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

*contains spoilers

It was Darren McGavin’s (1922-2006 heart disease) tv portrayal of Hammer in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-59) that followed this film and McGavin is a decided improvement over Bray even though it’s a half hour tv format. The violence is there if not the sex of the Spillane novels.

Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in the late 1950s tv series

But McGavin’s Hammer again doesn’t have the rough edges we’d expect of the character which is why it probably never became a long-running hit show. It does, however, come complete for the first time with voice over narration by McGavin just like in the novels. This is something which McGavin would use to greater effect for the tv movies and single season series of the show The Night Stalker (1974-75). He was good in that in what was probably a richer and softer character.

Just a note that it was McGavin’s Mickey Spillane show that the Clutter family watched the night they were murdered in 1959. The tale of their murders and the murderers was told in the book and movie In Cold Blood (1967).

Darren McGavin grew into The Night Stalker pretty well

Mickey Spillane himself had a poke at playing Mike Hammer himself in The Girl Hunters (1963). The film which describes itself as a Colorama feature is actually shot in black and white and being set in New York was mainly shot in England except for several second unit exteriors.

We start out with Spillane being picked from the street totally wasted by his once upon a time friend Pat Chambers. He is played by Scott Peters (1930-94) a star of Robot Monster (1953) director Phil Tucker’s (1927-85 suicide) Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960). Peters looks like he would break a hand when he punches Spillane’s Hammer in the face.

Scott Peters as Pat Chambers looks like he’d break a hand on Mike Hammer’s face

Spillane as Hammer is an odd combination and it nearly works very well although you’d never see Raymond Chandler (1888-1959 pneumonia and uraemia) play Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961 lung cancer) play Sam Spade.

Spillane’s acting is all in his face in the beginning which is okay if you’re doing a sensitive drama… but he then proves to have some physicality in a trench-coat as the wanders around the often faux-New York.

Mickey Spillane as Mike Hammer in The Girl Hunters (1963)

The story centres around the disappearance and possible murder of his secretary Velda – all that’s left to remind him of her is a pot plant. Spillane’s bender is a reminder that this is truer to the Hammer novels than previous attempts. He wears his hat in his office and survives on beer… Spillane is not a professional actor which he proved in Ring of Fear and his delivery of lines is somewhat stilted at times. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder and reader and this film features no inner monologues which pad the books.

The Girl Hunters (1963) quad or lobby card

“You are a tough one, eh,” says a friend of Joe Grissi whose bar Spillane has just gate-crashed.

“Enough…,” says Spillane, who says there’s only one way to find out.

The guy threatens him with an ice pick and Spillane just flicks .45 bullets from a clip. It’s classic Spillane as poorly executed in the movie that it is. The Girl Runners still has none of the gritty violence and of course nudity and sex of the novels.

“Beautiful blonds aren’t generally philosophers,” is another good Spillane line to future Bond Girl Shirley Eaton (1937-) – she was in Goldfinger (1964). She’s dressed in a leopard skin jacket and Spillane calls her kitten. Eaton is no great actress and the under-casting in the film helps Spillane come across as more accomplished.

Spillane with future Bond girl Shirley Eaton in The Girl Hunters (1963)

Instead of Pat Chambers as the police contact, we have an FBI agent played by Lloyd Nolan (1902-85 lung cancer). Nolan was best remembered for his own film series in the 1940s as Michael Shayne, Detective a series which predated Spillane’s Hammer books. The Shayne novels were prolific starting in 1939. There were fifty of them. So, Nolan’s casting was at least thoughtful and he probably gives the best performance in The Girl Hunters.

The Girl Hunters (1963) trailer. Thanks to Blazing Trailers.

The hint of a sex scene between Spillane and Eaton fades to black just like the Hammer novels skipped the actual sex as well. I guess that’s generally tasteful and leaves the reader and viewer to use their imagination – or hunt out the real thing! The Girl Hunters also has a rather brutal fight scene which teases us with a bench saw which is never used despite running loudly, although we get an unexpected spike nail a hand to the floor. The Girl Hunters didn’t win any awards which is not surprising. But it is worth a look if only for the oddity of seeing the author himself play his creation.

The Delta Factor (1970) quad or lobby card

The Delta Factor (1970) is another Mickey Spillane non-Mike Hammer novel made by Spillane and producer Robert Fellows (1903-69) who had written and produced The Girl Hunters. It has the scope of being set in South America. It stars Christopher George (1931-83 heart attack) and Yvette Mimieux (1942-), he as a gumshoe and a she a CIA agent sent down south to investigate shenanigans.

The film is the last screen credit for dependable director Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) who helped write the screenplay. Directed by Tay Garnett (1894-1977 leukemia) who dated back to the Mack Sennett silent comedies, this Spillane adaptation is boring except for a jail break at the end… Even the dependable George isn’t charismatic enough to carry the film. The Delta of The Delta Factor is an upturned triangle which is the symbol of woman and it is a woman who saves George in the end. This film sadly disappoints and Fellows’s death ended any more Spillane productions for the time being.

Christopher George can’t carry The Delta Factor (1970)

The 1982 version of I, the Jury has the balls to be a good Mike Hammer film. Indeed, Armande Assante (1949-) opens the film in bed with one of his client’s wives and the credit sequence makes use of the actor in stills with his Colt .45, something which would be used again for the Stacy Keach Mike Hammer series.

Credits for I, the Jury (1982) shows Hammer’s love for his .45 pistol

For realism, a real one-armed man is used for the role of Jack Herbert who is gunned down by an unknown assassin in his own apartment. Assante is more real than Biff Elliott and he doesn’t act as much of a meathead as poor Elliott either. With its very 1980s saxophone score, actor Paul Sorvino (1939-) plays a believable Pat Chapman. Assante’s Hammer also has a good assistant in Laurene Landon (1957-) from Robert Aldrich’s final film …All the Marbles (1981) as Velda.

With a muscle car just like Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly, the widow of Jack isn’t as sympathetic as the novel… And, also instead, there’s a subplot of a heroin racket which includes a sex clinic run by Barbara Carrera (1945-) in a bun as Charlotte Manning, the femme fatale. She’s not blond like in the novel either.

I, the Jury (1982) quad poster

“I would like to spend time with you and treat you to find out why you hate so deeply,” says Carrera’s psychiatrist to Assante’s Hammer. Her sex clinic, or retreat, where sexual surrogates are used to treat patients, stands in for the Bellamy Twins who were rich and owned the mansion in the novel but are reduced to little more than a pair of surrogates for this movie.

While Stacy Keach may be regarded as the best Mike Hammer by some, Assante doesn’t look as anachronistic and doesn’t wear the hat and trench-coat which Keach wore in his almost 1940s furnished office in the Mike Hammer tv series. From what I saw, that series was meant to be set in then-present day.

Armand Assante is a believable Mike Hammer. Here with Laurene Landon as Velda.

Geoffrey Lewis (1935-2015 heart attack) makes an appearance as a mutual friend of dead one-armed Jack and there’s a scene where Hammer, he and Velda escape assassins in a truck which they fuel with rum and mothballs! Assante’s hair kind of looks like Meeker’s – punk-like when it’s ruffled as well.

But the film isn’t directed with distinction and that’s because there is a television director Richard T. Heffron (1930-2007) behind the lens. Larry Cohen (1936-2019) was originally slated as director but got fired after a week’s work for reportedly going overbudget by $100,000. The replacement director also reduced the ratio of the film’s image just so he’d be more comfortable with a more tv sized ratio rather than true widescreen.

Alas, director Larry Cohen was shown the door for I, the Jury (1982)

At least Cohen earned $500,000 and saw that the film would be a ‘true’ Hammer film by being shot completely on location in New York. Like the updated novels, Mike Hammer’s alcoholism doesn’t take centre stage in this remake although back in The Girl Hunters the film opens with Hammer on a bender and doesn’t shy away from the issue.

Deadly Barbara Carrera in I, the Jury (1982)

Hammer/Assante and Carrera aren’t as close as in the book although she does strip off to a degree… Carrera is said to have admitted it is one of her favourite films… but this is the 1980s and whereas in the novel the pair plan to honestly marry before she is unmasked… well, that would be another anachronism, this time sexual.

“You’ve had your supper, you’re not staying for breakfast, so get out,” says Carrera to Hammer a little peeved which shows the 1980s type of lay them and leave them relationship.

Just a tease and not the orgy scene from I, the Jury (1982)

There are rumours that when 20th Century Fox ended up distributing the film upon the collapse of American Cinema Productions which made the film – they did The Entity around this time –  they found out that the cast used in the orgy scene at the clinic were real porn actors… but who knows – except perhaps the discerning. I’m sure the possibility of negative publicity gave Fox executives plenty of ulcers!

The climax of I, the Jury as it is written will probably never be filmed

I, the Jury will probably never be filmed with the novel’s climax intact. There we have the killer blond slowly revealing herself as completely nude as she tries to kill Hammer black widow style with a gun hidden behind him. No-one has ever captured that ending. In the Assante version, Carrera only bares her breasts.

While no bona fide classic like Kiss Me Deadly, this remake is good modern-day Spillane with its added action scenes and a game Assante. But even the final line: “It was easy” is delivered out of place compared to the book.

I, the Jury (1982) trailer

Assante, it should be mentioned, was also game to play the policeman-lawyer who arrests people and then defends them in the at times hilarious Fatal Instinct (1993), which was obviously using the actor’s experience as Mike Hammer as its basis. It was directed by Carl Reiner (1922-2020) who made the equally daffy private detective spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) starring Steve Martin (1945-).

As for Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer, complete with synth score, from what I’ve seen even the actresses have a 1940s look about them despite being set in the 1980s. Keach’s Hammer is not as hardboiled as say Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and the dialogue appears to be hack work – but wasn’t Spillane, the creator of all this just a hack?

Assante was perfect for Fatal Instinct (1993) having played Mike Hammer

Spillane apparently based the character of Mike Hammer on former police officer and ex-Marine Jack Stang (1923-96) and it was Stang that Spillane originally wanted to play Hammer in The Girl Hunters. Stang turned it down, preferring a family life rather than the fast life in Hollywood.

Just a word on the Stacy Keach series and the star did himself a disservice by getting himself arrested at Heathrow airport in mid-season for trying to smuggle cocaine into Britain in 1984. He spent some six months of a nine-month term in Reading jail.

The inspiration for Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a guy called Jack Stang

Of course, the 24 April bust interrupted production of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer which had begun in January 1984. Episodes remained unfinished and voice impersonator Rich Little (1938-) was called in to mimic Keach’s voice to complete the soundtrack.

Stacy Keach as Hammer

The show returned once Keach was released and then rebooted the following year as The New Mike Hammer. It was cancelled in 1987 after around 46 episodes all told. Keach was lucky to get an extra season and the series only resulted after positive reaction to the original tv movie which was meant as a stand-alone and not a pilot.

There followed a spin-off tv movie Mike Hammer: Murder Takes All (1989) which featured a young Jim Carrey (1962-) and singer Michelle Phillips (1944-) of the Mamas and the Papas. And a final stab in 1997-98 with Keach again in Mike Hammer, Private Eye which failed after one season.

The actor who played Pat Chapman in the previous series failed to return for the final series as he was disfigured and lost an eye in a mugging.

Actor Don Stroud was disfigured in a New York mugging

Don Stroud (1943-) was once one of the world’s top surfers and was reportedly paid $10,000 in 1973 to strip for Playgirl. In the 1990s in New York’s Greenwich Village the actor tried to help someone getting mugged but ended up getting stabbed eleven times including once in the eye. Now, that’s real Mickey Spillane stuff, tragic that it is.

An elderly Spillane with collaborator Max Allan Collins

There were radio shows back in the 1940s and 50s and other tv movies but that’s about it.

Keach big-noted that Spillane in real life was “a pussycat” but it all seems like he was high on cocaine at the time as Max Allan Collins, the man who sent Spillane a hundred fan letters, finally befriended him and ended up finishing his later novels said: “He had a reputation for being a tough guy – and he was a tough man – but he was a lovely guy”. He was “funny, complex” Collins added.

In a way, just like his creation Mike Hammer! Perhaps not funny and complex!!

Mickey Spillane… Will the real Mike Hammer please stand up!

p.s. Spillane made one of his last acting appearances in Collins’s stab at low-budget directing – the Mommy (1995 and 1997 sequel) movies which were an updating of Patty McCormack’s (1945-) The Bad Seed role as an evil child and now evil mother. Spillane plays a law attorney in a cameo.

4 Comments

  1. jameselliotsinger
    Permalink

    Assante is a fine actor but all wrong as Hammer and difficult to understand, mumbling many lines. I saw the movie when it was released and was very disappointed.

    Reply
  2. Marlene
    Permalink

    Jack Stang was my dad And the best Mike Hammer.—- passed away in 1996 !!!! Mickey Spillane and I remained friends until his death. —- Mickey’s last book included my dad as the main character.

    Reply
    • cultfilmalley
      Permalink

      There’s no doubt that he’s a legend! I hope that the article in some way honours your father. Jason

      Reply

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