“You like stories, don’t you?” Peter Boyle’s Jimmy Ryan knows how much Samuel Dashiell Hammett appreciates a good yarn, and as played by Frederic Forrest in Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), the German director’s first American feature, this renowned writer is about to get mixed up in a doozy. The scene is 1928 San Francisco. Ryan, who has been providing fodder for Hammett’s fictional material, appears in the flesh, swiftly entangling his former associate in a mysterious criminal scheme involving a Chinese prostitute named Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei). The film subsequently unfolds in a knowingly multifaceted fusion of perspectives, with the reality of the crime on one level, seen through the eyes of Hammett, the writer and ex-Pinkerton detective, on another, and the entire collusion realized in Wenders’ self-consciously stylized interpretation. Close-ups of Hammett’s Underwood typewriter, as well as the early concern over his latest manuscript, add to the film’s emphasis on craft, on professional process; and from there, Hammett’s current notoriety as a writer of penny dreadfuls regularly overlaps with his gumshoe expertise, which itself often runs counter to more “official” law enforcement. Hammett is told he’s in the “habit of fantasy,” fitting enough for an affected homage like Hammett, which feels like a fevered dream of the genre’s essentials. Yet while the suggestion is that his day-to-day shouldn’t be viewed as a page torn from one of his riveting texts, as Hammett himself observes, life “never is like a story” anyway.
Wenders’ exaggerated vision of crime fiction saturates Hammett in a coating of underworld grandeur. With ardently synthetic production design by Dean Tavoularis, the film embraces a veritable checklist of the form’s standard features, from ubiquitous cigarettes and liquor bottles to trench coats, Venetian blinds, and the characters’ schematic vernacular. The setting is rich with indicative props and period detail, and the cinematography by Joseph Biroc and Philip H. Lathrop savors deep shadows and a tawdry, hard-boiled aesthetic (one brief conversation is shot via the projected silhouettes of its participants). The animated atmosphere busies itself at every turn, revealing layers of setting through narrow, canted alleyways and exposed glass floors, ceilings, and windows, all simulating compositions of contorted vertical and horizontal amplitude. Procuring a pulpy, spectral past, Wenders, the adamant cinephile, offers up an amalgam of technique and distinguishing plot points, a neo-noir boasting its lavish allotment of seductive dames who only mean trouble, gambling, vice, and the pervasive, dangerous brew of sex and violence.
Cut to 18 years later, and Wenders is again on the case, a much more eccentric case to be sure. His 2000 film The Million Dollar Hotel stars Mel Gibson as FBI agent Skinner, a grizzled, no-nonsense detective keen on surveillance and digital communication and prone to his fair share of underhanded tactics. As much as Hammett plays on the tropes of the tried and true investigation, The Million Dollar Hotel is an unorthodox sojourn into a delirious inquiry unbound by any sense of familiarity. This probe concerns the apparent death of hotel resident Izzy (Tim Roth), the son of a Hollywood billionaire, and its scenario is largely funneled through the voiceover musings of Tom Tom, the building’s resident idiot savant, played by Jeremy Davies, who initiates the film’s melancholic opening (featuring his own suicide) and guides the ensuing flashback through the days preceding his fatal leap.
The milieu of The Million Dollar Hotel is, by comparison to Hammett (by comparison to almost any other film, really), an outlandish hodge-podge of characters and characteristics. The inhabitants of its central locale, which bears signage proudly touting its “fire proof” constitution, form a bizarre community of eccentrics, a “freakshow” according to Skinner’s LAPD chaperone (Donal Logue). It’s a congregation of unconventional individuals steeped in their openly acknowledged craziness, and like the geographically solitary world of Hammett, rendered by the exclusivity of its imitation set design and the informing relation to its characters, The Million Dollar Hotel similarly contains a wholly isolated segment of the populace, a flea-pit on the margins of society inhabited by its lost souls. The film is unsettled throughout, teeming with an eclectic, often absurd roster of characters, including Gloria Stuart as the elderly Jessica, who gives perhaps the film’s most telling line—“What the hell, we’re all fucked up”; Jimmy Smits as Geronimo, a Native American artist with a dubious past; and Peter Stormare as Dixie, who hails from Liverpool and claims to be the fifth, unrecognized member of The Beatles. Partly profiting from Gibson’s star stature, there is in his presence some degree of stable acquaintance, but even that is undercut by Skinner’s robotic movements, necessitated by a metallic brace worn around his back and neck, which has something to do with a prior procedure to remove a third arm growing out of his back (don’t ask, because the film doesn’t answer).
As their respective stories progress, Wenders incorporates in both The Million Dollar Hotel and Hammett themes of loyalty and duplicity, as opposing factions within each scenario reveal their gestating animosities and come to terms with their lives in transition. These lives, however, are seldom what they seem. Hammett, which thrives on its tough talk and cynicism, takes its dogged low-life hero and traps him in web of conspiratorial giddiness derived from the genre’s penchant for narrative entanglement. Featuring an associative host of classic cinematic cameos (Sam Fuller, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sylvia Sidney, Royal Dano, and Hank Worden), Hammett attempts to reach a cohesive conclusion, even highlighting a scene where Hammett provides a circular summarization as he pieces together the network of criminality. But in The Big Sleep tradition, the particulars of its twisting and turning prove almost immaterial, and Wenders and company prove more committed to the intriguing meanderings of its plot-in-progress than any firm resolution.
The Million Dollar Hotel
The Million Dollar Hotel, which is in many ways inexplicable from the start, takes the blurring of reality as a stated and implied central impetus. Infatuated with the Eloise, an ethereal creature played by Milla Jovovich, who is perhaps even further removed from reality than the rest of the hotel’s quirky denizens, Tom Tom is told by Izzy, “No-one can hurt her. She’s not even there.” Indeed, she repeatedly moves like an elusive shadow, and certain poignant sequences between she and the besotted Tom Tom—his twitchy, sweet tenderness is as romantic as it can be overbearing—are sped up or slowed down, realized like transcendent moments in time. Even away from the confines of its eponymous hotel, as Skinner ventures out to the surrounding city, the picture adopts the ambiance of an other-worldly realm, a post-apocalyptic nightlife full of strangers in a strange land. Wenders had at one point actually considered a science fiction film called “The Billion Dollar Hotel,” which seems to still have remnants in place here.
Hammett rests on the concepts of a fixed, familiar framework, within which Wenders hits on any number of touchstones. Ultimately, it doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is, on the surface. The Million Dollar Hotel, on the other hand, is a mishmash of tones and intentions; it is equal parts love story, murder mystery, and coming of age drama. What both films do share, however, are convoluted backstories. Written by Ross Thomas and Dennis O’Flaherty, the basic premise of The Million Dollar Hotel, which was shot in and around the real-life Rosslyn Million Dollar Hotel, was developed by U2’s iconic front man, Bono, who was originally to play Tom Tom and does appear for a few seconds in the completed film. He thought up the germ of a story while filming the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” on the roof of a liquor store some thirteen years prior. With a budget of $8 million, the film opened to just $29,483 in the United States, and although it won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2000, Gibson, who co-produced the picture through his Icon Productions, nevertheless quipped during a press conference, “I thought it was as boring as a dog’s ass,” an evaluation he later walked back.
Less distinguished by pop culture randomness and more by the intricate absurdities of Hollywood filmmaking, Hammett was based on a 1975 Joe Gores novel, with credit for its script going to Thomas Pope, who was, apparently, one of fifteen other rumored contributors. Francis Ford Coppola brought Wenders in to direct the film, for the former’s Zoetrope Studios, but a ballooning budget ($27 million against its own $2.5 million haul on release) and dissatisfaction over Wenders’ original cut led to the reshooting of most, if not all, of the film. According to a 2008 AV Club story, in the final version of the movie, “only 30 percent of Wenders’ footage remained, and the rest was completely reshot by Coppola, whose mere ‘executive producer’ credit is just a technicality.” While the first version was shot entirely on location in San Francisco, according to Wenders, “In the final product ten shots survived from my original shoot: only exteriors. … So I ended up shooting the second version as well. That was entirely in one sound stage. The whole shoot never saw the light of day, except for a couple of shots from the first, maybe 5% of the film from the first version.”
For all its faults, though (and it has several), The Million Dollar Hotel isn’t anywhere close to being “as boring as a dog’s ass.” And Hammett is nowhere near as bad as its contentious production might suggest. If either film seems to falter in any regard, it’s more a case of Wenders forever working in the shadow of prior or subsequent achievements: Alice in the Cities (1974), Kings of the Road (1976), The American Friend (1977), Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987), Until the End of the World (1991). It’s been one tough act to follow after another, so it’s easy to excuse the occasional oddball release. What matters most—and in this, these two films certainly succeed—is that there’s a good story to be told. And everybody likes stories, don’t they?