Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Booze, Broads and Guns: Two Takes on Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer

While reading various tributes to the late, great Mickey Spillane I remembered a piece I'd written for the pages of ER #20 back in the fall of 1988. Here it is...

Booze, Broads and Guns: Two Takes on Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer
Mickey Spillane's fictional private eye Mike Hammer is one of our longest-lasting and most notorious tough guys, His legacy stretches from literature to film and eventually television with Stacy Keach portraying the character in the series "The New Adventures of Mike Hammer." With the character's propensity for guns, fights and women with tremendous lung capacity, Hammer seems to be tailor-made for the big screen. However, none of his film adventures have been all that successful. I recently viewed back-to-back interpretations of Mike Hammer, one in the the1963 film THE GIRL HUNTERS starring Spillane himself his creation and 1982's controversy-riddled I, THE JURY starring Armand Assante.

THE GIRL HUNTERS seems like an idea that can't miss. Spillane adapted the script from his novel with help from producer Robert Fellows and director Roy Rowland. One would think that having the author play his own character would be a stroke of genius, sort of like having Ian Fleming portray James Bond. Not the case here. Spillane, the source of Hammer's grizzled manner and alternating tough guy/wise ass personality, is simply grizzly here.

The film starts off with an alcoholic Hammer being hauled to the home of ex-buddy, police Captain Pat Chambers (here played by Scott Peters). Hammer is needed by the cops in order to get information from a dying man, and he eventually complies with their wishes. The alcoholic detective sobers up and quits the sauce when the dying man reveals info concerning Hammer's secretary Velda, who had disappeared years earlier during a job.

The private dick heads off, hot on a trail that leads Hammer to Laura Knapp, the stacked blonde widow of murdered Senator John Knapp, played by a pre-GOLDFINGER Shirley Eaton. Eaton's presence is mostly reduced to parading around in a variety of bikinis.

As the intrepid detective begins to turn up clues (most of which are basically handed to him... there's little real detective work here) he gets aide from Federal Agent Arthur Rickerby (Lloyd Nolan) who provides him with a sandwich, a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a permit to carry a gun anywhere in the country. Much to the chagrin of Captain Chambers. The gun, not the sandwiches and PBR.

The plot eventually leads to WWII spy organizations, Communist conspiracies, assassination, many dead bodies, and Shirley Eaton in - what else? - lots of bikinis. The wildest twist in the film comes when beautiful socialite Eaton falls for the chubby, double-chinned, buzz-cutted Spillane. As in any Hammer flick you have to wonder if the woman really loves him or is simply playing him for the sap, though his romantic side is obvious when he tells Eaton, "You'd have the medical examiner pickin' pieces of your skull out of the woodwork with needlenose pliers." I think any gal would get goosepimples at those words.

The rousing fight near the end of the film is particularly interesting. Filmed the same year as the extremely violent tussle aboard the Orient Express between James Bond and Red Grant in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the fight between Hammer and "The Dragon" doesn't have quite the same heart-pounding ferocity. However, by leaving out the manipulative music found in the Bond films and other similar action/adventure flicks the fight attains a primitive feel. Hammer performs a play on his own name by nailing the hand of one of the assassins to the floor. Even for the 1960s it's a pretty nasty scene.

While THE GIRL HUNTERS is an entertaining, campy diversion recommendable mostly for the author's novelty casting, it suffers from Spillane's one-note performance as Hammer. At no point was I convinced that the hope Velda is still alive can turn Hammer away from his vices. The voice-over narration is hopelessly stilted, and while this may have had some charm in the hands of another actor (such as Billy Dee Williams in DEADLY ILLUSIONS), Spillane ends up making it all sound like a Lite Beer commercial. Of course, the script does contain a plethora of tough-guy lines one would expect from a Spillane-scripted film. For example:

KNAPP: If I don't tell you will you belt me?
HAMMER: Hey, I never hit dames. I always kick 'em.
KNAPP: Will I get a reward?
HAMMER: Yeah. I won't kick you.


HAMMER: I been shot before.
GRIZZLED OLD SIDEKICK: Yeah, but you haven't been dead before.

THE GIRL HUNTERS is certainly worth seeing, but I guess I felt let down that Spillane wasn't up to carrying the character as well as I'd hoped.

It was nearly 20 years before Mike Hammer would return to the screen and hopes were high as ER fave Larry Cohen was hired to direct his own script starring Armand Assante as the tough guy detective. However, the picture was mired in controversy from the word "go." Cohen scripted and cast most of the roles and even shot six days of footage (none of which was ever used).

But as the director says in the excellent, career-spanning interview in ReSearch #10, "I couldn't get along with the company that was making the picture. They bought the script and then it was chaos."

Chaos, indeed, as the producers cast "comedian" Alan King in a pivotal role as a mob kingpin and recast the role of a friend's widow with an actress who is summed up by Cohen as being an "awful, terrible actress - she was homely, too."

While all of this is true (along with wholesale changes to Cohen's script), I tend to disagree with the director when he says "I just didn't think the picture ended up very good." For all its faults and shortcomings I've always been a big fan of I, THE JURY, especially during the early days of cable TV in our neighborhood.

I hadn't seen the film in about four years and my recent viewing after THE GIRL HUNTERS confirmed my initial feelings about the production.

The flick gets under way with a James Bond-esque pre-credit sequence as Hammer beds the wife of a client who hired him because he thought his wife was having an affair. This scene immediately establishes Assante's Hammer as a true tough guy of the early 80s, bedding any broad he can get near. While the scene has zero to do with the flick it has its own throwaway comic value.

After a startlingly cheesy credit sequence, the plot steamrolls as a one-armed detective (played by an actual one-armed guy) buys it in a hotel room. As it turns out, the detective was an old Vietnam buddy of Hammer's and although he's is warned to leave the case alone by pal and police Captain Pat Chambers (woodenly portrayed by Paul Sorvino) he sets out to find out who's responsible.

Pretty soon the plot leads to a sex clinic run by the sultry Barbara Carrera and it's in his early scenes with her that Assante shows why he was cast in the role. He commands attention and his characterization is a fine-tuned combination of tough guy bravado, pushiness and wise ass behavior. Spillane could have used a touch of this in his performance, which simply relied on the character's tough guy "charm."

Soon, Hammer's fellow Vietnam pals are being sought out by the CIA operatives and the detective does his best to find out why - often with disastrous results. A visit to Geoffrey Lewis (as an old pal/boozehound) turns into a car chase/gunfight down a mountain road and a lesson in how to run a jeep using Bacardi, moth balls and lighter fluid. (Seeing all that beautiful brown rum wasted did bring a tear to my eye, though.) Another visit to an ex-pal/special effects expert results in the poor sap's death. Throughout the flick Hammer has a tendency to be the proverbial "kiss of death."

I don't wish to reveal the entire plot, but allow me to say that the rest of the flick features a mommy-obsessed whacko who's been programmed to kill, a little pre-LETHAL WEAPON electrical torture, an obviously pre-AIDS group sex scene, some twin skin, and an absolutely brilliant scene in a Japanese restaurant that so affected me at age 13 that, to this day, I still can't go to a Benihana restaurant.

The finale involves Hammer's clash with the bad guys and while the scene has its moments you soon realize that three guys armed with guns are no match for a borderline psychotic Hammer! Strangely enough, one of the villians is reminiscent of a character in THE GIRL HUNTERS. Suffice to say that this is one of the very few similarities between the films.

In my opinion I, THE JURY comes out on top mainly due to Assante's performance and the underlying intricacies of Cohen's script. While the script was allegedly trashed by the production company, the basic idea is pure Cohen paranoia. Although it contains fewer tough guy lines than THE GIRL HUNTERS (Hammer does get to say "You kiss my fuckin' ass" while being tortured) and once again Hammer has little to do in the way of detective work, I found it to be a more satisfying watch.

In closing, both films have the same basic moral at their core. In each situation Hammer seems to be telling us, "Never trust a woman. No matter how beautiful she is or how vulnerable she may appear." Personally, I think it's a lesson we can all learn from.

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