Sinister Cinema: La Cuidad Maldita

Previously on this blog, our pal from Spain — Dr. Jesús Ángel González López — tipped the Up and Down These Mean Streets community to the existence of a movie version of Hammett’s Red Harvest that many — probably most — of us had never heard of before.

Amazing, really.

Now he’s back with more info, after tracking down a copy of the film and doing some additional gumshoe work into its history.

Here’s Jesús:


I have finally been able to get a VHS copy (in Spanish) of “La ciudad maldita”, the Spaghetti Western adaptation of Red Harvest. As I told you in my previous post, it was produced in 1978 and acknowledges credits to Hammett and Red Harvest. 

If you look closely at the screen during the credits, you can read “argumento de Jason E. Squire, basado en Red Harvest de D. Hammet” (just one T, they couldn’t get everything right…), and “guión de Juan Bosch y Alberto de Stefanis”.

Jason E. Squire is the author of The Movie Business Book and he now teaches at USC, but in the 70s he worked as the key executive in America for Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Last Tango in Paris), and he wrote a screenplay for him adapting Red Harvest. I have contacted him and he has given me the whole story:

“Flashback: It’s 1977 and I am working for Alberto as his creative executive in the United States, based at the offices of P.E. A. Films., Inc. New York. Back then, he was spending more time in the U.S. than before. I’d become enamored of Red Harvest (as you can imagine) as one of the great novels never made into a movie. Taking this as a challenge, I sat down to write a screenplay adaptation of the book without letting Alberto know. When it was done, I gave it to Alberto who enjoyed it. As I recall, he had bought the rights to Red Harvest from the Dashiell Hammett estate (Lillian Hellman as executor) but a clause in the agreement required that a movie of Red Harvest had to be made by a certain deadline. So Alberto asked me to re-write my screenplay as a western, so he could produce a Red Harvest movie before the deadline and retain the rights to the Hammett novel. I finished the western version in August, 1977 … I never worked with the two who have screenplay credit on the movie … The western movie was never released in English, sorry to say.”

Juan (Joan) Bosch, AKA John Wood, was a Spanish (Catalan) director who had made a few Spaghetti Westerns in the early 70s with Grimaldi. So, apparently, Grimaldi used Squire’s screenplay and he contacted Bosch, who rewrote it (with De Stefanis’s help) as a Spaghetti Western at a time when Spaghetti Westerns had already had their day.

The Spanish title translates as “The cursed city” (or “The city with a curse”), but the Italian and English titles give you some food for thought: La notte rosa del Falco, The Crimson Night of the Hawk… Not that there are any hawks, or anything in a crimson color, and most of the action takes place during the day (it was probably cheaper to shoot like this), but I am guessing “Hawk” is a reference to The Maltese Falcon and “Crimson” a reference to Red Harvest itself.

How can anybody know what was in the mind of the translators?

Gone is the name Poisonville (with the allegorical implications it carries in the novel), the Op’s voice as narrator, and the criticism of the hard-boiled-hero-turned-murderer the attentive reader can glimpse after the “red harvest” unleashed by the Op. Gone is also Bill Quint, the IWW member who acts as the novel’s social conscience and provides it with a deeper socio-political critique than any other Hammett novel (excluding perhaps The Glass Key and its denunciation of the corruption of city politics).

Having said all that, the film is surprisingly faithful to Red Harvest.

The Op, who is unnamed but describes himself as working for the San Francisco Continental Agency, comes to Personville to meet Donald Wilson, but finds his client dead, after which Wilson’s father asks the Op to clear Personville of riff-raff. Ring a bell?

Almost everything else from the novel’s plot is there: Max Thaler, Sheriff Noonan, Pete the Finn, Dinah Brand (and Hammett’s lunger alter ego Dan Rolff), the fixed boxing fight, the icepick scene where Dinah dies, the Op’s stirring-up moves…  But it is a Spaghetti Western, and therefore we find all the subgenre conventions:  cowboy hats and horses, the music, the dizzying travelling shots and shocking close-ups, the cheap settings of the stereotypical small western town (which does not look at all like the Personville described in the novel, just like the Madrid and Almería settings do not look at all like Montana).

As one can easily imagine, the conventions of the two genres fit very uncomfortably: there is too much dialogue for a Spaghetti Western (how many words did Clint utter in the whole Leone trilogy?), too many closed spaces, and very little landscape for a western, and although the film ends with a shoot-out, I doubt that Spaghetti Western fans really enjoyed this movie.

On the plus side, we can finally see a character called “Continental Op” (“Agente de la Continental” in Spanish) in a movie, although he is neither short nor fat. The actor’s stage name is Chet Bacon, and I haven’t been able to find out anything else about him. Bosch says he was a “third-rate regional actor”, and he is often confused with Gianni Garko, a well-known Spaghetti Western actor.

In fact, he is just another Hammett-look-alike, thin, moustached and tall. Just like William Powell in The Thin Man, or James Coburn in The Dain Curse adaptation that CBS did precisely in 1978 (and where the protagonist had a name: Hamilton Nash, although he was called Ham or Nash, probably because they couldn’t call him Sam or Dash…).

At any rate, Hammett fans may enjoy finding out more about this movie, even though we might have to wait long for a true adaptation of Red Harvest

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