The Red News Diaries

A new cable movie revisits the radical romance of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman

Indeed, the only real failure in Dash & Lilly results from that timid engagement with politics. What should Hammett have done when called before the committee? The film doesn't presume to ask. Hellman's famous "I will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions" letter to the HUAC, a genuine act of political courage, is so underplayed here that you can't help thinking, What was the big deal? Too many questions are closed-captioned for the historically impaired: "You see, the Russians were our allies then. FDR wanted help promoting public support," Hellman clumsily explains when the patriotism of one of her wartime film scripts is called into question. Can anyone who tunes this in be unaware of that fact? As far as I can tell, the film has no politics at all--rather a strange choice when the book underpinning it, Joan Mellen's study of the couple's relationship, was itself red-baited when reviewed in the New York Times a mere two years ago (Terry Teachout called the couple "the Nick and Nora of the limousine left, the ultimate fun couple of a decade when martinis before breakfast were de rigueur and mass murder was politically correct so long as the K.G.B. was picking the victims"--and that in the first sentence). What does Kathy Bates think of their beliefs and their commitments? Dash & Lilly doesn't move past this question so much as evade it, evacuating a love story of the context that makes it more than just two writers who make engaging drunks.

Stalinists between the sheets: Lillian Hellman (Judy Davis) and Dashiell Hammett (Sam Shepard) in A&E's Dash & Lilly
Stalinists between the sheets: Lillian Hellman (Judy Davis) and Dashiell Hammett (Sam Shepard) in A&E's Dash & Lilly

Yet in the end, maybe the film's greatest gesture of respect lies in its refusal to psychoanalyze these characters. At no point is anyone's childhood ushered into the room to do the work of explication, nor are sexual traumas or any low-rent Freud hurried onstage. Both major characters are allotted the hard-shelled emotional integrity they would have wanted for themselves. "Why do you trash all the good things that come along in life?" an exasperated Hellman asks. "Ah, I don't know," Hammett replies. "Some people are just perverse." If not the act of political courage one might dream of, this film shows a resolute deference to the hidden bonds beneath its protagonists' 30-year combat--the greatest mystery of all in this case--that feels like a homage of its own.

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