Hammett: Give that Man a Cigar

How about a surprise for Hammett’s 117th birthday?

As you may or may not know, researchers have managed to turn up almost zero footage of Hammett on film, and so far not a single audio recording. Doesn’t mean there’s nothing out there, waiting for discovery — we can hope that one day Hammett’s testimony before McCarthy will surface, kind of the Holy Grail of something we know was filmed but no one has been able to find in an archive.

When American Masters located some brief grainy footage of Hammett for their segment about his life, it was considered a real coup. Practically a miracle. (And if I remember right, in some of the scenes with talking heads in that documentary you can spot me and Bill Arney drinking in the background, pulling our cameos, tossing back shots of Jack Daniels.)

But a year ago I popped down to L.A. for a quick visit, and my pal Leo Grin told me that he thought he had spotted Hammett in a brief clip in the documentary Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Harold Arlen (1999), on the life and times of the Great American Songbook composer best known for tunes like “Get Happy,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “Stormy Weather,” and (of course) “Over the Rainbow.” We fast forwarded until we got to the moment, so I could check on it.

Yep, right there at the 27:37 mark. Hammett. No question. Alive. Well. About to massacre a cigar.

Hammett is standing with Anya Taranda, Arlen’s model-turned-wife, and director Vincente Minnelli. As I say in the tour book, during his Hollywood years Hammett knew everyone, and this footage only backs that idea up. Personally, I have much more interest in the era when Hammett worked as an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency and pounded the typewriter keys as a pulp writer in San Francisco, but who wouldn’t admit that hobnobbing with Minnelli and Judy Garland and that crew has its own deep fascination?

So, enjoy this quick glance into yesteryear — and whoever does the next Hammett documentary can track down the rest of the footage so we can see the author of The Big Knockover mugging for that camera.

And if you happen to meet up with the eagle-eyed Leo Grin, buy him a drink, or offer him a cigar. Hammett, as you can see, approved of cigars:

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