The Dain Curse (1978)–Part 1

Hammett The Dain Curse

Since “The Dain Curse” is a good old-fashioned mystery, I’m going to chop the information up as if we were watching it night by night as it aired in 1978.  I’m not cheating, I assure you.  The first segment of “The Dain Curse” has more plot, characters, red herrings, crimes and outstanding performances than a “Game of Thrones” book.  Here we go…

Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz all made sure their names were part of the titles when their works were turned into miniseries.  Despite what the DVD box cover says, the official name of this miniseries is “The Dain Curse,” absent its author’s name.  Yet in 200 years, people will still know the author of “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man,” but the other three combined will likely be forgotten.  Having been dead since 1961, Dashiell Hammett could hardly argue billing. As published, “The Dain Curse” is a relatively short book, but it’s packed with cunning mystery, mysterious people and even some heightened emotions you might not expect from anyone in a Hammett novel outside of Asta.  In other words, it’s vintage Dashiell Hammett.  The book suffers from a bit of schizophrenia with its wild first half and taut second half, but one reads it knowing clearly that Hammett intended that.  As a miniseries, it’s an interesting choice, not fitting many of the typical constraints of the genre, though it was 1978 and most of those constrains had yet to be solidified.  There would be hardboiled mysteries and noir knock-offs, but none quite like this one. This is such a weird experiment that the opening credits focus on a bronze animal (I suppose to pull in “Maltese Falcon” fans), but the music is light and bouncy, almost like a Mel Brooks spoof.  But, it grabs your attention, no doubt about it.

Typically in discussions here of fictional works, I use the names of the actors, but here I am going to use the names of the characters.  It neither clarifies nor clouds the story, it doesn’t give anything away, but this a tight mystery story with a Grade-A cast, for the most part all having fun playing their parts.  This isn’t anyone’s vanity piece. James Coburn is ideally cast as Hamilton Nash, a name created for the miniseries as the character in the book is unnamed.  Coburn is cut from the mold of previous movie detectives, Humphrey Bogart most of all.  Hamilton is a private investigator, the kind who busts up

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him, is given an assignment on behalf of an insurance company.  A bunch of diamonds were stolen and need to be found.  “They [the insurance company] knows that we know that’s practically impossible, so they just want to go through the motions,” his boss tells him.  On the surface, it seems as boring a case as possible: well-off family reported missing diamonds, the insurance company wants the agency to make sure it’s a valid claim. As expected, Coburn also narrates for us.  Upon reaching the scene of the crime, he says, “the Leggett house was a short drive from the city.  I should have known when I saw the house there was something fishy about this right from the start.”  He’s not wrong.  Before even knocking on the front door, he’s found one of the eight missing diamonds on the front lawn. Strange, sure, but that will turn out to be the more normal occurrence.  Tightly wound Mrs. Alice Dain Leggett (Beatrice Straight) welcomes him after he’s seen Gabrielle Leggett (Nancy Addison) slumbering naked in the greenhouse.

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Mrs. Leggett starts spilling beans (and quoting Shakespeare) immediately, but the gist is that her husband has long worked in coloring glass, so some diamond people wanted to see if he could touch up diamonds so they can jack up the price.   Minnie the maid (Hattie Winston) also proves loquacious, assuming Ham is there to accuse her of stealing the diamonds.  “You police are all alike!” and then when he corrects her on his profession, she says, “oh no please, don’t turn your evil on me and crosses herself.”  In due course, Mr. Leggett (Paul Harding) enters the room just as Ham has taken a full inventory of the house.  Both of the Leggetts give Ham more information than they think, obviously sticking to pre-arranged stories they are careful to note they have told the police as well.

As for Gabrielle, she flirts with him when answering questions and describing a man she saw leaving the property in the middle of the night.  She’s clearly on the bizarre side, or as her mother puts it, “she’s not been herself lately.”  Minnie speaks in double negatives but also uses the word “mollycoddling” when quitting.  “I hope you’re satisfied now, Mr. Nash,” Mrs. Leggett scowls.  He hasn’t said an accusatory word toward Minnie or anyone else yet.  This is a kooky bunch, all lying about something.  Ham knocks the wind out of their lying sails by wondering aloud why someone came to the house, stole nothing of value, despite expensive bric-a-brac all over the house, went up creaky stairs, right to the cabinet to steal the diamonds and then planted one on the front lawn on his way out.

Gabrielle sneaks up on Ham and then holds a knife to his throat, saying “I’m an animal, it’s a curse.  I carry a curse.”  She then falls to the floor incoherently.  Ham leaves the Leggett house baffled, but determined to continue.  So, his next stop is Eric Collinson (Martin Cassidy), Gabrielle’s suitor.  Eric tells his story about the man seen leaving the house, but with a crucial difference in time.  “Gabrielle Leggett is a little nearsighted and what she took for 3:00 was most likely quarter after 12,” he notes confidently.  When Eric tells Ham he and Gabrielle are engaged, Ham is surprised since there is no engagement ring.  “I haven’t been able to afford…” Eric sheepishly mutters, with Ham finishing that sentence with an ironic “diamond.”

The diamond dealer whose diamonds he lent to Mr. Leggett for experimentation leads him to Owen Fitzstephan (Jason Miller), and old friend and flamboyantly given to making every sentence sound like a quote from somewhere else.  They delight in trading quips, but in a friendly matter.  “What do you know about the Leggetts?” Nash asks.  “We have one or two mutual friends.  I’ve endured one or two nights in their home…I don’t have a taste for other eccentrics.  I prefer to be unique,” Owen replies.

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He has no problem dishing the Leggetts, most importantly noting that Mrs. Leggett is “a serene sane soul.  I’ve often wondered what she thinks of the two weird creatures who are her daughter and husband,” as he serves caviar.  He’s no more complimentary about Eric, telling Ham, “his love for Gabrielle is the only thing that makes him faintly interesting.”  Ham asks Owen if Gabrielle is “cuckoo” due to her behavior and varying colors of her eyes.  Ham needs to do some narration for us, so the movie has Owen give an impromptu harp concert while Ham does some thinking.

Back at the office, word comes that there has been a murder related to the case.  “I thought we agreed no killing,” his boss says, to which Ham replies, “you agreed, I never interfere with nature.”  Damn good line! At the crime scene, he finds reporter Jack Santos (David Canary), described in the narration as both a good friend and a bad enemy.  Upon entering, Ham meets Mrs. Leggett and Gabrielle, convinced the dead body is the diamond thief.  Mrs. Leggett demands Ham now understands Minnie isn’t responsible (he didn’t say she was) and he asks Gabrielle if the dead man is the one she saw escaping from the house.  “When I saw him…under the lamp, he was already dead,” she replies, a bizarre statement for sure!  She doesn’t mean it literally. Sergeant O’Gar (Tom Bower) is another old friend of Ham’s.  “We’ve been inviting one another to crime scenes for years, he jokes in his narration.  O’Gar’s explanation of the case is easy and resolute: two men stole the diamonds (one with a long nose, a detail everyone has mentioned so far), one killed the other for them and split.  Naturally, Ham thinks otherwise.

Later that day, Ham goes to the police station (noting “they used to call it the House of Justice, the only justice I ever saw here was the time the guy shot his wife’s lawyer”) to follow up with O’Gar.  The deceased was a former private investigator turned criminal with a jury tampering case.

“What the hell is going on here?  Simply burglary and all of the sudden we’ve got dead bodies, illegitimate kids and crooked private eyes,” Ham’s boss growls.  I should explain the middle part now.  The search for background information leads them to some weird facts, the weirdest of them that Mr. Leggett might or might not have been married previously to a woman named Alice Dain and might or might not be Gabrielle’s father. Eric has even more startling news: Gabrielle is missing.  He thought she might be at Minnie’s, but when he got there, all he found was Minnie wearing an emerald ring he had given to Gabrielle.  “I got an uneasy feeling that I’d messed up somewhere,” Ham narrates, because nothing makes sense.  The Leggetts swear Gabrielle is on a weekend trip with some friends, and when Ham says the long-nosed man may be in San Francisco, Mr. Leggett tells him the case is over because he’s taking financial responsibility for the missing diamonds.  Reminding them of the murder, Ham snarls, “I don’t let them bury anybody unless I can find something logical to put on the headstone.”  What a great line, it sounds like vintage Dashiell Hammett!

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Since Ham can’t get anything out of the Leggetts, he asks Owen to do it.  Owen is elated and even concocts an elaborate ruse to add to the fun he’s already having.   Minnie, despite round the clock surveillance, has also disappeared, but Ham is told he can find her at the Temple of the Holy Grail. “She went to get religion,” he quips to his coworkers.  Ham takes Eric with him.  “There was an eye at the entrance and I was hoping it had nothing evil connected with it.  But hope, as I found out, had nothing to do with reality,” Ham says, in another excellent line before heading into the mysterious Temple of the Holy Grail.

The joint is downright creepy, a mixture of rococo chic and strange religious symbols.  They make their way to the office of Aaronia Haldorn (miniseries legend Jean Simmons), looking like Aimee Semple McPherson in Technicolor red.

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She tells them they cannot see Gabrielle because “she’s medicating.”  She then reverses her stance and tells them where to find Gabrielle.  They find her in a room, nearly naked spinning a lampshade.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Ham dresses her, but she’s so out of her gourd that she doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing.  She just giggles and stares blankly.  Both Gabrielle and Eric are silent all the way home, the latter “just sat back there holding onto her like a paralyzed department store dummy.”  Whatever trance has hold of Gabrielle, it doesn’t seem to be loosening.

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Owen is at the Leggett house when they arrive, telling them Leggett killed himself.  “Her father was dead and she was smiling,” Ham narrates, still baffled by her state of mind, or lack of.  Hammett inspiration again: “The house smelled of death.  I never get used to it.”  Not only are the diamonds there, exposing the cover story of a robbery finally blown.  Even more convenient is Leggett’s suicide note, which tells the real story of his life.  He married Alice Dain’s sister, but after Gabrielle was born, he realized he loved his wife’s sister.  “It was a painful time,” the note says, clearly an understatement.  When his wife learned of the affair, she got nasty and Leggett shot her, fleeing from France to England with Alice and Gabrielle.

Wait, it gets MORE over-the-top.  French authorities tracked him down, he was tried and convicted and the punishment was a life sentence on Devil’s Island!  Now suddenly he’s Alfred Dreyfus?  But wait, there’s yet more!  He escaped on a raft and made his way to the United States where he hired a private investigator to locate Alice and Gabrielle.  It turns out this detective was blackmailing him, so Leggett offered him the diamonds, but says “I knew he would never let up and I would have to kill him.”

That’s still not the whole story!  The long-nosed man was the private investigator’s partner and killed him, taking on the blackmail job himself.  Leggett’s note says that he killed the new blackmailer and left him in the basement.  “I’m not going back to Devil’s Island,” he has written at the end of the story.  O’Gar has already found the body in the basement, but Ham finds $1500 in Leggett’s coat pocket.

I won’t say what comes next is a spoiler because it’s only the climax of one plot line.  There are a lot of others and many hours to follow.

“That letter’s the biggest bunch of nonsense I’ve ever heard,” Ham opines.  “Leggett didn’t commit suicide.  Leggett was murdered,” he announces to the incredulous crowd that includes O’Gar, Owen, Eric and Mrs. Leggett.  Gabrielle suddenly comes back to life to accuse her mother of killing her father.  Ham, naturally agrees, reminding everyone that there is nothing in the note that mentions suicide at all.  It has nothing to do with his death and the gun found next to him doesn’t mean Leggett was the one who used it.  It’s Leggett’s closing of “I’m not going back to Devil’s Island” that has convinced him.  “He’s going somewhere alright, but not to eternity.  That’s why he wrote that letter, to protect his wife and child.”  Mrs. Leggett’s hysterics start up again as she insists she heard an “explosion” and ran up to find the body.  Owen verifies this as he arrived only moments later.  Ham insists Mrs. Leggett is behind it all: to stop the blackmailing, she offered the PI the diamonds, but the PI found out they were fake, he threatened, she killed him, then had Minnie sell her jewels for cash and stashed Gabrielle in the Temple of the Holy Grail.  When she told Mr. Leggett the whole story, he wrote the note to cover f0r her.

And of course, there’s more.  Mrs. Leggett killed her sister and Ham knows that because she was arrested with her husband, the husband took the fall so she could go free, but Leggett escaped and she found out, so she tracked him down and forced him to marry her.

Beatrice Straight, always a terrific actress, has a great deal of fun with her version of the story, which is that Gabrielle killed her own mother because “I taught her to!”

How?  By playing a “game,” as Mrs. Leggett calls it, where she would pretend to be asleep so Gabrielle could come into the room, take the gun from a drawer and fire it, though it had no bullets.  “And you would laugh and laugh,” she reminds Gabrielle.  But, one day, Gabrielle decided to bring her mother into the game, not knowing there were bullets.  Damn, Alice Dain Leggett is one crafty sick customer.  Mr. Leggett came home moments later and of course took the fall for his daughter’s actions, which was a set-up anyway.  “It wasn’t hart to convince you.  You were only five and strange even then,” she remarks to Gabrielle.  “You carry the Dain curse!” Mrs. Leggett insists, in full spitting hatred, adding, “you were cursed from babyhood!”  While everyone rushes to calm Gabrielle, Alice Dain Leggett grabs the gun, rushes down flights of stairs, fires at everyone and then gets into one of those only-on-film tussles where the gun goes off and we don’t know who is dead, in this case Mrs. Leggett or Owen, before Mrs. Leggett does an only-on-film tumbling down the staircase, in slow motion, no less.  Ham narrates that it wasn’t really a tussle because she “turned the gun on herself.”  Owen is in shock and Ham tells us, “I thought he was going to pass out before I was able to thank him for saving my life.”

Ham is not convinced this is actually the true story.  He doesn’t believe Mrs. Leggett killed her husband and has trouble with the part about Gabrielle being “rehearsed to kill her mother.”  Owen accuses Ham of possibly having a crush on Gabrielle that is causing him to believe Gabrielle so innocent of anything.

“The Leggett case was over, but something pulled me back,” Ham says as he wanders through their house, on his way out of town for a new case his boss had given him.  “But maybe it had something to do with the girl…and the curse.”

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As for Gabrielle, we are told, “she was headed back to the Temple of the Holy Grail.”  She’s in a stupor again and has Minnie in tow.  It’s only now that we see how “cultish” is really is.  Joseph Haldorn (Ellis Rabb) may be dressed like a Medieval monk, but little that he is saying sounds particularly spiritual.  He stops his sermon, for only about five people, but with great lighting and sound effects, to welcome Gabrielle back.  Aaronia wears only a mysterious look.

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Ham is summoned back because “the Leggett case is open again.”  Plus, his boss knows he’s taken a shine to the constantly brain-fried girl.  He has permission to return to the Temple of the Holy Grail, as long as he doesn’t interfere with anything happening there.  That seems unlikely, but this part of the story, even in the book, is bizarre to the nth degree, so don’t believe anything you hear or see.

Aaronia, in billowing crimson, welcomes Ham back because this is an approved visit and he will actually be staying there.  “You will find, surprisingly perhaps, that we are neither barbarians nor fanatics here,” she states, in a way sends chills up the spine and even cracks half a joke when she tells Ham there are no plans to convert him, “but one never knows.”  The Dragon Lady on her golden throne lists the rules and though Ham wears a smile the whole time, he’s understandably wary.  He is given the room next to Gabrielle’s and told the doctor treating her will want to talk to Ham as well.  “He was very pleased that you were coming,” Aaronia says, slopping on the sarcasm and walking away before even finishing half of the sentence.

Ham then encounters Minnie coming out of Gabrielle’s room, testy as always, barking at him, “she don’t need you now!” before walking off in a huff.  His orders clearly stated that he was not to go into Gabrielle’s room, but after the awkward behaviors of the doctor and Minnie, he wants to see her for himself.  “I should have stayed there,” he says.  “Everything was too quiet.  The kind of quiet you hear just before all hell breaks loose.”

A new character, Tom Fink (played by a VERY young Brent Spiner) is in a huff (he’s watching Gabrielle’s room from a rather obvious two-sided mirror.  He doesn’t like Ham being there as a “un-believer.”  Frosty Aaronia even has an answer for that: “Let us not forget the true spirit of the Holy Grail, non-believers breathe the same air as believers.”  It’s said with such dryness that if she pressed a button and send Brent down through a hole in the floor to a group of sharks, it would not be at all surprising.  When Tom makes a snide remark about her husband, Aaronia gets even scarier: “Mr. Fink, Joseph is a true healer,” she starts, before going into a whispered, “and don’t you forget it.”  He won’t.  Not in her trademark red, but in a beaded gown that looks like a Bob Mackie creation, she dashes off to confront her husband, tending to a very wealthy member of the flock who wants a little something extra for her “contribution.”  Aaronia doesn’t care about the rich dame, but only Gabrielle.  “You’ll ruin everything,” she hisses.  “She will be with me in paradise,” Joseph oozes.

Ham discovers that his door is made to close fully, which means he can’t keep an eye or ear on Gabrielle.  He puts a shoe in the way and passes out from something released through the heater.  Luckily, he wakes up while it’s still pumping to see his door opening and closing as if possessed.  Or half wakes up.  He can barely make his senses work with whatever chemical is attacking.  He can’t find Gabrielle, but he makes it to the lobby just as Eric arrives.  Coburn handles his drug-induced character state very well, mining it for some good comedy.

They find Gabrielle, brandishing a bloody sword.  “You found me.  I knew you would.  One day,” she says. “I killed him.  You’re a detective.  Take me where they’ll hang me,” she begs, far more coherent than we’ve yet seen her.

Whom did she kill?  How did it happen?  Why was Hamilton Nash drugged?  What are Joseph and Aaronia hiding?

Find out next time!

 

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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