Pulp Fiction #1: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

“The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte struggled back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her belly where the bullet went in.

“How c-could you”, she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse. I got it in.

“It was easy”, I said. “

– from I, THE JURY by Mickey Spillane, first published in 1947 by EP Dutton

Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer made his debut in I, THE JURY, and set the shocked literary world on its collective ear with its sex-and-violence laden story. Critics savaged Spillane, but the book buying public ate it up, turning I, THE JURY into a best seller and launching Hammer as a pop culture icon. Hammer’s roots were deeply set in the bloody pulps and another 20th century phenomenon… the four-color comics!

Spillane got his start writing for both mediums. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, the tough-talking Irishman found he had a knack for storytelling, and by the 1930’s managed to make a few sales to the pulps. Spillane soon joined the fledgling comic book world, cranking out stories for Timely’s (later known as Marvel Comics) Human Torch, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, and a ton of those two-page “fillers” publishers used to print to meet the cheaper second-class postal rates. Like most red-blooded American males of the era, Spillane joined the service during WWII, and when it was over he returned to grinding ’em out. Only this time, Spillane had an idea.

Spillane dreamed up a tough private eye named Mike Danger and, together with artist Mike Roy, looked to sell it to the lucrative syndicated newspaper comics market, without success. Undaunted, Spillane took his project and wrote a novel based on the character, now renamed Mike Hammer. The writer (“I’m not an author”, he once claimed) elevated the levels of sex and violence, whipping up his lurid adaptation in a little over a week. Publisher E.P. Dutton bought the book, titled I, THE JURY, and history was made. The critics lambasted Spillane’s literary style (or lack thereof), but post-war readers grabbed onto all the sex and violence within the book’s pages and begged for more.

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the floor and my gun in his hand”

  • – from VENGEANCE IS MINE , first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Mike Hammer is Spillane’s macho fantasy alter ego. The PI was, like his creator, a World War II vet, now a Cold War Anti-Communist who played by his own set of rules. He was a law-and-order guy dishing out vigilante justice, not interested in waiting for an incompetent system that rarely worked for the little guy. Hammer had a way with the ladies, yet the love of his life was loyal secretary Velma. His two best friends were NY Homicide Captain Pat Chambers and his trusty Colt .45, which served him well when delivering just desserts to the lowlifes and corrupt officials who deserved them. Say what you will about Hammer’s misanthropic methods or misogynistic viewpoints; he was a stand-up guy who got the job done… by any means necessary!

Ralph Meeker as Hammer in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Spillane’s terse, graphic novels exploded in the public conscience like a .45 slug through flesh and bone, and it was inevitable Mike Hammer would blast his way to the Silver Screen. Tough guy actor Biff Elliot was the first to play Hammer in a 1953 adaptation of I, THE JURY, which of course was considerably toned down for the screen. Probably the best known movie Hammer was Ralph Meeker, who starred in director Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), as bleak and violent a film noir as you’re likely to find. Robert Bray next stepped into Hammer’s shoes for 1957’s MY GUN IS QUICK, a low-budget but fairly entertaining entry. A syndicated television version of MIKE HAMMER was run from 1958-60, with Darren McGavin as the PI, a series decried by critics for its excessive violence – hey, what did they expect?

Mickey Spillane as his creation Mike Hammer in “The Girl Hunters” (1963)

Mike Hammer took a ten-year hiatus before Spillane resurrected him in the 1962 novel THE GIRL HUNTERS. Believing his beloved Velma dead, Hammer’s been on a booze soaked bender before learning she’s actually alive, and he begins his regeneration from drunken bum to instrument of vengeance. This book was made into a film a year later with none other than Spillane himself cast as Hammer! It’s as violent as you’d think with the author doing a not-bad job. Spillane had always been a self promoter, and in later years he made the rounds of TV talk shows and even starred in a series of commercials for Miller Lite Beer!

Stacy Keach, TV’s greatest Mike Hammer

Hammer was back with (what else?) a vengeance, and a new audience was turned on to Spillane’s sex-and-violence fueled world. In the Reagan-era 1980’s a new TV version was broadcast on CBS, starring Stacy Keach, by far the most popular of Hammer portrayers. The stylish series was a hit, that is until Keach got busted in Britain on cocaine smuggling charges and had to serve time in prison. He returned to the role in (appropriately enough) the 1986 TV movie THE RETURN OF MIKE HAMMER, and again the 90’s with the  syndicated MIKE HAMMER, PRIVATE EYE series.

“There isn’t a Coliseum anymore, but the city is a bigger bowl, and it seats more people. The razor-sharp claws aren’t those of wild animals, but man’s can be just as sharp and twice as vicious. You have to be quick, and you have to be able, or you become one of the devoured, and if you can kill first, no matter how and no matter who, you can return to the comfortable chair and the comfortable fire. But you have to be quick. And able. Or you’ll be dead”

-from MY GUN IS QUICK, first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Tough as a two dollar steak, Mike Hammer refuses to die, even though his creator Spillane passed away in 2006. Mystery writer Max Allan Collins, who once took over the Dick Tracy comic strip and penned the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION, has been chronicling the hard-boiled adventures of Hammer since 2007, working from Spillane’s own unfinished manuscripts. As long as there’s a need for a ruthless avenger to take on the dirty jobs no one else can, there will be a need for Mike Hammer, political correctness be damned!

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An OMG Moment with The Ross Sisters

While laid up at home battling sciatic nerve pain (which is pretty damn painful!), I turned on TCM for relief, and started watching BROADWAY RHYTHM, a 1944 musical starring George Murphy, Gloria DeHaven, and Jimmy Dorsey, among others. The movie itself was no great shakes, but this scene featuring a trio known as the Ross Sisters singing and dancing to “Solid Potato Salad” grabbed my attention:

Holy pretzels, Batman! Who were these scat-singing, torso-bending ladies?? I did a little research and found out, because… well, because that’s what I do! Apparently, they were Betsy, Vicki, and Dixie Ross from West Texas, who performed under the stage names Aggie, Maggie, and Elvira. These show-biz kids were teens at the time, but already gaining steam for their acrobatic contortions and three-part harmonies. The sisters even performed before the King & Queen of England at the London Pallaidium in 1946. Imagine that!

Betsy married comedian Bunnie Hightower (who also appeared in the movie as an impressionist), an alcoholic/schizophrenic who beat her severely… yet they also appeared together on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW! Vicki became a chiropractor, and managed to stump the panel on an episode of WHAT’S MY LINE? Dixie, the youngest Ross Sister, died of a barbiturate overdose at age 33. The girls surely didn’t have it easy in their post-entertainment careers, but their one glorious movie performance has been preserved for posterity to be enjoyed by all.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Happy Birthday Bela Lugosi!

A special Halloween treat courtesy of Through the Shattered Lens… enjoy!

Through the Shattered Lens

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps we usually post, 4Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking. Today is the 135th anniversary of the birth of one of horror’s most iconic stars, the great Bela Lugosi! In his honor, here’s a special Halloween tribute to everyone’s favorite Hungarian actor!

White Zombie (1932; D: Victor Halperin)

Mark of the Vampire (1935; D: Tod Browning)

The Devil Bat (1940; D: Jean Yarborough)

Zombies On Broadway (1945; D: Gordon Douglas)

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Halloween Havoc! Extra: Basil Gogos, Painter of Fiends

Everyone from the Monster Kid Generation knows the name of Basil Gogos. The  Rondo Award-winning artist created memorable covers on a monthly basis for FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Magazine, depicting the iconic stars of the horror genre in his bold, vividly colored style. Mr. Gogos passed away on September 14th of this year at the age of 78. In his honor, here’s a ghoulish gallery from the fantastic work of artist Basil Gogos.

  

And finally, here’s Basil’s tribute to the late Forest J Ackerman from RUE MORGUE Magazine. A hearty Halloween salute to you both!

Follow That Dream: RIP Tom Petty

In an era of throbbing disco beats, ponderous prog rock, and angry loud punk,   Tom Petty’s rootsy, guitar-jangling sound was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the late 70’s radio airwaves. Petty was a Southern boy, but didn’t fit the ‘Southern Rock’ mode of the Allman Brothers or Marshall Tucker. Instead, he and his band The Heartbreakers were influenced by the stylings of The Beatles and The Byrds, crafting tight-knit pop tunes for the ages.

The Florida-born Petty was an artsy type of kid, an outsider in a world of machismo. He met his idol Elvis Presley when The King was making the 1961 film FOLLOW THAT DREAM on location, and three years later, when The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, Tom knew what he wanted to do with his life. By age 17, he’d dropped out of high school, and three years later started Mudcrutch, a successful Gainesville group that included future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Mudcrutch never broke through outside the Florida/Georgia line, and when they broke up Petty joined his mates in forming The Heartbreakers, who signed with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records and got lots of FM airplay with the single. “Breakdown”:

Their 1978 album “You’re Gonna Get It!’ went gold, but when Shelter was sold to conglomerate MCA, Petty refused to have his music released by them, beginning a long tradition of the musician standing up for his artistic rights. The band wound up on MCA’s new Backstreet label, and had their biggest success to date with 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes”, featuring the hit “Refugee”:

1981’s “Hard Promises” contained Petty’s first #1 single “The Waiting”:

… and hit after hit followed: “You Got Lucky”, “Change of Heart”, and 1985’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, complete with a bizarre Alice in Wonderland-themed video that sparked some controversy and won an MTV Music Video Award:

Petty and the Heartbreakers’ tour with Bob Dylan led to him being invited to join The Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup composed of Petty, Dylan, Beatle George Harrison, rock legend Roy Orbison, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne. The kid from Gainesville had made good! A 1993 “Greatest Hits” compilation scored another hit record, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”:

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were now firmly ensconced as rock elite, but they never compromised their musical integrity, despite continued success and being one of the most popular touring bands. When Tom Petty passed away last night of a massive heart attack, news reports were at first premature. I learned the sad news this morning that Tom was indeed gone, but his music will remain with those of us who love pure rock and roll, and remember when those jangling guitars and that unique voice breathed new life into the artform. Rest in peace, Tom Petty.

Familiar Faces #5: She’s Like A Rainbeaux!

I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve had an insane crush on 70’s exploitation queen Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith ever since I first saw her brighten the screen in Jack Hill’s 1974 THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS. Never a big star by any stretch of the imagination, the delightful, delectable blonde graced us with her presence throughout the 70’s and 80’s, making even the tiniest of parts memorable. This girl was just soooo damn cute!

Cheryl Lynn Smith was born on June 6, 1955. A typical California girl with blonde hair and freckles, Cheryl used to hang out on the Sunset Strip, a fixture at all the rock clubs: The Whiskey A-Go-Go, The Roxy, The Rainbow. She allegedly got the nickname “Rainbeaux” from the owner of these venues, the legendary rock impresario Mario Maglieri. Cheryl was well-known in the LA rock scene, and later in life played drums in an incarnation of The Runaways featuring Joan Jett.

Cheryl’s first claim to fame came with the 1973 cult classic LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL, in which the 18-year-old plays 13-year-old Lila Lee, daughter of a Deep South gangster who’s taken in by the church and dubbed “The Singin’ Angel” (she gets to warble “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Rock of Ages”). This grim fairy tale is filled with bizarre imagery and sound (those creepy kids laughter!), as Lila’s Christian values are pitted against evil vampiress Lemora (Lesley Gilb). The low-budget work of writer/director Richard Blackburn (who went on to cowrite another cult hit, 1983’s EATING RAOUL) is claustrophobic and disturbing, and a must-see for horror buffs. LEMORA turns up occasionally on “TCM Underground”, and is available on YouTube (where I recently viewed it). It serves as a fine showcase for young Cheryl’s acting abilities.

Most of her other films focus more on Cheryl’s other attributes rather than her thespic talents. 1974 was a banner year for the actress, now being billed as Rainbeaux Smith. CAGED HEAT, Jonathan Demme’s directorial debut, casts her as convicted murderess Lavelle in one of the “women in prison” genre’s best efforts, with a cast that includes Erica Gavin (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and horror icon Barbara Steele . The aforementioned THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS finds her as virginal Andrea, and VIDEO VIXENS has Rainbeaux in a commercial parody as “The Twinkle Twat Girl” (yes, really!).

There was more exploitation to come: In 1976’s THE POM POM GIRLS, Rainbeaux is once again a cheerleader, one of “class stud” Keith Carradine’s conquests. That same year’s REVENGE OF THE CHEERLEADERS was a milestone of sorts for her; she had become pregnant by her musician boyfriend, and appears in the end credits holding her baby boy, Justin. Another cult classic, MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, finds our Cheryl in peril being threatened by bullying rapists. SLUMBER PARTY ’57 takes Rainbeaux back to the past in a film notable only as Debra Winger’s debut.

Rainbeaux got the opportunity to headline once again in 1977’s CINDERELLA, a softcore musical sex farce with heavy emphasis on the SEX! Rainbeaux (back to being billed as Cheryl here) gives a charming performance as the poor stepsister who goes to the ball thanks to her “fairy godmother” (who’s actually a gay brother!), and is given a magical “snapping pussy” that takes the prince to kingdom come! Produced by the infamous Charles Band and directed by actor Michael Pataki, it’s loads of good dirty fun, with a catchy disco-flavored soundtrack allowing Cheryl to sing once again, showing off her wonderful vocal talents (as well as the rest of her ample charms!). CINDERELLA, from the Golden Age of Erotic Cinema,  is my favorite Rainbeaux Smith role, and despite all the lewdness is well worth watching. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore!

FANTASM COMES AGAIN (1977) returned her to softcore porn territory, along with genre stalwarts Rick Cassidy, Uschi Digart, and Serena. LASERBLAST (1978) was another Charles Band classic, with Cheryl the girlfriend of alien possessed Kim Milford. She also managed to score small parts in more mainstream films of the era: FAREWELL MY LOVELY, DRUM (the sequel to MANDINGO, as Warren Oates’ horny daughter!), THE CHOIRBOYS, MELVIN AND HOWARD, and two with her old Sunset Strip buds Cheech & Chong, UP IN SMOKE and NICE DREAMS. But by the early eighties her film opportunities were drying up.

Cheryl had developed a heroin habit with her musician boyfriend, and after bits in VICE SQUAD (1982), DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (doubling for Veronica Lake), and INDEPENDENCE DAY (1983) disappeared from the screen altogether. Her addiction led to losing custody of Justin, homelessness, prostitution, and two bids in prison. She was in and out of recovery until finally getting clean with the help of methadone maintenance, but it was too late. The ravages of heroin addiction had taken their toll, and Cheryl died of liver failure brought on by untreated Hep C on October 25, 2002. She was just 47 years old.

Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith never became a big star. Her films were mostly in the world of low-budget exploitation, and mainstream success eluded her. She’s fondly remembered by fans for her girl next door looks and giving her all in whatever she appeared in. She lit up the screen with her presence, and when given a chance to act (LEMORA, CAGED HEAT, CINDERELLA) proved she could’ve been bigger. Her downfall into heroin addiction is just another Hollywood cautionary tale; the movies she left behind, and her son Justin, are Rainbeaux’s brightest legacies.

Happy 100th Birthday, Jack Kirby!

Today marks the centennial anniversary of the undisputed King of Comics, ‘Jolly’ Jack Kirby! This creative genius was responsible for some of the best known (and loved) characters of the 20th Century, and his influence is still felt to this day. Rather than using my meager words, here’s a gallery of comic cover art featuring the amazing talent of Jack ‘King’ Kirby!

Happy birthday, King!