of Hammett criticism, interviews with Hammett, and all his published letters. I honestly don't recall ever reading this. I'm not surprised that "Block surprised people (or me, at least) by mentioning Hammett."

November 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

True. But don't forget that this setting was a casual conversation, not a critical study. What Block MIGHT HAVE meant was that Hammett's style strongly suggested screenplay writing. You know if someone likes to show off and live a hedonistic lifestyle and be the center of attention, you might say, "He want to be a rock and roll star"? MAYBE Block meant something similar about Hammett "wanting" to be a screenwriter.

Block has written a couple of books about writing. It might be interesting to see whether their indexes mention Hammett, screenwriting, or both.

November 21, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

What Block MIGHT HAVE meant was that Hammett's style strongly suggested screenplay writing.

OK, let's go with this supposition. (At least until I have a chance to look at Block's books about writing.)

What in Hammett's short story and novel style parallels that of the screenplay? Might it be the almost uninterrupted dialogue that makes up so much of The Thin Man? I think that's more akin to the playwright than the screenwriter. Other than that, I can't think of Hammett's style having much in common with screenwriting. Again, I'm open to being convinced otherwise.

Remember I've mentioned books that I don't like because they remind me of novelizations of screenplays? You know, the ones that have a lot of dialogue + a lot of description along the lines of "he opened the drawer and pulled out a sweater and put it on and saw a loose thread that he cut with a pair of scissors." The ones with minute details of the protagonists' environment (shunned by early crime fiction writers like Hammett to contemporary ones like Allan Guthrie) but very necessary to art directors and production designers of motion pictures.

Hammett's beautifully pared down, lean-mean style does not seem screenplay-ish to me.

November 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What can I tell you? Go ask Lawrence Block.

November 21, 2012  

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