aking inspiration from his personal experience working as a company detective for the Pinkerton Agency, author Dashiell Hammett first introduced readers to the modern antihero in the pages of pulp publications such as Black Mask Magazine before reworking a collection of previously published short stories into his debut novel, Red Harvest, in February of 1929. That book follows the original Man with No Name: a short, stocky, middle-aged and mean-spirited private detective, known only as The Continental Op, as he strolls into a crime-ridden Midwestern mining town nicknamed Poisonville and quickly sets to work “opening [it] up from Adam’s apple to ankles” by playing its competing factions — rival bootleggers, crooked cops, the local robber baron — against one another until he’s the last man standing. When the final body hits the floor, he packs up his belongings and moves on to the next job.
Even if you’ve never read Red Harvest, you’ve likely encountered it in one form or another. Along with being the most important work in the canon of hardboiled detective fiction, its influence on the medium of film can’t be overstated. Hammett’s signature style helped set the tone for many of the most popular genres to come out of classic Hollywood in the years surrounding World War II, particularly the gangster film, the film noir, and the revisionist, psychological Western.
That same period also saw a handful of direct adaptations of Hammett’s work, most notably the charming and comedic The Thin Man (1934), which spawned a six-film franchise, and John Huston’s adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (1941), which cemented star Humphrey Bogart as the greatest leading man of his era. Prior to these efforts, an attempt was made to bring Red Harvest to screen, but the result, the musical comedy Roadhouse Nights (1930), jettisoned most of the novel’s plot and all of its tone. If you didn’t already know it was inspired by the novel, you would never guess from watching it.
Despite this initial failure, Red Harvest would eventually make its way to the cinema, albeit in a roundabout way. The Continental Op proved true to his handle, becoming the model upon which Japanese director Akira Kurosawa based the protagonist of his exceedingly violent and darkly comic Yojimbo (1961). In that film, Toshiro Mifune plays a wandering ronin (or, masterless samurai) named Sanjuro (“30-years year old”) who happens upon a desolate village ravaged by two warring gangs. Realizing he can make a killing by, well, making a killing, he rents himself out as a bodyguard and assassin to both sides, thinning their numbers through a series of convoluted schemes before personally chopping down their remaining members during the film’s ultra-bloody climax.
Kurosawa’s ronin isn’t a carbon copy of Hammett’s detective: Sanjuro starts out as the more mercenary of the two before revealing that he’s not really a bad guy, risking his plot and his life to reunite a family torn apart by one of the gangs. This is a far cry from the Continental Op, who never once betrays a hint of mercy or sympathy for anyone he meets, and who, by the end of the novel is nearly driven mad — or, as he puts it, “blood simple” — from his murderous orchestration.
The introduction of this plot point in Yojimbo is important not only in that it draws a distinction between Kurosawa’s ultimate humanism and Hammett’s bone-deep cynicism, but also because it leads to a prolonged torture and escape scene that somewhat muddles the cinematic legacy of Red Harvest. Said scene bears so unmistakable a resemblance to one from the 1942 adaptation of another of Hammett’s novels, the political mystery thriller The Glass Key (1931), that it’s caused debate between film scholars and Kurosawa biographers as to whether the impetus for Yojimbo might not have come straight from that film. That’s entirely possible, although ultimately, Yojimbo’s overarching plot, combined with its emphasis on action and macabre violence, hews too close to Hammett’s earlier novel for the connection to be dismissed.
No such ambiguity surrounds the next version of this narrative to hit screens: Sergio Leone’s breakout hit A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which transplants the story to a Mexican-American border town in the early days of the Wild West and turns the wandering samurai into a roaming gunslinger, is a naked rip-off of Yojimbo. It’s also a gorgeous and relentlessly entertaining work of art in its own right, something Kurosawa made sure to note when he sued Leone for copyright infringement (the parties settled out of court and Kurosawa netted 15% of Dollars’ worldwide take), noting the Italian maestro had made “a fine movie, but it was my movie." For his part, Leone claimed he was merely returning the story to its North American roots, specifically citing Red Harvest as one of his main influences. But while he may well have been familiar with Hammett’s novel during the writing of Dollars, it’s clear as day that his main touchstone was Kurosawa’s film.
Regardless, the worldwide mega-success of Dollars not only kicked off a decade-long boom of Spaghetti Westerns and turned Clint Eastwood into a bona fide screen icon, it also entrenched the charismatic antihero into the popular consciousness. You could see its central narrative showing up in all sorts of weird places, getting a futuristic spin in 1985 with the third entry in George Miller’s Australian post-apocalyptic saga, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, although the film unwisely jettisons this storyline during its dire second act.
Ten years later, the story got a proper update with Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis as the mysterious John Smith, a drifter who inserts himself in the middle of a gang war in order to bring down both sides. Hill — arguably the best American action director of his generation — returns the story to its original Prohibition-era setting, although, like Dollars, it moves the action from the Midwest to a dusty Southwest border town. While his film is nowhere near as artful or memorable as the Kurosawa’s or Leone’s, it’s still a fun, expertly made romp.
Technically a remake of Yojimbo, Last Man Standing is also the first cinematic incarnation of the story, not counting Roadhouse Nights, to officially credit one of its predecessors as an original source. Fittingly, this led to a number of headaches for Hill, as the rights holders of both A Fist Full of Dollars and Red Harvest threatened to sue him for theft of intellectual property, although neither party carried through with legal action.
That there was a litigious party holding the movie rights to Hammett’s original novel brings up an interesting question: Why, given its influence on so many iconic films, not to mention the enduring popularity of other Hammett adaptations, hasn’t anyone made a straight up Red Harvest movie?
It’s not as though none have tried: In an article charting the book’s slippery cinematic lineage, writer Allen Barra notes a long list of directors and screenwriters rumored to have taken up the project at one point or another, including heavy hitters such as Mel Gibson, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, James Ellroy, Barry Gifford, and Donald Westlake. The closest anyone came to actually seeing it through was the late Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, a fitting choice given he was one of the screenwriters on Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which shares more than a little of its DNA with Red Harvest. Bertolucci co-wrote two drafts of Red Harvest (one that set the action amongst socialist syndicates in the 1920s and one that was more faithful to the original story) and discussed the lead role of The Continental Op with a murderer’s row of leading men: Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and, in what would have proven a truly meta twist, Clint Eastwood. Alas, the project was never realized and today the film is relegated to the canon of the greatest movies never made.
Dashiell Hammett never got to see the scope of Red Harvest’s cinematic influence for himself, having died the same year Yojimbo was released. By the time he passed, he had long been retired as a writer and had fallen into despair and disrepute as a result of his troubles with the government during the McCarthy red scare. Hammett, always a devout leftist, became an outspoken communist following the Second World War, and his refusal to name names during the government’s witch hunt resulted in a six-month prison sentence, blacklisting, and the purging of his books from State Department libraries (they were later reinstated by personal decree of President Eisenhower, an unapologetic fan of Hammett’s). By the time of his death, and for many years afterwards, his books remained out of print, although they returned to shelves during the noir revival of the ’80s and early ’90s. That revival also led to a resurgence of interest in Hammett on film, with three feature-length homages to the man and his work — all of which borrow liberally from Red Harvest — being produced between 1982 and 2005.
(In the spirit of completism, it bears noting that Jason Robards played Hammett in the 1977 drama Julia, about his longtime lover and partner, the dramatist Lillian Hellman.)
The first of these was the speculative biopic Hammett (1982), which starred Frederic Forrest as the writer and Peter Boyle as an old colleague who served as the inspiration for the Continental Op. Initially directed by Wim Wenders, but later reshot by producer Francis Ford Coppola, Hammett is mostly remembered for its troubled production, although the finished film is not nearly as dire as its reputation would have you believe, and it works as a fun, if messy, meta-murder mystery.
That said, it can’t hold a candle to the Coen Brother’s Hammett pastiche, Miller’s Crossing (1990), which remains the most faithful and thorough cinematic translation of the writer’s work yet, in terms of both style and substance. The Coens, who announced themselves as Hammett devotees right out the gate with title of their first film, Blood Simple (1984), mostly use The Glass Key as their touchpoint, although entire scenes, such as one in which an army of bulls (read: cops) unload thousands of rounds into a small speakeasy, as well as whole lines of dialog (“What’s the rumpus?”), are lifted straight from Red Harvest.
Much the same can be said for Rian Johnson’s feature debut, Brick (2005), which, like Miller’s Crossing, combines plot elements, bits of dialog and various character types from several Hammett stories for a modern-day update that transplants the action to a high school setting. On paper, that idea sounds unbearably precious, but Johnson, like the Coens, stays true to the spirit of Hammett — arguably more so than many of their more iconic predecessors — by making his central character an utterly unsentimental bastard in the vein of the Continental Op.
Ultimately, that archetype — the mercenary loner playing both sides against the middle — remains Hammett’s greatest contribution to cinema, regardless of whether filmmakers soften him up or not. Along with the wandering ronin, conniving gunslingers, and cold-blooded flatfeet already mentioned, several other popular antiheroes in all of pulp and pop culture can be counted among his progeny, including Philip Marlowe, Snake Plissken, and even Han Solo (especially Han Solo: Besides all of the visual references to Kurosawa throughout Star Wars, the working title of Return of the Jedi was “Blue Harvest,” in direct homage to Hammett’s novel).
Though he died before any of these films were released, Hammett himself must have been given some glimpse into the future when he hit upon the title for his blood-soaked bastard of a novel, because when it comes to cinema, few pieces of literature have reaped a greater bounty than Red Harvest.
Zach Vasquez writes about film and literature. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Crime Reads, Crooked Marquee and more.