Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and the Socialist- Dashiell Hammett and Red Harvest

When the Bruce Willis movie Last Man Standing came out in 1996, astute viewers noticed that the plot was essentially the same as the Sergio Leone classic A Fist Full of Dollars.  That movie, as many know, is itself a remake of the Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo.  What is less known is that for his film Kurosawa sought inspiration in the Western, and took his plot almost entirely from the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest.

While best known as the creator of Sam Spade, Hammett’s most frequent character is the Continental Op, who appeared in a number of short stories as well as the novels The Dain Curse and Red Harvest.  The Op is a nameless detective (much like Leone and Eastwood’s later Man with No Name) working for the Continental Agency, a thinly disguised version of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  In Red Harvest, he is hired to investigate a murder in the Prohibition era mining town of Personville, aka “Poisonville”, deep in the Rockies.  The crime is quickly solved, but The Op settles in to dig further into the vice and corruption of this remote town.  Setting one side against the other, feuding gangs and politicians descend on each other in a frenzy, letting The Op cynically observe humanity at its worst.

Hammett had an amazing career, moving from Pinkerton detective to mystery writer to socialist agitator.  Red Harvest is the amalgamation of all those aspects of Hammett.  Red Harvest has been described as a novelization of Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, the work that brought us “life is nasty, brutish, and short” without the rule of law.  Hammett exposes this darkness of the West in this classic.  As the Native American faded and the United States advanced, there was always a borderland of lawlessness that Hammett captures perfectly in Red Harvest.

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