To call Dashiell Hammett the "creator" of the hard-boiled detective is to misunderstand his considerable achievement: He was the Prometheus of the private eye.
The detective as a standard character already existed in the early '20s. The subject of "The Case of Dashiell Hammett" (an hour documentary airing tonight at 9 on channels 26 and 32 and Saturday at 9 on 22) got his start writing -- a penny a word -- for such popular magazines as Black Mask, the monthly pulp founded by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Hemingway toyed with the genre (the vignettes of "In Our Time") which arguably came to its peak 10 years later with Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.
But it was Hammett who gave fire to that man, who defined his ambiguous ethics and mapped his peculiarly bleak domain. Sam Spade and the Continental Op were true antiheroes because they had abjured -- or had never aspired to -- a "good" end, or even a self-righteous one. If they were loyal, it was at least partly because loyalty pays better. If they made compromises, it was because the world was already running on compromise.
They were men who articulated a code only in the negative: "Listen," says Spade. "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him . . . It's bad business."
Hammett established all this in a decade of feverish invention, from 1922, when his first short story appeared, to 1933, when "The Thin Man" was finished -- a total output of five novels and 62 short stories. For the last long 28 years of his life, he wrote virtually nothing. It is that paradox -- Hammett's immense influence and then his long silence -- that dominates this show.
There is nothing new in the compendium of quotations, interviews and film clips (Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon," of course, George Raft in "The Glass Key" and William Powell in "The Thin Man"). It's a visual rehash of the 1975 cover story of San Francisco's city magazine, spiced up with snippets of Lillian Hellman and Francis Ford Coppola's (again-delayed) "Hammett," starring Frederic Forrest.
Still, for those who are just discovering Hammett (a revival the show rather narrowly attributes to the publication of Hellman's various memoirs), it will be fascinating to sift through his several lives: his stint with the Pinkerton Agency, which gave him the raw material for his stories; his enlistment in both World Wars; the tuberculosis which indirectly forced him to begin writing; his 30-year affair with Hellman; his Marxist organizing and his intransigence in the HUAC hearings.
There are flaws: Lyle Talbot, who gives voice to Hammett and his characters, sounds like Jason Robards imitating Bogart as Spade. The solemn script is completely lacking in the irony essential in Hammett. Nick Charles is called a disappointing creation, despite its revealing self-caricature -- the hero standing on his own clay feet.
The conclusion of producer/writer Stephen Talbot, that Hammett ceased to write because he couldn't reach beyond his personal detective experience, overlooks another explanation hinted at by his relentless encouragement of Hellman. It seems more likely that he stopped writing because he knew himself incapable of a second "creation" as pure, and would not stand for second best.
Whatever the reason for the Hammett revival, it's a blessed resurrection. Fans of Jim Rockford will recognize his progenitor, and those who dislike the whimsy of Lord Peter Wimsey will hit rock bottom. As Chandler said, "Hammett took murder out of the parlor, and dropped it into the alley where it belonged."