Corrupt muckers and greedy vipers are indigenous to Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman's imaginations.
In "The Maltese Falcon," Hammett's Sam Spade, never a man of obvious honor, sends a double-dealing dame to the big house for killing his louse of a partner. Regina, matriarch of Hellman's "The Little Foxes," keeps a medicine bottle just out of her ailing and wealthy husband's reach, hastening his harrowing death.
As writers and companions, Hammett and Hellman dismissed love scenes in work and life. So A&E Network is making a dangerous proposition with "Dash and Lilly," Monday at 8 p.m.
The two-hour film, starring Sam Shepard and Judy Davis and directed by actress Kathy Bates, focuses on the writers' bleak, festering love story, all but excluding their literary impact.
That's an easy direction to follow considering how the film presents the writing process. Hammett goes fishing with Hellman one day and tells her to be a playwright instead of a mediocre short-story writer. Suddenly, she has written "The Children's Hour," her breakthrough work about how a child's lies ruin two teachers accused of carrying on a lesbian love affair.
Joan Mellen's biography, which reportedly informed some of Bates's direction, says Hammett wanted to write what became "The Children's Hour" but gave it instead to Hellman to jump-start her career in 1934. That play and others, however, seem effortless to develop and inconsequential when they appear.
More interesting to the filmmakers is the duo's 30-year affair, a time largely spent self-loathing and self-medicating. "Dash and Lilly" is a chronology of their attraction, which lasted from 1930 until Hammett's death in 1961. Alcoholics and adulterers, they were abusive physically and mentally and yet bound by some force that was part literary, part masochistic and all sad.
Much of the film is about Hammett's violent, self-destructive behavior, only hinting that he battered a starlet in 1932, a charge against which he did not defend himself. The insecure Hellman laments about Hammett's increasing unwillingness to sleep with her, but it's hard to imagine the intense Davis, who bears an unconventional but startling beauty, in the same plight.
When they are not sleeping around and drinking, Hammett and Hellman, drawn to leftist causes, have run-ins with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and other anti-Communist commissions during the 1950s. Alone in Washington a few days before she testifies in front of the HUAC, Hellman wonders what Hammett, her mentor, would do.
So begins her recollection of their first meeting at a Hollywood nightclub in 1930, their love-making and hate-making and finally Hammett's quieter years before his death. Hellman died in 1984.
When the film returns to Washington, Hellman heroically tells the committee that she "will not cut [her] conscience to fit this year's fashions." The film has Hammett of all people tell her to "watch out for situations that violate your integrity."
If "Dash and Lilly" says anything about the writers, it's that they lived in ways that were true to their scathing craft.