This 1999 movie (A& E, Granada) about Dashiell Hammet (Sam Shepard) and Lilly Helman(Judy Davis) starts at the beginning of the relationship. They have three activities in life – drinking, writing and love.
I have no idea why either of them loves the other especially in the early years, through 1945 after Hammet is discharged from the military. After Dash’s power to write fades, the tone of the movie changes. Lilly displays her mothering instincts. “I love him.” “Why?” The answer is in the stars, or Dash is no longer a mate; he is helpless.
The next activity is drinking, which is an everyday activity in his life; she isn’t far behind. She makes the point that drinking affects her powers to write and she is stopping. He is not interested. She returns to the bottle. There is no development on this point – how alcohol (or any other drug) might affect the relationship or writing.
Next comes writing. When he writes at the beginning, she cannot write. When she writes in the second half, he cannot. Neither of them do what writers do – read, talk about ideas, discussion words and visions. There’s very little reading of books. He spends three years in the army during World War Two and apparently doesn’t keep a diary or a notebook. The idea of writing from each of them seems, I like my ideas and writing to come spontaneously. There is no link between the decline of writing and booze.
There is a scene where he gets her into writing plays, but except for successes that process is not developed and constructed. Later when he suggests changing dialogue at the end of new play, she throws a fit. Every writer knows or should know editing, rewriting, rereading are not the same work on draft ten as on draft two. Yet, Lilly’s character reveals a complete lack of understanding of this comprehension. Indeed, one must wonder if the screenwriter knows, or the screenwriter was required to remove all the writing stuff, which makes much of the script unintelligible.
There is no love, and no understanding of writing but loads of drinking. There is a concentration on the Congressional blacklist hearings which is not a big part of the relationship. The script fairly depicts that writers in Hollywood were careless and ignorant. Hammet allowed his name to be used for an organization he had never met with. When a Writer’s Guild gathering is made during the Thirties, a clown is talking about Karl Marx. No one needs to know anything about Marx to start a union. Contract law is a much better beginning.
The sets are good, the camera work is fine, the direction is first rate. The movie might be improved if it were longer, more stuff about writing, loop those themes around to pick up the love and liquor.