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In the end, I have settled on Die Hard for my discussion of the debt that the modern action genre owes to Hammett. Here’s why –
The Gutting of Couffignal begins with the Continental Op (Hammett’s nameless detective) in the role of guardian of wedding presents at an exclusive wedding on a rich Island (Couffignal) which is a kind of haven for the rich. At the onset of the reception, there is an explosion, and it appears that the island is actually being invaded by an army of some kind. The Op goes out to investigate, and sundry corpses and injuries later, discovers that the invasion is a smoke-screen to hide an audacious wide-ranging robbery of the island. He uncovers the mastermind, and pulls that lynch-pin from the equation.
There are some important points about this story – the Op is no Race Williams or Mike Hammer; he takes a real beating and by the end is almost immobile. His aim in the fighting is not perfect, and he makes several tactical errors. In the end, he does not slaughter his way through the assailants, but figures out the ultimate plan – it is his brainpower rather than deadliness which eventually prevails.
The structural similarities with Die Hard should be apparent. John McClane is a hero in the Op’s mould – a bit cynical, determined to go his own way. When the towers are besieged by terrorists, he goes into hiding and begins eliminating them one-by-one. McClane’s a far more efficient killer than the Op, but it is actually his ability to solve the underlying puzzle which gets him through – what is the real objective of this group?
Okay, so why bother to bring these two things together? What is The Gutting of Couffignal telling me about Die Hard that I’m not getting from a straight close reading?
The first thing I’d say is that in both, violence is literally just a distraction from what’s important: money. Let’s start from the outside of things and work our way in to the detective himself.
Couffignal is essentially a colony of the rich, positioned outside of ordinary society both physically and socially. The Op relates that there are poor people sufficient to run the shops, banks, etc, but basically it’s a haven for the rich. That appears at first to be a mere descriptive comment, but actually, it’s key to the selection of this as a target by the villains. Without the excess of wealth, it would not be enough of a target for these desperate characters to stage the invasion.
Nakatomi Plaza is not a place of residence, but it does have many of the same characteristics as an island – a single tall peak, cut off by the vertical control of the base of the tower by the criminals, physically distant from adjacent buildings. Moreover, it is the site of a vast repository of wealth, all concentrated in one spot. If we look at these locations as functionally the same, then we can draw some conclusions about chances in society in the intervening 60 years.
Firstly, the wealth is now conspicuously controlled not by families as a kind of latter-day aristocracy, but by corporate interests. Nakatomi is the face of that corporation, but is merely a steward for wealth which can’t properly be said to have any specific person as owner. The corporations from whom Gruber is stealing will be insured and reinsured, and so rather than the very personal plundering of the inherited wealth of a community, we have a largely impersonal and hence victimless crime. Nakatomi dies not to protect the wealth of his family, but sacrifices himself on a matter of principle, in service to an anonymous aggregation of “shareholders”. The corporate forces which were beginning to emerge in Hammett’s time have now completed their incorporation of civil society. People are simply the necessary servitors of corporate money.
Secondly, the criminals in Hammett’s tale are former Russian nobility forced into hard times by the revolutions of their own country. One aristocracy robbing another is quite far removed from the concerns of the working citizen who was the implicit victim in the main part of hard-boiled detective stories. Indeed, the “victims” could almost contribute to their own problems by trying to respond in antiquated military modes to the invasion; unable to recognise their own irrelevance.
Gruber and his comrades are “european” ex-soldiers with dodgy political leanings who are nonetheless basically motivated purely by aspirations of wealth. They cannot be described as victims or desperate – their motives are more purely greedy. The victims in Die Hard are the worker-bees in the corporate machinery, who will be sacrificed by Gruber to cover his escape. The change in political message encoded is that ordinary citizens are just so many bargaining chips, just so much transferable collateral – no different in inherent value from the building or the object of the theft.
The Op describes his foes as “amateur”, and excoriates their inept planning. Crime on this scale is seen as bad business by the Op. Gruber and his colleagues are extremely professional, making very few logical or logistical errors – John McClane’s success at defeating them is as much a factor of luck as skill; the Op requires no such assistance; leading to the third main interpretive difference – the Op versus John McClane.
The leader of the bandits tries to buy the Op, and his answer is straightforward – as a professional detective he is hard-wired to detect. Other matters don’t enter into it. This same ethos is at the foundation of McClane’s involvement – at the point where he first becomes aware of the intrusion he instinctively hides and begins his guerrilla campaign. At that point in time he must already be aware that the odds do not favour him, and that the balance of probability is thus a quicker and more certain death through resistance. At their core then, the two characters share an ideal.
However, McClane brings additional motivations to the table: the fate of his wife. It was his adherence to his code which caused them to split up, and it is now the same code which makes him the ideal person to save her from Gruber and co. This modification of motivation pushes John McClane in a more personal way than the Op, and it places forefront the human implications of adherence in a way which remains abstract with only the Op. Yet without knowledge of a code such as the Op explains, John McClane’s choices are sometimes difficult to explain, and he certainly offers no explanation himself to compare with the eloquent speech which closes out The Gutting of Couffignal.
So the object of placing these texts alongside each other is mutually illuminating, helping us to explore the subtext and meaning of both works.
Interestingly, once I began to look a little into Die Hard, I learned that it was based on a book Nothing Lasts Forever written by Roderick Thorpe, another ex-detective who wrote crime stories! Interesting little coincidence.