Five degrees of Mike Hammer (Part 2)
"Get off my back, chick! I'm tired. I've been up 52 hours. I just crawled out of a sewer. There isn't a decent person left in the world." -- Robert Bray as Mike Hammer in MY GUN IS QUICK (1957).
As the 1950s moved into its latter half, British producer-director Victor Saville still owned the screen rights to Mickey Spillane's early works, especially those of iconic private detective and "one-man police force" Mike Hammer, as described in the 1953 movie adaptation of I, THE JURY. Saville, through his production company Parklane Pictures, had personally produced I, THE JURY for a profitable result, and turned over production and direction of KISS ME DEADLY (1955) to rising filmmaker Robert Aldrich, whose innovative approach to the material made KISS ME DEADLY a true cult classic, even within a year of its release due to the influence of the critics at the noted French film journal Cahiers du Cinema. "I think I did a good job, that everybody connected with it did a good job," Aldrich said in an interview. "But it isn't that deep a piece of piercing philosophy as the French thought it was."*
Saville's company produced the next adaptation of a Hammer novel, MY GUN IS QUICK, under the producer-director team of George A. White and Phil Victor, and once more, had a different actor portraying Spillane's tough-as-nails hero. Robert Bray, whose most notable screen role until then had been in support of Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray as the no-nonsense bus driver Carl in Fox's version of BUS STOP (1956), was a rugged choice for the part, not as unpolished as Biff Elliot in I, THE JURY but less smooth than Ralph Meeker's charming cobra of a Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY. He leads a cast of lesser-known professionals that indicated a lower production value, although the film employed such veterans of the business as Harry Neumann on cinematography and Marlin Skiles on music, both better known for their work at Allied Artists.
Released by United Artists on Aug. 1, 1957, MY GUN IS QUICK shares an element in common with KISS ME DEADLY in that the central villainy of Spillane's 1950 novel is tied to prostitution. Where KISS ME DEADLY switched an unstable atomic element for drugs as its "great whatsit," MY GUN IS QUICK hints at hooking in the beginning but focuses mostly on the hunt for a fabulous jewelry collection stolen after World War II. This change was the result of a screen story prepared by paperback novelist Richard Powell, who shared writing credit with Richard Collins (RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, 1954). It's a less-inspired but acceptable situation, which kind of sums up the picture as a whole. Most critics dismiss MY GUN IS QUICK as the most B movie-like of Saville's productions, but in this writer's opinion, it's a lively and watchable presentation that didn't do any damage to image of Mike Hammer.
Having finished a tough case that's left him in an extraordinarily bad mood (see the dialogue quote at the top of this piece), Mike wanders into a lower-case cafe and is touched by the plight of "Red" (Jan Chaney), a copper-haired Hollywood wannabe who's turned to the oldest profession for survival. After running off a sleazy character named Louis (Richard Garland) harassing the girl, Mike bankrolls a bus trip home to Nebraska for her and takes his leave, bringing the ever-sensible Velda (Pamela Duncan) a chopped egg sandwich for dinner. The next day, Mike is called in by his police pal Pat Chambers (Booth Colman) when his address and phone number is found on a hit-and-run victim.
Enraged when he discovers the unfortunate is Red, Mike begins following a ball of string that takes him to Red's stripper friend Maria (Gina Coree), a blonde in need of protection (Whitney Blake) and the Vanacci jewels, desperately sought by the ex-Army officer (Donald Randolph) who originally stole them and a gang of homicidal French hoods (we know they're French because they wear striped T-shirts and woolen caps) also on the swag's trail.
MY GUN IS QUICK makes good use of L.A. locations, including a sequence in the Angel's Flight/Bunker Hill section that also served KISS ME DEADLY. A lengthy car chase in which Mike pursues Louis offers some different views of the city, its highway system and beach community where suburban mid-20th Century homes shared space with oil drilling operations. The scenes provide an interesting impression of a prosperous, bustling postwar America, where Red's impoverished condition even prompts Mike to good-naturedly comment, "That's quite a feat in this lush country of ours."
That scene points out one of Bray's calmer moments as Mike as he generally jumps from zero to 60 in other scenes as someone badly in need of anger management. Like Elliot in I, THE JURY, that anger is a key part of Mike's motivation causing him to deal swiftly with anyone getting in his way, although Bray, who was capable of more restraint sometimes goes overboard. Like Elliot, however, a turn at playing Mike did not lead to bigger and better things for the actor, who soon returned to television for regular work. A Montana native, Bray had been a CCC worker and cowboy before coming to Hollywood prior to World War II as a studio carpenter. Following military service, he opted to become a film actor and found himself working at RKO in small roles, primarily in westerns or as the mute henchman in the noirish Pat O'Brien vehicle CRACK-UP (1946).
Around the time of MY GUN IS QUICK's release, Bray was reportedly offered a supporting role in Joshua Logan's film production of SOUTH PACIFIC (1958), but declined, prompting some observers to opine he made a career mistake. His longest run came in the TV version of LASSIE, where he portrayed the beloved collie's human companion, Forest Ranger Corey Stuart, for four seasons (1964-1968) before the producers wrote out the character. Bray soon retired and pursued outdoor interests until his death in 1983 at 65.
The solid supporting cast of MY GUN IS QUICK offered good work from Blake and Randolph, while Duncan makes a reassuring Velda and Garland a convincing heavy. At the time, both had been utilized to good advantage by independent producer-director Roger Corman, who provided them with choice roles in THE UNDEAD and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, also seen by audiences in 1957. Duncan and Garland had relatively brief Hollywood careers, the former leaving acting behind by the mid-'60s and passing in 2005 at 81, and the latter passing away in 1969 from alcohol-related illness. He was 42.
While a television series starring Darren McGavin as Mike kept the private eye and Spillane's name before audiences as the '50s passed (more on that later), Spillane, although hardly inactive, didn't produce another Hammer-themed novel until 1962 when THE GIRL HUNTERS appeared between covers. Producer Robert Fellows purchased the movie rights to the work, and with the assistance of Spillane and director Roy Rowland, scripted an adaptation that went before the cameras with an entirely new and original choice for the role of Mike -- Spillane. And once you get past the idea of a non-actor portraying his own literary creation, the writer offers a pretty good account of himself in a production that benefits greatly from his participation.
Spillane actually was a screen presence in RING OF FEAR (1954), playing himself and investigating a series of murders plaguing a circus. The color presentation was co-produced by Fellows and John Wayne for Wayne's company and released by Warner Bros. Spillane was originally brought in to revise the screenplay, which he did as a favor to Wayne, and aside from the Jaguar that Wayne bought him when Spillane refused a salary, the writer got his chance to appear on the big screen. He's not the main focus of RING OF FEAR's dramaturgy, but he appears to be enjoying himself in the scenes where he does pop up, including a climactic struggle with the killer (Sean McClory). With that experience behind him, the idea of casting Spillane as Mike in THE GIRL HUNTERS wasn't as outlandish as it may have sounded, despite the fact Spillane, fairly youthful and athletic in RING OF FEAR, was now a few years older and stockier.
Yet, wearing the dark suit, fedora and trenchcoat that became his image, brandishing a .45 with conviction and dispensing a rough charm, Spillne made the performance work while Fellows, Rowland and others worked a different kind of magic with the movie. As historian William K. Everson noted, THE GIRL HUNTERS was "a fascinating (and successful) exercise in illusion: apart from a few establishing shots of New York, the whole film was made in England, yet the intercutting of those few authentic shots with matched-up British sets, plus the use of familiar American faces, gave the film the wholly convincing veneer of an American-made film."**
The recognizably U.S. faces aside from Spillane were Lloyd Nolan as FBI man Rickerby, Scott Peters as Pat Chambers and columnist Hy Gardner portraying himself. The remainder of the cast were British trying to sound American or expatriates cast in UK films as being from the States. But as far as accents were concerned, nobody was paying attention to that of female lead Shirley Eaton due to her well-publicized scenes in a bikini, cast as a U.S. senator's wife who distracts Mike for a time. It was one of two iconic roles for the blonde actress, the second following closely on the heels of THE GIRL HUNTERS in the James Bond actioner GOLDFINGER (1964) as Jill Masterson, the alluring agent of the titular villain whose dalliance with Bond prompts her being painted gold. Eaton, who left films and television by the end of the '60s, celebrated her 80th birthday this month.
Released by UA with a Los Angeles premiere on June 12, 1963, THE GIRL HUNTERS is watchable for Spillane's performance and its story, which finds Mike in a drunken haze being picked up by police in an alley and taken to Pat, where he learns that Velda has disappeared and may be in the hands of a notorious Communist agent. After a couple of drinks to take off the edge, Mike snaps out of his stupor -- related to Velda's apparent abduction -- straps on his gun and follows a set of leads, among them seductive Laura Knapp (Eaton). Working with Rickerby, Mike's focus narrows to a dangerous Iron Curtain hit man known as The Dragon (Larry Taylor), leading to a life-or-death confrontation between Mike and the burly Red and in typically Spillane fashion, a showdown between Laura and our hero.
As explained by Everson, the Big Apple exterior scenes match seamlessly with the studio footage shot overseas by Kenneth Talbot, but both are also dark and brooding when the story called for the bright and colorful look of the Bond movies and the explosion of imitators they spawned. Filmed black-and-white by Rowland, a busy director at M-G-M in the '40s and '50s, THE GIRL HUNTERS' visual disappointment -- more likely a victim of the budget than any design oversight -- is compensated by the strength of the plot and the performances, offering an offbeat depiction of the material that Max Allan Collins described as "(n)ot a movie, but a pop culture event!"***
And while the film of KISS ME DEADLY touched on the Cold War motivations spurring the hunt for the disastrous "great whatsit," the well-known anti-Communist leanings of the Spillane novels were more prominently on display in THE GIRL HUNTERS; shortly after the novel's publication, Spillane's non-Hammer fiction began focusing on espionage themes.
The previously-mentioned TV series, formally titled MICKEY SPILLANE'S MIKE HAMMER, originally aired in syndication from 1958 to 1960 and was made by Revue, the production arm of Music Corporation of America, then a busy supplier of action fodder such as SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, STATE TROOPER and M SQUAD. Like the other Revues, MIKE HAMMER was fast, sharp and suitably rough-edged to remain in keeping with the Spillane conception. The 78 episodes utilized location shooting in New York matched with studio work to create a believable atmosphere.
Most historians who have seen it tend to prefer Brian Keith's Mike in a 1954 pilot film that didn't sell. But for this series, Darren McGavin was awarded the lead and while Spillane reportedly didn't care for his portrayal, McGavin brought the requisite toughness and physicality to the role, along with a breezy nature and touch of humor that made his somewhat more cleaned-up-for-TV image quite acceptable. Although quick with his fists when provoked, McGavin's Mike was more likely to talk things out before resorting to violence, and had none of the "what's in it for me" slime that dripped from Ralph Meeker's Mike in KISS ME DEADLY. No Boy Scout, mind you, but McGavin's private eye was more of a tarnished but likeable knight who used a '57 Ford convertible in place of a trusty steed to help save the day.
MIKE HAMMER was the actor's second lead in a TV series; McGavin replaced Richard Carlyle in CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER for most of the live program's 1951-1952 run on CBS. In the midst of MIKE HAMMER's production, McGavin accepted the lead in another series, NBC's RIVERBOAT (1959-1961), prompting him to simultaneously headline two shows, a task presumably made easier by their both being filmed at Universal Studios. A busy participant in the expanding made-for-TV movie market in the 1970s, McGavin's starring role as irrevrent yet intrepid newsman Carl Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), its 1973 sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER and the 1974-1975 ABC series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER cemented his fame to generations unaware of his turn as a cool Mike Hammer. McGavin was 83 when he passed in 2006.
Different interpretations of Mike Hammer would start appearing in later decades, for film by Armand Assante in a 1982 remake of I, THE JURY and television with Stacy Keach's aggressively old-school conception, first on CBS from 1984 until 1987, and syndication in 1997-1998. But the performances from the heyday of Spillane's novels are an interesting and entertaing bunch for detective movie fans to savor. For completists, Mike was also on radio from January to October 1953 in THAT HAMMER GUY, which aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System. The program initially starred stage and radio actor Larry Haines and later, screen tough guy Ted de Corsia.
* Alain Silver and James Ursini, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROBERT ALDRICH? HIS LIFE AND FILMS, New York: Limelight Edtions, 1995, p. 348.
** William K. Everson, THE DETECTIVE IN FILM, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972, p. 237.
*** "Fifteen Best Private Eye Movies," selected by Max Allan Collins, 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. 320.