Dashiell Hammett: Getting Witty With It

The Nov 1924 edition of Black Mask magazine, containing The Golden Horseshoe by Dashiell HammettWe generally prefer Raymond Chandler to Dashiell Hammett, as much for Chandler’s wit as anything else, but we’ve been reading some of Hammett’s early Continental Op short stories of late and very much enjoying them, especially a passage from a novelette called The Golden Horseshoe that ran in Black Mask magazine in November 1924.

In this scene, Hammett’s short but rotund detective is in Tijuana tracking down a dissolute poet who is on the lam. The Op has just entered the bar that gives the story its name when the reader is treated to the following first-person passage:

I walked down the room and sat at a table in one of the stalls. A lanky girl who had done something to her hair that made it purple was camped beside me before I had settled in my seat.

“Buy me a little drink?” she asked.

The face she made at me was probably meant for a smile. Whatever it was, it beat me. I was afraid she’d do it again, so I surrendered.

We don’t mind admitting that made us laugh out loud, something we’ve not often done when reading Hammett. Nicely played, sir. Nicely played, indeed.

Happy 110th Birthday, Mary Astor!

Mary Astor, born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke 110 years ago today in Quincy, Illinois, is probably best remembered now for her portrayal of Brigid O’Shaughnessy opposite Humphrey Bogart in John Huston‘s 1941 cinematic adaptation of Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon, but she had an impressively long career, appearing in more than 120 motion pictures, including 45 silent films, and notching more than 30 credits on television in the 1950s and ’60s. Astor won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar for her work in The Great Lie (1941).

Mary Astor also was the author of five novels, an autobiography and a career memoir.

Happy birthday, Ms. Astor, wherever you may be!

Mary Astor

Hammett, hardboiled

Dashiell Hammett, the man most responsible for the rise of hardboiled detective fiction, would have been 116 today.

The litany of his best work is quite impressive, indeed: The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and many dozens of short stories. Though his most famous creations are Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles (having Humprey Bogart, William Powell, and Myrna Loy bring those characters to life on the silver screen no doubt has something to do with that), the protagonist Hammett, himself once a Pinkerton Detective, turned to most frequently was The Continental Op, a short, pudgy middle-aged detective for the Continental Detective Agency.

We’re unapologetic Raymond Chandler fans here at Cladrite Radio — for our money, he’s king of the hardboiled hill — but we think Hammett is aces, too, and we certainly agree that he played a vital role in legitimizing what was then a new genre of detective fiction. Hammett may not have invented hardboiled mysteries, but he opened the door for the literary world to give detective fiction its due and he was a huge influence on so many writers that followed him — Chandler and Ross Macdonald chief among them. As Chandler wrote in his essay on the art of the mystery, The Simple Art of Murder, Hammett “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

If you’ve never read Hammett, you have many options as to where you might begin. You could start with some of the Continental Op stories or perhaps our favorite of Hammett’s novels, The Maltese Falcon. Whichever you choose, you’re sure to be left wanting more when you’ve turned the last page. Hammett’s is a habit-forming oeuvre.

The stuff that dreams are made of

Mary Astor is perhaps best remembered today for her role as femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the third — and, of course, by far best known — version of Dashiell Hammett‘s The Maltese Falcon, John Huston‘s 941 remake in which Astor starred opposite Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet.

But Astor was a veteran actress by then, having already made 97 movies, more than 40 of them silent pictures, starting with 1921’s Bullets or Ballots.

If you’re not familiar with Astor’s rich and varied career, now’s your chance to get caught up just a bit. Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Astor’s 104 birthday by airing some of her pre-Falcon movies all day tomorrow — Monday, May 3.

Here’s the line-up:

6:15 a.m. — Beau Brummel (1924)
In this silent film, the legendary dandy takes on British society to court a lady above his station. Cast: John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Willard Louis. Dir: Harry Beaumont. BW-128 mins

8:30 a.m. — The Runaway Bride (1930)
A criminal gang goes after the jewels their dying leader stashed in a woman’s handbag. Cast: Mary Astor, Lloyd Hughes, David Newell. Dir: Donald Crisp. BW-66 mins

9:45 a.m. — The Sin Ship (1931)
A ship’s captain fights to protect a female passenger from his crew. Cast: Louis Wolheim, Mary Astor, Ian Keith. Dir: Louis Wolheim. BW-65 mins

11:00 a.m. — Smart Women (1931)
A woman plots to make her cheating husband jealous. Cast: Mary Astor, Robert Ames, Edward Everett Horton. Dir: Gregory La Cava. BW-68 mins

12:15 p.m. — Dinky (1935)
A military school cadet’s mother is framed and sent to prison. Cast: Jackie Cooper, Mary Astor, Roger Pryor. Dir: D. Ross Lederman. BW-65 mins

1:30 p.m. — Woman Against Woman (1938)
A divorcee decides she wants her husband back after he’s re-married. Cast: Mary Astor, Herbert Marshall, Virginia Bruce. Dir: Robert Sinclair. BW-61 mins

2:45 p.m. — There’s Always a Woman (1938)
While working on a simple case, married private eyes uncover a murder. Cast: Joan Blondell, Melvyn Douglas, Mary Astor. Dir: Alexander Hall. BW-81 mins

4:15 p.m. — Midnight (1939)
An unemployed showgirl poses as Hungarian royalty to infiltrate Parisian society. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, Mary Astor. Dir: Mitchell Leisen. BW-94 mins

6:00 p.m. — The Great Lie (1941)
Believing her husband to be dead, a flyer’s wife bargains with his former love to adopt the woman’s baby. Cast: Bette Davis, Mary Astor, George Brent. Dir: Edmund Goulding. BW-108 mins
Warm up those DVRs, pronto!