The Cult of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (Part One)

*contains spoilers

Author Mickey Spillane (1918-2006 pancreatic cancer) called his writing “the chewing gum of American literature”. I guess he meant once you’ve chewed over it, you could throw it away. It’s disposable literature. Others perhaps wouldn’t be so kind, while others would rate Spillane’s work as better than that.

Writer and sometime actor Mickey Spillane in the 1950s

I read Spillane’s first detective Mike Hammer novel I, the Jury to get an idea of what Spillane in print is like. There is no physical description of Mike Hammer the hero of many of his novels but we sure get a mental picture of what the detective is like and what he is capable of.

I, the Jury book cover

I, the Jury introduces us to the fictional character Mike Hammer, his kind of buddy Pat Chapman who is high up in the police force, Hammer’s secretary Velda… and the fact that the story of I, the Jury is a revenge tale with Hammer’s one-armed war veteran friend murdered at the beginning with a .45 slug right in the belly. Hammer swears the killer, who obviously watched his friend die in agony on the floor of his apartment, will die the same way. And it will be Hammer who will do it!

Laced with violence and sex and nudity, the novel, which Spillane wrote in nineteen days to earn some cash, was an instant hit, leading to writer Spillane’s celebrity and a cache of over twenty Mike Hammer novels which in the end were completed by fan and then friend Max Allan Collins (1948-).

Spillane also tried his hand at acting as well, including a turn as Mike Hammer himself.

Robert Taylor, Victor Saville and Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Conspirator (1949)

Back to I, the Jury and the rights to this and a few other Spillane novels were bought by English producer and director Victor Saville (1895-1979). It is said that when the movie version of I, the Jury was made in 1953, that Saville was more interested in his major production of The Silver Chalice (1954). That film stars Paul Newman (1925-2008 lung cancer) who got a Golden Globe nomination for his role as an artist who must make the chalice for the Last Supper, in other words the Holy Grail. Newman later took out full page ads in publications when it was released on television in the 1960s apologising for the film which he described as “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s.”

The Silver Chalice (1954) trailer

The Silver Chalice was shot in colour and Cinemascope and lost money. I have tried to watch it, but it’s a bit of a bore despite my love of Pier Angeli (1932-1971 suicide by sleeping pill overdose). Compare this film to the 3-D black and white Harry Essex (1910-97) directed production of I, the Jury and you can really see where the money went – not in the Mike Hammer film.

Director Essex’s writing credit for It Came from Outer Space (1953) probably helped him get the gig for I, the Jury and the director would go on to write Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) a film he would remake with good-bad results as Octaman (1971), the film where Pier Angeli committed suicide during production. How much of Essex’s work was in the sci-fi films is disputed due to the quality of his later work.

Harry Essex was responsible for the good-bad movie Octaman (1971)

Although I, the Jury was filmed in 3-D it came at the end of the short-lived craze and was often shown flat. Biff Elliott (1923-2012) as Mike Hammer, isn’t the alcoholic of the novels – I even think I read a later bowdlerised version of the novel which erased Hammer’s alcoholism. The thing about Elliott is the obvious use of shoulder pads in his costumes. They are outsized and remind me vaguely of some Monty Python sketch with gangsters and outrageously oversized shoulder pads.

I, the Jury (1953) quad poster

Elliott was a former boxer who served in the United States army during World War Two. He started on stage after the war ended in 1945. Spotted and recommended to Saville, Elliott was cast as Mike Hammer after he crammed Spillane’s novels before an audition. Elliott’s Hammer talks tough and despite not really giving much of a performance, his Mike Hammer definitely grows on you… he’s more of a mug than a detective who could size up conspiratorial situations. It is no wonder that Elliott never went on to great stardom after I, the Jury and nor was he asked to play the Hammer role again.

Biff Elliott’s shoulder pads in I, the Jury (1953)

There is no working of Hammer’s inner mind which the book used often. I don’t think Elliott as Hammer had an inner mind. I guess that’s what makes him all the more real.

Peggie Castle (1927-73 alcoholism) as the femme fatale is good though, but the actress would end up an alcoholic wreck after a steadily declining career, passing away on her couch in Hollywood at the age of 45. She did, however, receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 which was around the time her alcoholism became chronic.

Peggie Castle and Biff Elliott in I, the Jury (1953)

When Elliott sits in a turned around chair, the chair dwarfs him… and it’s those shoulder pads again! The end of the novel, which comes after the introduction of a number of suspects has our femme fatale unmasked and walking towards Hammer, stripping until she is completely naked in the hope of picking up a .45 hidden behind the detective. Of course, Hammer gives it to her in the stomach. And, of course, in the 1950s nudity wasn’t an option in the movies.

I, the Jury (1953) trailer

Saville directed another Spillane novel The Long Wait (1953) which wasn’t a Mike Hammer tale. It stars Anthony Quinn (1915-2001 respiratory failure), Charles Coburn (1877-1961 heart attack) and Peggie Castle is also in it.

“I haven’t been kissed like that in a long, long time,” says a blond to Anthony Quinn in The Long Wait.

The Long Wait (1953) poster

Whether that wait is for this film to end is possible as this Spillane film is devoid of any real thrills or characters we care about. Quinn plays an amnesiac caught in a so-called web of intrigue. The best part of the film is an appearance by veteran Coburn who is given nothing to do. There are some fisticuffs as Quinn’s character can’t take the teasing at work for his amnesiac condition. The fisticuffs reprise at the end but it’s all too late. Saville obviously had The Silver Chalice on his mind as it was released soon afterwards. You may even have trouble telling which blonde is which through the faded prints which are available.

Perhaps it was the money made by the previous two Spillane films which led to Kiss Me Deadly (1955) being such a quality production. That and the use of director Robert Aldrich (1918-83 kidney failure) who went uncredited on the screenplay written by A.I. Bezzerides (1908-2007).

Screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides

Bezzerides was a co-creator of The Big Valley tv series and wrote cult-like classics such as They Drive by Night (1940) based on his novel, Desert Fury (1947) and On Dangerous Ground (1952).

Kiss Me Deadly has a brutal and believable lead in Ralph Meeker (1920-88 heart attack) as Mike Hammer. He is often cited as the best actor in the role, while Stacy Keach (1941-) in the 1980s tv series was said to be more faithful to the novels.

On Dangerous Ground (1952) trailer

Bezzerides said he had “fun” with the Kiss Me Deadly script, a nihilist tale of the Atomic Age with a Pandora’s Box-like McGuffin which may at the end of the film destroy not just a beach front house but maybe all of L.A. and even the world. Yes, the film’s setting is not the New York of the usual Spillane novels.

Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer sums up the title of Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly is bookended by two short haired blonds in trench-coats which serve as the initial and then the final trigger in the story. The first is played by Cloris Leachman (1926-) who upon being picked up by Hammer/Meeker one dark night on an empty road, starts to breath heavily over the opening credits, catching her breath almost if she is having sex.

“Remember me,” she tells Hammer and later gets killed.

Robert Aldrich (left) directs the cast of Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Apparently filmed in less than three weeks, the film belies this fact and is beautifully made despite its pulp origin. This is probably because director Aldrich had complete control over the film according to his contract. While Spillane’s Hammer in the novel describes the car he drives as little more than a jalopy – Meeker in turn drives a Jaguar XK 120, an MG-TD and a 1954 Chevrolet Corvette. In the 1982 version of I, the Jury, the muscle car used is a Chevy Camaro IROC 2-28. All I deserve is a jalopy for my knowledge of such things!

Christina Rossetti’s poem Remember plays a part in Kiss Me Deadly

Meeker’s Hammer is little more than one dimensional but the actor has his moments such as the recognition of the line “Remember Me” from a Christina Rossetti (1830-94 breast cancer) poem left in a book on Leachman’s bedside table. It is actually from the poem Remember written while the poet was still a teenager in 1849. The poem speaks with intimate simplicity and tenderness… But in Kiss Me Deadly the beauty of these words are reduced to little more than Hammer remembering that Leachman’s body is in the morgue and that someone has an important key there found inside her during her autopsy. Quite a contrast. It is that total erasure of the romantic and the gentle that Kiss Me Deadly makes with its scenes of jarring violence and what must have been a very timely Cold War plot invention of the portable atomic weapon.

Private detective Mike Hammer gets the girls and the best cars in Kiss Me Deadly

It long precedes the weapon used in the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan novel and resulting film The Sum of All Fears (2002). But it is a woman who ends up destroying all when she opens up that old Greek mythological item Pandora’s Box, something that contains all of man’s ills and which has been hidden in a case inside a gym locker. She thinks it’s valuable – really, it’s plain curiosity – but in reality, it is a curse within both the woman and the box. This second trench-coat blond is played by Gaby Rodgers (1928-).

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) trailer

These deeper textures are definitely things not found in a Spillane Hammer and the McGuffin of the box containing the weapon is an invention for the film whereas in the novel of Kiss Me Deadly it was all about mobsters and stolen cash.

The mystery of Kiss Me Deadly is how Hammer supports his lifestyle which includes a rather nice apartment and spiffy cars. By the way, the address of Hammer’s apartment at 10401 Wiltshire Boulevard is a complex where the apartments go today for between almost three to four million dollars.

Mike Hammer’s address in Kiss Me Deadly as it is today

Hammer’s apartment is nicely furnished as opposed to the inherent seediness of Spillane’s original character. I guess for this film they tried to make this thug appear to have some class – he even has the latest answering machine for his phone!

Not that his income matters as he usually gets the job done.

At the end of the film, he saves his secretary Velda, but there are two endings, where one catastrophe is bigger than the other and possibly no one is saved. I haven’t seen the ‘big’ ending.

It’s just a case of female curiosity which opens Pandora’s Box

“You against good health, or something?,” Hammer spits at Leachman at the beginning of the film when she comments about his fancy car and clothes and possible narcissism. She says she wouldn’t mind flabby muscles in a guy if it made him a little friendlier. Such is the beast of Mike Hammer in the best Hammer movie Kiss Me Deadly, where the violence descends to the sadistic as it is suggested that pliers or some such tool is taken to the naked Leachman’s genitals as a form of torture… And such is the beast under the hand of the man the French would later call an auteur and an artist – Robert Aldrich.

All we really know is that Leachman’s character was tortured to death very nastily

It was around the time of Kiss Me Deadly that writer Mickey Spillane’s celebrity was obviously peaking. He appeared with high billing in the film Ring of Fear (1954). The title is probably a play on a three-ring circus which is the setting and the pucker factor you may feel in your backside when faced with total fear.

Ring of Fear was produced by John Wayne’s production company in colour and Cinemascope and features the famed Clyde Beatty’s (1903-65 cancer) circus. Spillane is second billed behind Beatty who had appeared in films since the 1930s.

Ring of Fear (1954) DVD cover

The movie has a possible madman escaping from the so-called funny farm, only to return to the circus, where Beatty has a lot to answer for the madman being scared by one of the circus’s big cats in a cage.

The most amusing shot in the film is of a man with four sets of twins sitting with him and watching the circus performance with a frown on his face.

When Spillane first appears, he is playing himself and a concession stand vendor is sitting and reading My Gun is Quick, which would be turned into a film a little later.

“That’s all I do anymore is read the books,” he blames Spillane for his latest marital woes.

Spillane poses at the height of his popularity

I guess Spillane is playing Spillane and it’s amazing the acting stardom a hit book or three can bring you… even if you really can’t act! Spillane had come a long way from when the first book I, the Jury was written in 1947.

Ring of Fear is padded with big cat circus acts along with other less interesting ones and the film really has no mystery as we already know who the bad buy is. It’s passable but very ordinary fare and it didn’t make an instant star actor of the author.

Victor Saville’s fourth and final film as a producer of the Spillane novels he owned the rights for was My Gun is Quick (1957) starring Robert Bray (1917-83 heart attack) as Hammer. It was apparently directed by Saville under the moniker of Phil Victor.

My Gun is Quick (1957) quad or lobby card

It opens in the Star Café which from the inside reads “ratS” which is the best directorial touch in the movie. It’s there that Bray meets a doomed girl for whom he buys a bowl of soup… also giving her money to leave town and start afresh. It’s the typical girl turning to prostitution type. She dies.

Bray really can’t act and this is obvious as most of his other credits are for television. When he slams his fist on a table it is unbelievable, almost like we’re watching a ten-year-old having a minor conniption fit.

Robert Bray’s Mike Hammer shouldn’t be totally dismissed

But to dismiss Bray is not to dismiss the film as it’s competently directed, certainly better than The Long Wait. Bray sounds like a combination of Clark Gable and George Montgomery but lacks the alcoholic hardboiled shell of what we like to imagine Hammer inhabits. Bray is not an alcoholic swearing and hairy beast but a more urbane character who wears a suit and tie… but thanks to ‘that’ voice he has a degree of sexual magnetism.

“She’s quite a girl… you should see her take her clothes off,” says Bray’s Hammer about one female character who is a stripper.

“Do I file her under A or B? Art or business?,” asks secretary Velda.

My Gun is Quick (1957) trailer. Thanks to Drive-In Trailers.

While I consider this as one of the lesser Hammer movies, it’s not a total bust. It does, however, lack the brutality of Kiss Me Deadly but there is some moodiness to the last third of the film, something of a relief compared to the constant ya-da-ya-da of the Spillane novels.

We look at Spillane himself as Hammer and more in PART TWO

1 Comment

  1. jameselliotsinger
    Permalink

    Both Elliot and Bray have no movie screen charisma. The females were well cast, especially Whitney Blake, later the wife in Hazel The casting of a Hammer film is crucial, like James Bond, and these misfires sunk them both. Better choices would have been Ray Danton, Steve Cochran, Robert Stack or John Payne.

    Reply

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