Cinema and Media Studies Dashiell Hammett
Nicolas Pillai
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0253


Dashiell Hammett (b. 27 May 1894–d. 10 January 1961) may lay claim to having invented the modern “hard-boiled” American crime story. A contemporary of Hemingway, Hammett’s terse unsentimental prose influenced not just other pulp writers, but also the emerging discipline of screen dialogue writing. Once a Pinkerton detective himself, Hammett’s professional experience led him to contribute prolifically to magazines such as Black Mask that satisfied public desire for exciting and often brutal stories of crime. His novels brought him a wider audience, attracting the interest of Hollywood. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, and William Faulkner before him, Hammett was hired by major studios (first Paramount, then MGM) to work on screen treatments and do “polish” dialogue on existing screenplays. Alcoholism and tuberculosis made his Hollywood work increasingly infrequent; a more lasting effect was the ongoing life of certain of his characters (Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles) within the vast output of crime cinema at this time. Similarly, Hammett’s influence permeated the wider popular culture directly, through licensed radio and comic strip adaptations of his work, and, more indirectly, through the literary success of writers who followed him (most famously, Raymond Chandler). By the late 1930s, Hammett had all but abandoned his own writing, focusing instead upon the career of his partner, the playwright Lillian Hellman, and throwing himself into leftist politics. Serving in the Aleutians during the Second World War, Hammett returned to postwar America even more physically dissipated than before. This did not prevent him from defying the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1951, earning him a six-month spell in prison. Hammett’s death in 1961 preceded an upsurge of interest in his work, partly stoked by the counterculture’s adoption of Humphrey Bogart as a folk hero. In 20th-century cinema, Hammett’s influence has been considerable, permeating not just neo-noir narrative and dialogue patterns (e.g., Miller’s Crossing, Last Man Standing, Brick) but even the samurai and spaghetti western genres. His work informed Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which in turn inspired Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Hammett has even appeared as a character in other works of fiction, typically representing a cynical yet romantic form of personal integrity. This bibliography focuses on Hammett’s screen work, but it also maps the network of influence emanating from his oeuvre and his ongoing legacy.

Hammett’s Published Work

There are numerous anthologies of Hammett’s detective fiction. The major ones are listed here, with a subsection on key critical engagements with the work. The selection is intended to shed light upon the progression of Hammett’s career and the ways in which it has been conceptualized. In this respect, a comparison between the text of stories published in magazines and revised for book form is instructive. For example, “The Farewell Murder,” a Continental Op story loosely adapted into the film Another Thin Man, is anthologized here twice for comparison: in Hammett 1986b and Hammett 2001a. Similarly, the abandoned story now called “The First Thin Man” (Hammett 2001b) elucidates the progression of what would become his most prolific screen property. A key text when considering Hammett’s posthumous persona is Hammett 1986a; along with Hellman’s hagiographic preface, the selection of stories here privileges certain aspects of his output and suppresses others. Hammett and Raymond 2015 is a useful corrective to this, collecting the entirety of his comic strip work and complementing the understanding of Hammett as “work-for-hire” provided by the references in the Hammett as Screenwriter section later on.

  • Hammett, Dashiell. The Big Knockover and Other Stories. Edited and with an Introduction by Lillian Hellman. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1986a.

    A carefully selected anthology of Black Mask short stories which renewed the Hammett cult in the 1960s, prefaced by Lillian Hellman’s reminiscence of him, reprinted as the final chapter of Hellman 1972 (cited under Biographies).

  • Hammett, Dashiell. The Continental Op. Edited and with an Introduction by Steven Marcus. London: Picador, 1986b.

    Seven short stories featuring the character known as the Continental Op, including “The Farewell Murder,” which inspired the screenplay for Another Thin Man.

  • Hammett, Dashiell. Complete Novels. Edited by Steven Marcus. New York: Library of America, 1999.

    Authoritative collection of Hammett’s five novels: Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man. Edited and with notes on the text by Marcus.

  • Hammett, Dashiell. Crime Stories and Other Writings. Edited by Steven Marcus. New York: Library of America, 2001a.

    A collection of twenty-four short stories (some well-known and others less so), accompanied by three of Hammett’s short nonfiction pieces. Editor Steven Marcus’s decision to return to the magazine text of Hammett’s stories offers insight into the revisions made for book publication.

  • Hammett, Dashiell. Nightmare Town. Edited by Kirby McCauley, Martin H. Greenberg, and Ed Gorman. London: Picador, 2001b.

    A recent collection that includes seven Continental Op and three Sam Spade stories. Chiefly of interest, however, for including Hammett’s first (abandoned) attempt at The Thin Man, in which the protagonist is police detective John Guild rather than Nick Charles.

  • Hammett, Dashiell, and Alex Raymond. Secret Agent X-9. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2015.

    Collects all of Hammett’s work on this serialized comic strip, including subsequent strips scripted by Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint. For an account of the strip’s significance to the history of comics, see Lyons 2013 (cited under Hammett in Wider Popular Culture).

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