January 9, 2007


Kurosawa's Red Harvests (GARY GIDDINS, January 9, 2007, NY Sun)

Dashiell Hammett's first novel, 1929's "Red Harvest" has a shadowy movie history. A milestone in crime fiction, it thumbs its nose at the legions that attempt to adapt it: Despite countless treatments, it has never been filmed. Upon its publication, Paramount bought it for producer Walter Wanger, who, had he trusted the book, might have got the jump on 1931's "Little Caesar" and the Warners gangster cycle. Instead, he replaced Hammett's operative with a dopey newspaperman and framed the plot as a vehicle for singer Helen Morgan. The result, 1930's "Roadhouse Nights," is now valued only for preserving the legendary nightclub act of Clayton, Jackson, and Durante -- it was Jimmy Durante's first talkie.

"Red Harvest" may be too novelistic to suit the movies: If the laughably high body count is cinematically apt, the profusion of characters, gin-soaked dialogue, and sequential mysteries are more of a challenge. Yet it introduced or at least popularized three concepts that movies have gnawed on for decades, without attribution.

The first is the detective as avenging angel, often transposed to the West -- in "Shane," "Bad Day at Black Rock," "High Plains Drifter," the television series "Have Gun, Will Travel" and its urban remake, "The Equalizer," and many others.

The second is the link between business and crime: The town's thugs are brought to power when legitimate capitalist interests are corrupted by greed -- an abiding Marxist critique so commonplace that it is hardly noticed in films as diverse as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "The Roaring Twenties," "This Gun for Hire," "Force of Evil," "On the Waterfront," or "The Godfather."

The signal concept, however, is the one that guns the plot: The stranger pretends to hire out to all sides, manipulating them into mutual self-destruction. This device, coupled with one or both of the others, marks a film as a "Red Harvest" baby, a category brought to fruition in "Yojimbo" and then diminished by various degrees in such variations as "A Fistful of Dollars," "Miller's Crossing," and "Last Man Standing." Kurosawa, who sued Leone for stealing his film ("A Fistful of Dollars" was released in America with no writing credits), not only denied a Hammett connection but expressed surprise that no one before him had thought to exploit a rivalry between two "equally bad" sides. Actually, Homer had hit that one out of the park.

Kurosawa borrowed more than just concepts. The scene in "Yojimbo" in which one gang blows up a rival's stronghold and butchers the unarmed leaders is taken straight from "Red Harvest." More to the point, the character of Sanjuro has several points in common with Hammett's detective. He won't work without a client and advance payment; his morality is far from mercenary and he takes orders from no one (least of all clients); he is physically vulnerable, and he has no name. The Op takes a new alias every time he checks into a hotel.

Still, "Yojimbo" is quintessential Kurosawa, and an inspired example of solving the problems of adaptation.

We've referred to Red Harvest as a Rosetta Stone of the hard-boiled mystery.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2007 8:11 AM
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