Color, 1978, 295m.
Directed by E.W. Swackhamer
Starring James Coburn, Jean Simmons, Hector Elizondo, Jason Miller, Brent Spiner, Beatrice Straight, Nancy Addison
Scorpion, Image (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
Though he only published five novels, writer Dashiell Hammett remains one of the most influential hardboiled crime writers with titles like The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man remaining popular from one generation to the next. However, his first two novels are also the only ones with a continuing detective character: the Continental Op, a nameless private eye who first appeared in several Hammett short stories, most notably in the famous Black Mask. Hammett decided to create a sort of serialized story with the Op which turned into his first novel in 1929, Red Harvest, which was later adapted (uncredited) into the films Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, and Last Man Standing. Later the same year, Hammett repeated the serial-to-novel approach for The Dain Curse, a far more episodic adventure divided into three parts with the Continental Op investigating a strange family curse and a diamond theft in San Francisco.
While Hammett's other novels were all adapted at least once by the 1960s, it wasn't until 1978 that The Dain Curse was finally given an official adaptation courtesy of a three-night miniseries for CBS. The structure faithfully mimics the three-section structure of the book while sticking surprisingly close to the original plot, simply shifting the location to New York and understandably giving the main character a real name, Hamilton Nash (a nice bit of wordplay on the name of the author himself). A nicely cast James Coburn (who looks nothing like the Op, but who cares?) steps in to tackle the mystery, which starts off when he's hired to track down some diamonds stolen from the wealthy Leggett family.
As it turns out, the clan is entangled with the so-called Dain curse, which supposedly inflicts harm and even death upon the bloodline and those directly connected to it. The most problematic family member seems to be Gabrielle Leggett (the late soap actress Nancy Addison), who's addicted to morphine and tangled up with a strange Egyptian cult. Along the way he rubs shoulders with a colorful assortment of characters including the local seaside sheriff (Elizondo), a fey eccentric named Owen Fitzstephan (The Exorcist's Miller, stealing all of his scenes), elegant cult leader Aaronia Haldorn (Simmons), and even a pre-Star Trek Brent Spiner in oily bad guy mode. Numerous plot twists ensue on the way to the dramatic courtroom finale, which brings one final revelation.
Filled with elegant period detail and nicely shot by Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors, First Blood), The Dain Curse rubbed some Hammett purists the wrong way when it first aired and fared little better when it was hacked to pieces for home video as a feature film, with its original 295 minutes pared down by over half for its VHS release. This was a fairly common practice in the '80s as any fan of Salem's Lot or The Dark Secret of Harvest Home can tell you, and in this case the damage was more severe than usual as the entire plot became an incoherent jumble. However, in 2005 the complete miniseries version debuted on home video courtesy of a DVD from Image Entertainment, and its reputation began to rise significantly with pulp mystery fans finally appreciating its eccentric charms, colorful cast, and obvious affection for the Hammett style. You won't find anything groundbreaking in the direction by TV veteran E.W. Swackhamer (who also helmed the beloved made-for-TV movies Night Drive, Vampire, and The Death of Ocean View Park around the same time), but the handsome presentation and slippery storyline are more than enough to make it worthwhile.
That bare bones disc went out of circulation fairly quickly and commanded hefty prices from online sellers, but fortunately fans can get a second shot courtesy of the 2014 reissue from Scorpion. The source elements have been kept in perfect shape and the previous transfer was already no slouch, so the room for improvement here is minimal; however, technical advances in compression give this one a bit of an edge, and it's hard to imagine how this could possibly look any better without hopping up to Blu-ray (which would be nice someday). The mono audio also sounds fine and perfectly clear given the undemanding, dialogue-heavy nature of the production. Parts one and two (each running 98 minutes) are presented on the first dual-layer DVD, while the third part is presented on a second disc along with bonus trailers including Paper Mask, Saint Jack, The Girl Hunters, The Internecine Project, The Octagon, and Go Tell the Spartans.
Reviewed on April 7, 2014.