Turns out The American Friend was Francis Ford Coppola. Zoetrope Studios are the box trap, film noir "simulation" is the bait -- Wim Wenders bites, gets locked in, and rattles in the tinsel. The setting is San Francisco in 1928, Hammett (Frederic Forrest) is its hardboiled "village idiot." With The Maltese Falcon unpublished, the author is still a hack shamus whose neighbors pop up as freshly minted pulp icons in his whisky-haze of a brain. The case involves a missing Chinatown prostitute (Lydia Lei), Hammett’s old employer (Peter Boyle, in vaguely Don Corleone-ish makeup), a Kasper Gutman stand-in (Roy Kinnear), and a lost manuscript. Salacious snapshots lead to the city’s ruling class, though not before the bemused hero gets pummeled until the screen wavers a la Murder, My Sweet ("Physical heroism is not the writer’s métier, my friend"). Sylvia Sidney is around as a link to City Streets, Sam Fuller in the billiards parlor probably suggested the inside-view of the typewriter at work. "Who the hell are you, Hammett the writer or Hammett the detective?" asks the comely librarian (Marilu Henner). "You forgot Hammett the fool." The cavalcade of facsimiles reaches some kind of pinnacle as a rubout in a makeshift porno studio is witnessed through a one-way mirror: What you get is a screen-within-a-screen of David Patrick Kelly as Elisha Cook Jr. in The Maltese Falcon opposite Jack Nance as Elisha Cook Jr. in The Big Sleep, while the real Elisha Cook Jr. waits outside in his cab. Wenders’s marshaling of studio resources (Dean Tavoularis sets, Joseph Biroc cinematography, John Barry score) is pleasing, but it’s a misguided venture, an exploration of the artist’s mind that merely excavates the roots of hollow post-modernism. (Far From Heaven, The Good German, et al.) It builds to the image of the project’s pages floating in the water -- the one who "lost everything except the nerve" might be Wenders himself, who’d parlay the airless experience into The State of Things. With R.G. Armstrong, Richard Bradford, Michael Chow, and Royal Dano.
--- Fernando F. Croce