Tribute: Mickey Spillane

By Monica Sullivan
Movie Magazine International
Mike Hammer's been around so long, it's hard to recall a time when he wasn't part of the mystery landscape, like Sherlock Holmes. As any Baker Street irregular will solemnly inform you, however, Holmes celebrates his 153rd birthday on January 6, 2007, while Mike Hammer arrived on the scene fully-grown in 1947 with “I, The Jury.” He was the brainchild of Brooklyn-born Frank Morrison "Mickey" Spillane, then 29. The last six words of the novel, after Hammer shoots a particularly deadly murderess, ensured its success: "How could you?" she asks. "It was easy," he answers. Even so, it would be six years before Mike Hammer fans could see him on the silver screen in a seldom-revived 3-D film released by United Artists on August 14, 1953. Biff Elliott was Mike, Peggy Castle was Charlotte, Margaret Sheridan was Velda, Alan Reed was George, Elisha Cook was Bobo and John Qualen was Dr. Vickers.

Far more memorable was Robert Aldrich's “Kiss Me Deadly” with Ralph Meeker and Maxine Cooper as Mike and Velda. This 1955 voyage into a post nuclear nightmare shows Hammer at his sleaziest, but, as always, the only man for the job. Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly” succeeds in creating such a grimy atmosphere that we want to take a bath after seeing it. When Ralph Meeker as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer leaves a room, tough guys say, “open a window.” Yet Hammer, is the HERO of this violent 1955 blend of hard-boiled detective yarn, atomic bomb paranoia plus all the corny poetic ramblings Spillane liberally injects into the plot. Except for Cloris Leachman, most of the babes in the film sank from sight after making the picture. Meeker, too, an excellent actor, never again received such a flashy part, although he continued to deliver solid performances in character roles through the seventies. The physical ordinariness of the stars fits in perfectly with the anonymity most of us are reduced to when dealing with our radioactive fears. Serving as counterpoint for the rough, scary stuff with which Hammer must deal, A.I. Bezzerides’ script for “Kiss Me Deadly” is bitingly funny, & Aldrich’s never-subtle style is well-suited to Mickey Spillane’s volcanic world.

Next up was a 1957 syndicated series starring Darren McGavin, plus “My Gun Is Quick” with Robert Bray, who looked like Hammer, but couldn't wring a sliver of emotion into ANY of his lines. Bray was better cast as a forest ranger named Corey Stuart on “Lassie,” but Hammer vanished from the big screen until 1963's “The Girl Hunters.” Spillane, then 45, decided to HE could play Mike opposite Goldengirl Shirley Eaton. This New York yarn was shot entirely in England.

Finally, Stacy Keach, whom many consider to be, along with Meeker, among the best to play Mike Hammer, was cast in the role. Keach first played the role in the eighties with Lindsay Bloom as Velda and then tackled it again as a syndicated series in 1997 and 1998. It is from his most recent incarnation that the feature film “Mike Hammer: Song Bird” is extracted. The MTI Home Video VHS & DVD releases hit the stores January 28, 2003. Stacy Keach, who takes obvious pleasure in hosting the Mike Hammer series and other offerings on The Mystery Channel, plays Mike like a guy from 1947 transported half a century into the future to solve matters of life and death and both the story line and the ambience reflect that. His crew includes Shannon Whirry, a staple of such late night fare as “Private Obsession” and “Dangerous Prey,” as Velda and Shane Conrad as Nick Farrell.

Also around are Malgossia Tomassi (Mrs. Keach) as Maya Ricci, who runs a yoga studio across the hall from Hammer’s office, Peter Jason as Captain Skip Gleason and Kent Williams as Deputy Mayor Barry Lawrence. Whirry and Ricci as Velda and Maya add a great deal of charm to the mystery, which is more than can be said for Moira Walley, the gal who plays Lila the “Song Bird.” In what ought to be the key figure in the case, we have a weak vocalist who reaches for every note and only looks flustered and out of it when she's required to say lines. Meanwhile, every guy she's seen with winds up dead. Having far more fun is Jack Sheldon as trumpet player Des Long. Everything about this installment seems to work except the “Song Bird” herself. For that reason, there are dozens of other episodes in the Hammer series that would look just as sharp and sound even better on DVD. For Spillane completists it would be fun to have the whole batch released as a package, maybe with pertinent commentary by Keach and/or some of the lively interviews he's conducted with Spillane. For now, “Mike Hammer: Song Bird” can be found at a video store near you.
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