Hammett, trying to put his Pinkerton detective days behind him while establishing himself as a writer, and dealing with induced tuberculosis and the alcoholism that will plague him almost to the end of his days, finds himself drawn back into his old life one last time by the irresistible call of friendship and to honor a debt.
German director Wenders was hired by Francis Ford Coppola to direct this film, which was to be his American debut feature. "But," according to one source, "by the time the final version was released in 1982, only 30 percent of Wenders' footage remained, and the rest was completely reshot by Coppola, whose mere 'executive producer' credit is just a technicality. Wenders made a short film called Reverse Angle documenting his disputes with Coppola surrounding the making of Hammett. As the A.V. Club review states, "A Coppola or Wenders commentary track might have sorted things out a bit—or at least settled an old score—but the bare-bones DVD release leaves viewers with a fascinating mess. The reviewer, though, never says what the source of his information is, and the question of the degree and nature of Coppola's involvement in the directing of the film remains open.
Peter Boyle took over the role of Jimmy Ryan from Brian Keith, who left allegedly because the lengthy production conflicted with other commitments. Keith can be seen in some long shots in the film.
A number of actors from the "Golden Age" of Hollywood were cast in the film, including Hank Worden, Royal Dano, and Elisha Cook, Jr. (who played Wilmer the gunsel in John Huston's 1941 film The Maltese Falcon).