Saturday, November 6, 2010

Profession: Anti-Fascist

Early in 1942 Dashiell Hammett signed on with producer Hal B. Wallis at Warner Brothers to adapt Lillian Hellman’s play Watch on the Rhine for the screen, and agreed to do so “in record time.” He wired on April 13 that he would finish the script that week if he did not break a leg. His wire on April 23 communicated his activity in one word: “Done.”

Hammett took this assignment seriously, both because of his respect for Hellman’s material and for the message the play, and the movie, put before the public. "All fascists are not of one mind, one stripe. There are those who give the orders...and there those who take them. They came late," thus Hammett was addressing the inevitable situation that he and the world was facing after outbreak of second war.

Paul Lukas portraying Hammett himself.

Those who are familiar with this ambiance of fear and tension, uncertainty and violence, will be touched by Hammett's subtle description of living with Fascism and its Fascist leaders, Fascist slaves, silent majority, and a few heroes.

Watch on the Rhine
, during all his years in and out of Hollywood, was Hammett's only screenplay credit—his other credits stories for the screen which other writers finished. The movie came out in 1943, directed by Herman Shumlin, starring Paul Lukas and Bette Davis. Lukas won an Oscar as Best Actor of the Year for his performance. Hammett’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, but did not win.

Bette Davis in two shots from Watch on the Rhine
cinematography by Merritt B. Gerstad and Hal Mohr

The anti-fascist message of that movie clearly was important to Hammett, but he realized it was not enough to just make a statement. To Hellman’s disbelief, and against her protests, he enlisted as a private in the army in September 1942. "I am a man who has many kinds of fears," Hammett put these words in Lukas's mouth and with his old WWI wounds and tuberculosis went to another war.
-- Ehsan Khoshbakht

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