This is part one of our look at the influence of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Keep an eye out for part 2 next month!

The original manuscript for Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest was almost never read. If publisher Alfred Knopf’s wife, Blanche, never scooped up the manuscript, our pop culture landscape would be very different. Without Red Harvest, there would probably be no YOJIMBO. Without YOJIMBO, there’s no FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, no THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, and, quite possibly, no Clint Eastwood as we know him today.

That is just one of the most obvious ripple effects that the novel Red Harvest caused. It’s likely that there are more unseen effects, as Hammett’s novel did more than just tell a crime story: it reinvented the traditional heroic archetype. Red Harvest is the Rosetta stone of the contemporary anti-hero archetype. As writer Allen Barra put it, Hammett gave us the first American antiheroes, and in doing so severed forever the traditional relationship between the mystery story and the crime story.

In order to better understand this influence, it’s best to look at three specific films: YOJIMBO, FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and LAST MAN STANDING. Each of these films takes Hammett’s novel and reinvents it for a different culture and time period. This proves the fascinating malleability of Hammett’s novel and characters, but also shows just how influential this novel has been on filmmakers across the world.

The Continental Op

Red Harvest author Dashiell Hammett

Let’s start by looking at the central character of Red Harvest, the detective known only as the Continental Op. His true name is never revealed to the reader. This becomes a valuable aspect of this character’s adaptability. In fact, Hammett goes a step further by making the character something of a blank slate for the reader. In his book on Hammett’s writing, author William Marling says of the character, “…the Op only tells us what he is seeing; he is never omnipresent, except in the resolutions of stories, and, being nameless, he invites the reader to share his experience.”

The Op is quite literally an every man character. Hammett created a character that was easy for readers to project onto and ultimately relate to. However, the Op is not a flat, uninteresting character. He is highly competent, but he isn’t impenetrable or unknowable like Sherlock Holmes. Often Hammett portrays the Op as flawed and all too human. Occasionally, he will take delight in the violent punishment he dishes out towards criminals. There’s a level of catharsis in that joy, but Hammett also recognizes that the violent world the Op inhabits can be ruinous to a person’s soul.

In Red Harvest, the Continental Op is hired to investigate the murder of newspaper publisher Donald Wilson in a town nicknamed Poisonville. A pair of warring mobs essentially run the town, giving it its nickname. At the behest of Donald’s father, Elihu, who is in cahoots with numerous members of the gangs of Poisonville, the Continental Op agrees to clean up the town.

The Op learns that the murder wasn’t committed by a mobster, but a jealous competitor for the heart of femme fatale Dinah Brand. With that revelation, Elihu decides he wants the Op out of town. However, the Op is a man of his word; he was paid to clean up the town and that’s exactly what he plans to do.

CLICK: Want more murder mystery? Check out our series “The Marlowe Files!”

With the help of Dinah Brand, the Op sets the gangs against one another using various methods of deceit. Towards the end of the novel, the overwhelming violence caused by the Op begins to weigh on his conscience. “This damn burg’s getting to me,” he tells Brand. “If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood simple like the natives.” He says of the existential nature of killing, “I’ve arranged a killing or two in my time, when they were necessary. But this is the first time I’ve ever got the fever… Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.”

As concepts, manliness and masculinity are restricting and repressive. Hammett, however, explores a more vulnerable side of the Continental Op in these moments. Consider how many modern action film characters will blow away hordes of faceless goons without a second’s hesitation. Hammett’s characterization of the Op shows a better understanding of the psychological trauma than many contemporary authors who were influenced by his works.

Ironically, for all of its influence, and for all the success of other Hammett adaptations, there has never been a true film adaptation of Red Harvest. The earliest attempt at such an adaptation would be Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO. The key to the Continental Op is a balance of toughness and honor. In YOJIMBO, the detective’s commitment to the law is reinterpreted as a samurai dedicated to the bushido code.

YOJIMBO and the Op

The bushido was an evolving set of standards for the samurai of the 19th century. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the constants of the code were the ideas of “frugal living, kindness, honesty, and personal honour.” It’s not hard to make the jump from the code of ethics of American detectives to the bushido of the samurai. The samurai fulfills a romantic notion of the past in a similar way to the tough guy detective and the cowboy. They aren’t meant to be accurate representations of the past, but they’re ideas of what masculinity was in a time when the law was less than defined.

Granted, there is some disagreement over how much Red Harvest actually influenced YOJIMBO, as seen in Barra’s article linked above. However, it’s hard to deny that YOJIMBO’s plot is essentially a streamlined version of Hammett’s novel. A wandering samurai (Toshiro Mifune) enters a town with two warring gangs and plots to pit them against one another in order to make them destroy themselves.

The main character even has a moniker instead of an actual name. Sometimes the character is referred to as “Yojimbo,” like in the crossover film ZATOCHI MEETS YOJIMBO, but that word simply means “bodyguard.” The character gives himself the name “Kuwabatake Sanjuro,” a phrase essentially meaning “thirty-year-old mulberry field.” (The name comes from the mulberry field he is looking at when asked his name.)

CLICK: See more of the influence of Akira Kurosawa in our countdown of the best episodes of SAMURAI JACK!

It’s here that Kurosawa builds on the idea of a “Man with No Name” anti-hero archetype. Make no mistake, the Op and Sanjuro are both anti-heroes. They may have noble goals, but their primary methods are deceit and violence. Also, the mere fact that Sanjuro is a ronin, a samurai with no master, suggests his comfort with bending the chivalrous rules of his society.

Much like the Op, Sanjuro takes a bit of pleasure knowing he’ll get to rid the town of scum. Sanjuro says early in the film, “I’ll get paid for killing. And this town is full of men who deserve to die.” Sanjuro takes pleasure as the puppet master of these two gangs. He shows off his swordplay skills and makes the two gangs fight over who gets to hire him. He mocks them as they cowardly attempt to fight one another before running away at the first sign of law enforcement.

Sanjuro doesn’t get to enjoy himself for long. Gangster Ushiotora captures Nui, the wife of a farmer who was kidnapped by Ushitora to settle a debt. Sanjuro is furious at the farmer’s inability to act to rescue his wife. This bluster is ultimately a front for Sanjuro’s compassion. He rescues Nui and helps her and her husband escape the town. Sanjuro, much like the Op, rarely shows compassion through words, but instead shows it through deeds.

(Anti) Hero

Anti-heroes like the Op and Sanjuro are compelling because beneath their cynical exteriors they have a core of empathy. Their cynicism is often to protect them from the world’s evils, or it’s the result of the cruel world beating hope out of them. Regardless, they are representations of honor in a time of dishonor.

The Op lives during the height of Prohibition. Gangsters run amok carrying bootleg liquor while police remain helpless. Violence is the chief currency of this time. The Op’s only logical recourse is to bring even more destruction upon the gangsters of Poisonville. The escalation of crime means that the heroic archetype must also evolve into an anti-hero.

Kurosawa conveys this same escalation through the evolving culture of Japan in 1860. The industrial age threatens the ancient traditions of the samurai. When gangster Ushitora first appears in the film, he reveals to one of the townspeople his new weapon: a handgun. The gun makes Ushitora certain he is the deadliest person in the town. What chance does the sword stand against the gun? The gun also represents a new phase in warfare. No longer does a person require true fighting skill in combat. Guns are the great equalizer. Sanjuro and his fellow samurai will become antiquated because people will be able to fight for themselves with guns. However, the possession of guns by scared, unstable, and untrained people will only lead to more bloodshed.

CLICK: We sat down the director of MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI! Check out our interview!

Ultimately, Sanjuro is able to overcome Ushitora because he is more than a weapon; he’s an adept fighter. During the final confrontation, Ushitora draws his weapon and fires, but Sanjuro hurls a knife into Ushitora’s arm, rendering his gun, and Ushitora himself, useless. Sanjuro litters the streets of the town with bodies. Like the Op, Sanjuro wanders away, leaving the townsfolk to clean up the destruction left in his wake.

Perhaps that is why anti-heroes endure. Their unorthodox qualities make them feel real, but also provide wish fulfillment to the audience. There’s a cathartic joy in watching these characters take the law into their own hands. Yet the life of a vigilante comes with weight on their conscience. The delicate balance that storytellers using anti-heroes must strike is conveying both the character’s heroic and anarchic nature. Both Hammett and Kurosawa recognize the nobility as well as the ruthlessness of these characters.

The anti-hero title itself means you aren’t getting a hero, but rather a force of nature. An entity that will reset the balance between good and evil. You ultimately don’t want the anti-hero to be the one to save you. They are the last-ditch desperate solution. They’ll restore order, but don’t expect everything to be in one piece when it’s all over.

Next time: We take a look at Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and Walter Hill’s LAST MAN STANDING. We’ll look at how the American myth of the cowboy adapts a Japanese take on an American novel. Then we’ll explore how Walter Hill returned the story to its American gangster roots in a cinematic game of Telephone.

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