Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Book: Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Novelist James Reasoner recently wrote on his blog about the impact of having a teacher talk to you about a book you’re reading. It’s a powerful moment that hints that the transition to adult life might not be as hard as you think, and may already have started.

I remember how grown-up I felt when Miss Clark asked me how I was enjoying Martin Cruz Smith’s GORKY PARK. I was even reading the U.K. edition that I’d picked up in Ireland. I was quite the young sophisticate, in my smoking jacket from Botany 250.

The most memorable of these encounters came on the first day of my first college English course. The professor wanted to begin with beginnings, and hit us with this opening paragraph:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

On day one of college, I was taught that the kind of books I wanted to read actually mattered. I still consider that knowledge a gift.

As soon as class ended I ran to the library and checked out a copy of RED HARVEST. That night, I read it for the first time. I revisited it most recently the other day. It’s still a staggering piece of work, a relentless narrative engine that’s also a definitive exploration of corruption.

I made a point of watching MILLER’S CROSSING again after I reread it. It’s said that the Coen Brothers wrote this script in frustration after being unable to secure the rights to HARVEST. The result is a Hammett pastiche that captures the flavor of much of his work. The Coens continue to use this approach to great effect; THE BIG LEBOWSKI riffs on Chandler and in particular Robert Altman’s adaptation of THE LONG GOODBYE, while THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is the best unofficial James M. Cain movie there is.

Miscellaneous: Craig, Daniel Craig

Rumors that Craig would be the new James Bond have been circulating for months. Now that Variety and Slate have picked up the story, it’s seeming more like reality.

Craig is a fine actor – if you haven’t seen LAYER CAKE, rent it at once – and his casting, if true, hints that the 007 producers may finally be serious about reinventing the character in a meaningful way.

Conventional wisdom holds that a franchise part like James Bond can straitjacket an actor. I don’t buy it. Playing Bond put Pierce Brosnan in interesting films like THE TAILOR OF PANAMA. And no one worked the role like Sean Connery. During the height of his 007 fame, he appeared in movies as varied as MARNIE, THE HILL and THE OFFENCE. I’d love to see an actor of Craig’s caliber in films half as demanding.