Five degrees of Mike Hammer (Part 1)
"Look, Pat, I've managed to take care of myself one way or another for a long time. And license or no license, I'm going to find the killer and give him what he deserves -- a .45 right down there just like he gave it to Jack!" -- Biff Elliot as Mike Hammer in I, THE JURY (1953).
In the nearly 70 years since the appearance of Frank Morrison "Mickey" Spillane's private detective Mike Hammer in print via the novel I, THE JURY, difference of opinion lingers over the quality of Spillane's work and its enduring popularity. Spillane (1918-2006), who produced numerous works aside from than the more than 20 Hammer novels bearing his name as their writer (Spillane was very specific: he was a writer, not an author), still manages to create some controversy in literary circles between those who detest his style and those who defend it by pointing to the grand total of book sales he racked up over a lengthy career. No doubt the same discussion will arise this March with the publication of his latest posthumous work, a Hammer mystery entitled THE WILL TO KILL, the tenth of the novels started by Spillane and completed by Max Allan Collins, a disciple of Spillane's stark approach.
There is consensus, however, that yes, Spillane isn't on the level of Dickens or Tolstoy, and even less polished than the masters of the field of hardboiled fiction such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But his driving narrative and sparing, go-for-the-throat use of language perfectly summed up the treacherous urban jungle Hammer navigates while seeking out his own brand of justice. "The guy was dead as hell," reads the terse opening sentence of the third Hammer novel, VENGEANCE IS MINE (1950). No masterpiece but it gets the point across in Hammer's lean narration of his cases. A non-Hammer 1953 novelette for the popular action magazine Manhunt, "Everybody's Watching Me," is similarly gripping and evidence of Spillane's mastery of the form.*
Critic and author Jon L. Breen's summation reflects those divided thoughts. While he doesn't care for Spillane's work, Breen notes that "a number of writers and critics whose opinions are worthy of respect believe he is an important writer of crime fiction."** Like it or lump it, Spillane is a significant presence in fiction of the post-World War II era, a position that made him "critic-proof" in the estimation of The New York Times when it published his obituary.
It took Hollywood a little time to beckon for Hammer, and early screen adaptations of the character were mostly true to the rough, tough and vigilante-like traits that Spillane imbued in his most famous creation. With the exception of Ralph Meeker's crafty, narcissistic approach to the part in KISS ME DEADLY (1955), other movie portrayals by Biff Elliot, Robert Bray and Spillane himself, not to mention Darren McGavin's conception for TV, have anchored themselves to the literary basis that created Hammer's well-known appetite for revenge, violence and sex as filtered through the eroding influence of censorship in the 1950s. Although variable given the actor's own talents, the performances in these first few film versions of Spillane's works emerge as their more significant features.
British producer and director Victor Saville purchased the screen rights to Spillane's novels and launched his franchise, appropriately, with the first of Spillane's popular compositions, I, THE JURY. (The second Saville production, a 1954 adaptation of a non-Hammer, THE LONG WAIT, starred Anthony Quinn and does a decent job in capturing the Spillane mood in a corruption-filled town). Released by United Artists on Aug. 14, 1953, I, THE JURY introduced Biff Elliot, a New York stage and television actor, as Mike and was a mostly acceptable choice. While he seemed to filter Mike through a Stanley Kowalski-like strainer, Elliot was experienced enough to project some sympathy for Mike despite the beatings and shootings he dispenses in the course of the screenplay by Harry Essex, who also directed.
Investigating the murder of an old friend, insurance investigator Jack Williams (Robert Swanger) who lost an arm rescuing Mike from a Japanese bayonet in the big war, our hero runs into a number of suspects, even falling in love with one of them, psychoanalyst Charlotte Manning (Peggie Castle).
At the end, Mike's tough facade cracks when the desperate Charlotte pleads with him that they could have had the world. "I never wanted the world!" Mike responds with more than a little anguish. "All I wanted was room for you and me." Although Bob Porfirio found Massachusetts-born Elliot had "little presence and no conventional persona on which to draw for dramatic impact,"*** this particular moment hints that the actor and Essex sought to provide Mike with some vulnerability.
Max Allan Collins opined that I, THE JURY expressed the feel of early Spillane works,@ with much credit from a number of sources given to the moody cinematography of film noir master John Alton despite the provisions for the then-popular three-dimesional photography in which the movie was shot. His vision presents a chilly and forbidding view of a New York at Christmastime that dovetails nicely with the downbeat atmosphere. Noir it is, but one of the key ingredients of I, THE JURY's affinity to dark film are the minor, desperate characters Hammer either knows or encounters in the course of his probe, from the pitiable street hanger-on Bobo (an unbilled Elisha Cook Jr.) to Jack's hopeless girlfriend Myrna (Frances Osborne), who returns to a chemical addictions after her lover's death. Both also contribute to the high body count of the story, an acknowledgment of Spillane's unblinking view of such individuals living in the shadows.
Elliot, brother of CBS sportscaster and game show host Win Elliot, never found another starring role in a feature film, although he won decent supporting parts in such productions as THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) and THE STORY ON PAGE ONE (1959). He mostly worked in television and is known to fans of the original STAR TREK for his role in the 1967 episode "The Devil in the Dark." He later did some work in sports announcing for TV and died at 89 in 2012. I, THE JURY also boasts solid performances from Preston Foster as Pat Chambers, Hammer's police friend, Margaret Sheridan as loyal secretary and Gal Friday Velda, and Castle as the ultimately villainous Charlotte, the first in a long line of femmes fatale to whom the private eye loses his heart.
Saville handed off production and directing duties for the next Hammer movie, KISS ME DEADLY, to Robert Aldrich, a new talent who had acquitted himself well with three 1954 features, WORLD FOR RANSOM, APACHE and VERA CRUZ, the latter two top-lined by such powerhouse Hollywood names as Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. Much has been written and discussed about KISS ME DEADLY, released by UA and given a Los Angeles premiere on May 18, 1955, a film Aldrich always claimed to be a simple action thriller but the deeper overseas critics interpreted as a metaphor for the decline of civilization in the atomic age "The more primitive the world becomes, the more fabulous are its treasures," notes villainous Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker), agent of most of the movie's chaos. Yet Aldrich insisted KISS ME DEADLY wasn't "as profound as many of the French thought it was."@@
The performance of Ralph Meeker as Mike in KISS ME DEADLY has also been subject to as much scrutiny if not more so for his decidely unsympathetic approach to the role, a result of scenarist A.I. Bezzerides' antipathy toward the character of Mike and Spillane's work as a whole. Yet his portrayal is fascinating to behold as he masks an amoral and greedy nature behind a charming smile. The difference in this depiction of Hammer with that of the novels coincides with a change in locale (Los Angeles instead of New York) and a substitution of what Velda (Maxine Cooper) calls the "great whatsit" everyone is after to a dangerous form of nuclear energy rather than the cache of illegal drugs from the 1952 source novel.
We pretty much get all we need to know about this new Mike Hammer and his priorities in the brilliant opening sequence when Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman), clad only in a trenchcoat, flags down Hammer's Jaguar by forcing it off the road. "You nearly wrecked my car!" grumps Mike before he offers the out-of-breath and bedraggled Christina the ride that draws him into the hunt for the "whatsit." More nattily dressed, driving a snazzier car than the older coupe owned by the Hammer of I, THE JURY and a lover of the finer things (note that for the most part, he doesn't drink beer in this one), this Hammer is completely modern but utterly lacking in scruples, still animalistic when his sadistic side is aroused, as in his disposal of a knife-wielding assassin (Paul Richards) and using a desk drawer to crush the fingers of an avaricious morgue attendant (Percy Helton). And we never do see what he does with such incredible force to hulking Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert), first to put him out of action for awhile, and later to defend himself against a murder attempt. Or maybe we don't want to know.
Native Minnesotan Meeker never had another starring role as significant as Mike Hammer and it remains his most iconic role. A stage actor who entered movies in 1951, Meeker was under contract to M-G-M, with strong performances in two 1953 releases, JEOPARDY with Barbara Stanwyck and THE NAKED SPUR in support of James Stewart and Robert Ryan, before netting his greatest part on Broadway as Hal, the shirtless anti-hero of William Inge's PICNIC in 1953. Meeker declined an offer from Columbia to play Hal in the 1955 movie adaptation of the play, reportedly because he didn't like the attached seven-year studio contract. A professional misstep, perhaps, but he remained busy in film (Aldrich utilized his services again in 1967's THE DIRTY DOZEN) and television until sidelined by a 1980 stroke. He was 67 at the time of his death in 1988.
Fine performances supplement Meeker's portrayal, especially by the three actresses "introduced" in KISS ME DEADLY -- Leachman with her vulnerable yet affecting interpretation of the ill-fated Christina; Cooper as a sympathetic and strong Velda who proves to be brainier than her employer; and Gaby Rodgers as Carver, the waif-like but sketchy "friend" of Christina who joins Mike's search for the "whatsit." Ditto Dekker as the smooth chief miscreant who's heard throughout but remains unseen until the literally explosive climax, and Aldrich casting favorite Wesley Addy as the renamed Pat Murphy, the voice of reason Mike ignores for most of the proceedings.
KISS ME DEADLY's Mike Hammer may be more of a creep than a hero -- "All right, you've convinced me. I'm a real stinker," he offhandedly tells some federal investigators who have reviewed his less-than-ethical private eye practices -- but it's a characterization that works in this environment, made more palatable by Aldrich's direction, sharp cinematography by Ernest Laszlo and Frank DeVol's atmospheric music, elements that have given the film a solid basis to classic status.
* Available in Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, eds., PULP MASTERS, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001, pp. 256-329.
** Introduction to "Private Eye Mysteries" in Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff with Jon L. Breen, eds., THE FINE ART OF MURDER: THE MYSTERY READER'S INDISPENSABLE COMPANION, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1993, p. 154.
*** Critique of I, THE JURY in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds., FILM NOIR: an ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE, third edition, Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 1992, p. 141.
@ "Fifteen Best Private Eye Movies," selected by Max Allan Collins, in THE FINE ART OF MURDER, p. 320.
@@ Alain Silver and James Ursini, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROBERT ALDRICH? HIS LIFE AND FILMS, New York: Limelight Editions, 1995, p. 348.