A reviewer in the Village Voice once wrote about Mickey Spillane, author of the Mike Hammer novels, that “Spillane is like eating takeout fried chicken: so much fun to consume, but you can feel those lowlife grease-induced zits rising before you’ve finished the first drumstick.” I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not, but love him or hate him (it’s usually either/or for fans and critics), Mickey Spillane definitely made his mark.
In The Fifties, David Halberstam’s penetrating chronicle of that decade in American culture, he points out that in 1956, seven of the 10 best-selling fiction titles were by Spillane, the only seven books he’d written up to that time, all but one featuring tough-guy private eye Mike Hammer! (By the time he died in 2008, Spillane’s output included 26 novels, numerous short stories, and even comic books – where he actually got his start in the ’40s with yarns for Batman, Superman, and Captain America, among others.)
Between 1953 and 1982, Hollywood crafted seven films around Spillane’s hardboiled hero. Though four are inconsequential, one is a classic (1954’s Kiss Me Deadly), another a genuine curiosity (1963’s The Girl Hunters), and the last an entertaining ’80s exploitation of sex and violence (1982’s I, the Jury).
Based on the author’s first book (which had already been made as a forgettable B-flick in 1953), I, the Jury stars Armand Assante as Hammer, a hairy-chested avenger who’s after the sorry bastards who killed his friend. Along the way, he beds a bevy of lovely ladies and annihilates a cadre of scumbags. Nudity and violence are rampant in the flagrant manner of ’80s movies, but the ending is true to the novel, Mike Hammer in a nutshell.
In Hammer’s arms is lovely Charlotte (Barbara Carrera), the acknowledged murderer as well as Hammer’s lover. Shedding her clothes, she nuzzles against him, trying to convince him not to turn her in or kill her, but he plugs her with his trusty .45 anyway.
“How could you?” she gasps. “It was easy,” he says.
Nineteen years earlier, in one of the more unusual cinematic ventures in modern film, Mickey Spillane himself played Mike Hammer in The Girl Hunters. The beefy author isn’t half-bad as his fictional badass, though the plot is substantially different from the book. Hammer is going after an elusive Commie assassin who, it turns out, is teamed up with luscious blonde Shirley Eaton, who would play the iconic gold-plated girl the next year in Goldfinger. Hammer doesn’t actually pull the trigger on her this time, instead tricking her into doing the deed herself (with a shotgun, no less)!
The best of the bunch (though Spillane himself reportedly hated it) is Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, described by one reviewer as “the definitive, apocalyptic, nihilistic, science-fiction film noir of all time – at the close of the classic noir period.” Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as a sadistic but righteous bully who doesn’t hesitate to use his devoted secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) as sexual bait in his work.
This version has Hammer involved in a search for a missing box of deadly uranium, a plot twist that inspired Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), among others. The movie’s cataclysmic ambiguous conclusion has also spawned reams of interpretation, due in large part to alternate edits of the ending.
Meeker’s Hammer is not a nice man by anyone’s standards (even Spillane’s), but he is a survivor in Aldrich’s gritty B&W world. And he doesn’t take guff from anybody.
Neither did Mickey Spillane.