Samurai, cowboys, and gangsters: the hidden, violent movie history of Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest”

By on December 28, 2015

Strange but true: Dashiell Hammett’s fantastic 1929 hardboiled novel Red Harvest has spawned no less than four movie adaptations — including two certified genre classics — but has never been credited on the screen as the original source material.

The book was the debut full-length work by Hammett, who would go on to create such enduring screen characters as detectives Sam Spade (in The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (in The Thin Man). However, screenwriting sleight-of-hand robbed the writer of full credit for his blood-soaked work, which spawned the samurai opus Yojimbo (1961), the spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and the gangster sagas Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Last Man Standing (1996).

Originally serialized in the tough-guy pulp magazine Black Mask, Red Harvest featured a protagonist/narrator already familiar to readers of Hammett’s short stories: the short, fat, hard-drinking, and clever operative of the Continental Detective Agency known only as the Continental Op. (Hammett never gave him a name.)

The book was inspired by Hammett’s own early career at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was frequently hired by industrialists to break strikes, employing any means necessary. The writer’s biographer Diane Johnson suggests that he may have been involved in the 1917 murder of a union organizer named Frank Little in Butte, Montana.

In the novel, the lone wolf detective arrives in a corrupt, lawless Montana town named Personville (known as “Poisonville” by some) at the behest of a local mining magnate and newspaper publisher, whose empire is being threatened by the warring gangs of mobsters he hired to bust up a labor conflict and have now taken over the city’s rackets. The first corpse hits the pavement in the novel’s first few pages, and the bodies pile up so fast and so high that the Op himself loses count at 19 or so.

Amid the mounting carnage, the Op manages to stay alive by playing the murderous thugs and on-the-take cops against one another. Like Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the nameless detective, who is not afraid to ignore the letter of the law, uses the snares and tactics of his criminal adversaries to defeat them at their own game.

Hollywood made only one ill-fated attempt to translate Hammett’s book to the screen, in the little-seen early 1930 talkie Roadhouse Nights. The Op became a newspaperman played by comedic actor Charlie Ruggles, and the film itself dispensed with most of the plot to become a vehicle for two singers, Helen Morgan (the star of Show Boat on Broadway) and vaudevillian Jimmy Durante.

It was left to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima to make the first, savage movie version of Red Harvest, 31 years later, as Yojimbo (The Bodyguard).

Transplanting the action to provincial Japan in 1860 and dramatically paring down Hammett’s byzantine plot, the movie follows the machinations of a lone ronin – a masterless samurai – who wanders into a nearly deserted town ravaged by violence and disorder. (Played by Kurosawa’s frequent star Toshiro Mifune, he assumes the moniker “Sanjuro,” though his true name is never known.) Deserted by its law-abiding citizens, the city is being torn apart by conflict between a pair of rival gangs in the service of two wealthy adversaries, a sake brewer and a silk merchant.

All the elements that would reappear in later versions of the story are in place here. A master swordsman, Sanjuro sells his services to both sides in the conflict, flip-flopping his loyalties from one minute to the next. His only ally is the town saloon keeper. He slyly rescues a married woman who has been taken as a hostage and concubine by one of the bosses and reunites her with her husband.

His deception is uncovered, and – in a sequence drawn from another serialized Hammett novel, The Glass Key (1931) – he is beaten nearly to death before making a dramatic escape, during which he witnesses the wholesale extermination of one of the gangs. Finally recovered from his wounds, he has a climactic duel with the other gang and its punk second-in-command Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), who owns the only pistol in the town.

Yojimbo was a great enough success that it spawned a sequel, the comedic Sanjuro, in 1962. Perhaps more importantly, a 1963 screening of Kurosawa’s original film at the Arlecchino cinema in Rome inspired a B-movie director to make a Western adaptation, which failed to credit its samurai derivation.

Sergio Leone’s low-budget 1964 feature A Fistful of Dollars – perhaps not the first “spaghetti Western,” but certainly the most famous – translated the elements of Kurosawa’s story to the fictitious Mexican border town of San Miguel. “Sanjuro” became a poncho-clad Western gun-for-hire played by Clint Eastwood, late of the American TV series “Rawhide.” (Though one character refers to Eastwood’s character as “Joe,” ads for the American release of the film pegged him as “The Man With No Name.”)

The battling factions of Kurosawa’s picture became two outlaw gangs tussling for control of the city, the Rojos (Mexicans) and the Baxters (Americans). The mercenary anti-hero’s main adversary, patterned after Unosuke, was the crazed Winchester rifle-wielding Ramon Rojo, played by the masterful Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte (incongruously billed as “Johnny Wels”). With one major plot addition – the massacre of a Mexican army detachment by the Rojos’ gang – the feature followed Kurosawa’s film point by point, with a uniquely gritty, sunbaked look and operatic approach that set the spaghetti Western style for all time.

Noting Red Harvest as the source of Yojimbo, Leone said in a 1971 interview, “What I wanted to do was to undress these [Japanese] puppets, and turn them into cowboys, to make them cross the ocean and to return to their place of origin.”

But Leone paid the price for his piracy. Sued for plagiarism by Kurosawa – who remarked in a letter to the Italian filmmaker, “[A Fistful of Dollars] is a very fine film, but it is my film” — he was forced to surrender 15% of the worldwide gross and turn over distribution rights of his film in Japan and the Far East to the Japanese director’s company. Undaunted, Leone brought back the Man With No Name in a pair of larger-scaled, more violent sequels, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), with Eastwood returning in his career-making role.

Oddly enough, the slam-bang action of Red Harvest and the heady box office receipts of its two adaptations did not inspire an American rendering of the story for decades. And, when it finally reached the screen for the first time, the tale ended up as an original pastiche of two Hammett novels.

Written by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen – who had used a phrase borrowed from Red Harvest as the title of their 1984 debut feature Blood Simple — and directed by Joel Coen, Miller’s Crossing reinstated the Prohibition-era setting of Hammett’s stories. The gang war conflict of Red Harvest is staged in the Coens’ feature between Irish mobster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and his Italian rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), who come to blows over the activities of Jewish bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro).

However, the film’s stormy central relationship, between O’Bannon and his fixer, friend, and confidant Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), replicates the alliance between mobbed-up political boss Paul Madvig and his faithful right-hand man Ned Beaumont, who fends off gangster Shad O’Rory’s power play in The Glass Key.

Despite its obvious derivations from Hammett’s books, Miller’s Crossing was a wholly original piece of work that transcended the uncredited glosses on its sources. The same could not be said for the other gangster-pic adaptation, Last Man Standing, which, while it more or less restored Hammett’s original setting, credited the Kurosawa-Kikushima script for Yojimbo as its inspiration.

Bruce Willis plays a freelance gunman calling himself “John Smith” – a name that draws cackles from his foes — who rolls into the Depression-era Texas border town of Jericho in a Model T Ford, packing two shoulder-holstered .45s and an immutably sullen expression. Dressing the ceaseless violence of the plot in a dusty neo-Leone palette, writer-director Walter Hill trots through Yojimbo’s original plot points, turning the warring factions into rival bootleggers (Irish and Italian, of course) and tacking on the massacre from A Fistful of Dollars to lift the body count.

Willis’ Smith is the putative hero of the piece, and, while he rescues the damsel in distress like his samurai and spaghetti Western predecessors, his relentless misogyny and utter humorlessness, and the actor’s silly, open-mouthed “shootout face,” make him a difficult figure to root for. The lone bright spot in the picture is the reliably weird Christopher Walken’s chilly turn as the scar-faced top gunman Hickey, a clone of his psycho precursors Unosuke and Ramon Rojo, who wields a Tommy gun instead of a pistol or a repeating rifle.

Last Man Standing is a poor excuse for an American rendering of Red Harvest, and it leaves one hoping that someday a truly gifted director will take up Hammett’s grimly funny, dark novel and its pudgy, boozy, cagey hero and give them the widescreen homegrown treatment they deserve. The book is an American classic, and it deserves a rendering in its own, long-buried name.

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).
  • Michael Reid

    Actually there was a 1978 Spaghetti Western adaption, and also titled Red Harvest by Julio Buch’s, and a 1984 adaption of the Yojimbo/Fistful version, produced by Roger Corman and starring David Carradine titled The Warrior And The Sorceress.

  • Vidar Vikingsson

    There is also an Icelandic viking film variation: When the Raven Flies (1984) But then, it seems that Hammett was a fan of the Icelandic sagas.