Thu 22 Aug 2013
THE DAIN CURSE. CBS – Martin Poll Productions. Based upon the novel by Dashiell Hammett; developed for television by Robert W. Lenski. Producer: Martin Poll. Director: E.W. Swackhamer. Cast: James Coburn as Hamilton Nash, Nancy Addison as Gabrielle Leggett, Bernice Straight as Alice, Jean Simmons as Aaronia, Jason Miller as Owen, Hector Elizondo as Sheriff Feeney and Brent Spiner as Tom Fink.
PART ONE – MAY 22, 1978 – MONDAY AT 9-11 PM (Eastern)
PART TWO – MAY 23, 1978 – TUESDAY AT 9-11 PM
PART THREE – MAY 24, 1978 – WEDNESDAY AT 9-11 PM
THE DAIN CURSE features three stories – a simple diamond robbery that reveals a complex mystery involving drugs, child abuse, blackmail and various murders; a con using a religious cult that ends with death; and a middle aged PI who must overcome his attraction to a young innocent girl and save her from the evil around her.
THE DAIN CURSE originally appeared as four separate Continental Op stories in Black Mask magazine. Hammett would rework the four stories (“Black Lives” November 1928, “The Hollow Temple” December 1928, “Black Honeymoon” January 1929 and “Black Riddle” February 1929) into a three-part novel (Knopf, 1929). While it was a critical and commercial success when first published, time has not been kind to one of Hammett’s weakest work. The book suffers from its clumsy structure, its padded overly complicated story and a weak ending.
The TV adaptation by Robert W. Lenski would win him an Edgar award and an Emmy nomination (losing to HOLOCAUST writer Gerald Green). Surprisingly, there was no writer credit on screen, instead Lenski received a developed for television credit. Perhaps this was because he stayed loyal to the book and its structure. But changes were made, some were wise, others not.
Characters such as Minnie the maid’s boyfriend and many red herrings were wisely dropped. The end of each part was changed. Hammett ended each part with the dramatic closure of that part’s case. Lenski knew each TV episode would need a cliffhanger ending to bring back the viewer for the next night. For example, he followed the book closely, but ended Part One with something that happened in Part Two – The Temple, drugged Gabrielle confessing to murder.
Many of the changes were minor such as changing the Continental Detective Agency to Dickerson National Detective agency and moving the action from the California coast to the East coast and “The City” (New York).
Lenski should have used even more of Hammett’s original dialogue than he did. His original dialogue tended toward pulp clichés, such as a place smelling of death or things being too quiet.
The most notable change was replacing Hammett’s Continental Op with PI Hamilton Nash played by James Coburn. The well-dressed Ham owed more to the crime-fighting image of Dashiell Hammett than to the Continental Op. While Coburn would have been a terrible choice to play the Op, he was perfect as the thin, handsome, more energetic PI Hamilton Nash.
Hammett’s Continental Op appeared in 36 short stories (four would make up Hammett’s first novel RED HARVEST, and four became THE DAIN CURSE). The Op was the visual opposite of TV PI Hamilton Nash. He was a short, overweight (180 lbs), ugly, middle-aged man. He had no life outside of his work. Hammett never even gave him a name. It was this image that made the relationship between the Op and the young victim Gabrielle so important to the tone of the book. It added to the creepiness of the all ready odd mystery as the Op got deeper into Gabrielle’s life, resisting and denying his growing attraction to her and her growing dependence on him, a favorite older Uncle who was fighting inside his desires for the young innocent girl.
Hamilton Nash had a past he hid from others. To keep his noisy boss satisfied (you would think the boss of a detective agency would know the past of his employees) Ham claimed he had an ex-wife who had run off with the milkman because he was never at home. Coburn with his leading man looks and thin athletic body did not seem as wrong for young but adult looking Nancy Addison as the Continental Op did for the virginal Gabrielle.
But Coburn’s Hamilton Nash did share the cynical soul of the Op, as well as the Op’s obsessive personality, his deductive talents, and his fatalistic acceptance of injustice. According to Nash, criminals had invented justice. Nash had no problem leaving a case the client thought solved, even when he knew better.
Nancy Addison had the difficult role of the freaky Gabrielle. Her scenes with Coburn brought to life Hammett’s Gabrielle’s feelings for the older PI who was always there to save her. To her Nash was a protector not a potential lover.
The rest of the cast, especially Jason Miller and Jean Simmons, captured Hammett’s characters well in their performances. Early in the book, Mrs. Alice Leggett was described as being serene and the only sane soul in the Leggett’s household. This played a role in the story. Bernice Straight performance failed to capture that aspect of Alice, but her performance did get her an Emmy nomination for single performance by a supporting actress in a comedy or drama series (she lost to HOLOCAUST Blanche Baker).
E.W. Swackhamer’s direction was worthy of the Emmy nomination he received (he lost to HOLOCAUST director Marvin J. Chomsky). He kept the characters moving to give a sense of energy and tension to the slow paced twisty story. In Part One’s denouement scene, several people filled the lab of the dead man. Nash refused to believe the letter left by the man was a suicide note. Swackhamer had Nash restlessly moving around the room while the rest stay still. As Nash declares the man was murdered, he moves out of the shot (but not out of the room) leaving the camera focused on the reactions of the rest of the people there.
Production values for THE DAIN CURSE were average at best, but never let down the story. Music by Charles Gross reminded us the time was 1928, and added a nice noir sound when needed.
Following the success of the mini-series ROOTS, CBS had high expectations for THE DAIN CURSE. The ratings for the first night were a moderate success with a 37 share. But the ratings for the second and third night fell with each episode receiving a 30 share, OK but not the blockbuster numbers hoped for by CBS.
THE DAIN CURSE aired during the May sweeps, an important ratings period for the networks and its local stations. ABC, CBS, and NBC were going all out to attract viewers. Viewers not hooked by Part One of THE DAIN CURSE had other options, including one in syndication.
THE BASTARD (aka THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES) from Operation Prime Time (OPT) scrambled the regularly scheduled programs for that week. OPT was a group of independent TV stations who had united to finance programs from major studios. Produced by MCA/Universal, THE BASTARD was a four-hour mini-series scheduled to air over two nights. It proved a major challenge to THE DAIN CURSE when the two series aired against each other in many markets. Another problem for CBS and the other networks was THE BASTARD aired not only on 25 independent TV stations but also on network stations preempting network programs. THE BASTARD appeared on 14 ABC, 27 CBS and 25 NBC stations.
I would like to read THE DAIN CURSE in its original Black Mask format, but the original four stories reportedly have never been republished. The book was a disappointment. It was padded and told three weak stories instead of one strong one. The TV mini-series was never able to overcome the problems of the novel and added some of its own, most notably the effect casting played on the romantic spine of the story.
Broadcasting Magazine – May 15, 1978, May 29, 1978, and June 5, 1978.
The Dashiell Hammett website by Mike Humbert:
Editorial Comment: The first two videos consist only of clips from the show. I do not know if the bottom one is the complete mini-series or not, as I have not watched it to the end. I am suspicious about it, as it is only three hours long.
Also Note: Curt Evans reviewed the novel version of The Dain Curse earlier on this blog. Follow this link.