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!

Hammer Time!: KISS ME DEADLY (United Artists 1955)

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Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels have long been one of my favorite Guilty Pleasures. Spillane’s books were the literary equivalent of knocking back shots of Jack Daniels with no chaser. The misanthropic Mike Hammer’s Sex & Violence filled adventures are rapid paced, testosterone fueled trips through a definitely un-PC world where men are men, women are sex objects, and blood and bullets flow freely through a dark, corrupt post-war world.  Spillane turned the conventional detective yarn on its ear and, though critics hated his simplistic writing, the public ate up his books by the millions.

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The film version of Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY turns film noir on its ear from its opening shot of Christine Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman) running down a lonely highway, almost getting run over by Mike Hammer. The PI picks her up and the opening credits roll backwards to the strains of Nat King Cole crooning “Rather Have The Blues”. This beginning set-up lets us know we’re not about to see a routine mystery yarn, but something wildly unique courtesy of a promising young producer/director named Robert Aldrich .

The script by A.I. Bezzerides is as convoluted as a Spillane novel, though he changed much of the original book, much to Spillane’s displeasure. I’ll try to capsulize the goings-on without writing a novel myself: Mike Hammer picks up hitchhiker Christine Bailey, whom he discovers has escaped from an insane asylum. “Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me”, she says. “If we don’t, remember me”. They don’t, as Hammer’s car is cut off, the pair are kidnapped, Christine’s murdered, and Hammer wakes up in a hospital bed surrounded by his girl Friday Velda and police pal Lt. Pat Murphy.

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When he’s released, Hammer’s grilled by members of the Interstate Crime Commission, some bigwigs from Washington looking for clues. They know all about him: he’s a third-rate shamus who specializes in divorce cases, “a bedroom dick” who uses Velda for tawdry set-ups. Pat warns Hammer to forget the whole thing and revokes his PI and gun licenses so Hammer won’t go taking the law into his own hands.. fat chance of that! When Mike Hammer finds a thread, he pulls at it until he finds a string, and with the big boys from D.C. interested in this thread, he knows bigger things are at the end of the string.

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That string leads Hammer to murder, kidnapping, torture, and brutality as he bulls his way forward, searching for “The Great Whatsit”. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, Sam Spade’s Maltese Falcon, Kane’s Rosebud, the device that the plot revolves around. Velda describes it perfectly: “Does it exist? Who cares! Everyone, everywhere is involved in a fruitless search for what?” In KISS ME DEADLY, it’s a mysterious suitcase, hot to the touch, containing radioactive nuclear material everyone’s after, with “deadly” consequences.

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But it’s not the what that matters, it’s how Hammer gets there. The violence in this movie comes swift and savage, and is surprising for a 1955 release. The scene where Hammer’s followed by a thug, who he takes out, is shocking in its brutality. Aldrich pulls no punches, with one ferocious scene after another. The film was cited by the Kefauver Commission for corrupting the morals of America’s youth, prompting Aldrich to launch a letter-writing campaign in favor of free speech for independent filmmakers. Bravo, Mr. Aldrich!

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Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as the ultimate anti-hero, a penny-ante goon bulldozing his way through the mean streets of LA. Meeker rose to fame in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s PICNIC, and soon landed in Hollywood. Never a major star, he nonetheless added a macho presence to tough films like BIG HOUSE USA, Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY, SOMETHING WILD, Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE DAY’S MASSACRE, and THE DETECTIVE. He also worked again with Aldrich in a small role as the Army shrink in THE DIRTY DOZEN  . Besides the excellent TV version played by Stacy Keach, Meeker is my favorite of all the screen Hammer, and that includes author Spillane, who played his own character in 1963’s THE GIRL HUNTERS.

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The movie features the film debuts of both Leachman and Maxine Cooper, who makes a sexy Velda. The other main female character here is Gaby Rodgers as the mysterious Lily Carter, who’s not what she seems. Gaby only made one other film before this, an indie called THE BIG BREAK, and did some TV appearances, but never appeared on the big screen again. It’s too bad, because she’s a standout as Lily, and would’ve added greatly to some films of the era. In real life, Gaby was married to songwriter Jerry Leiber   , who penned rock’n’roll classics like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” with partner Mike Stoller. As of this writing, Miss Rodgers is still with us at age 88.

Tough guy actors abound in KISS ME DEADLY, including Albert Dekker as the sadistic Dr. Soberin, Paul Stewart as mobster Carl Evello, and a pair of Jacks- Jack Elam  and Jack Lambert as Evello’s hoods. Other Familiar Faces are Wesley Addy, Fortunio Bonanova , Nick Dennis, Juano Hernandez, Paul Richards, Percy Helton , Leigh Snowden, and Strother Martin in a small role as a witness to murder. Frank DeVol’s music score hits all the right notes, and DP Ernest Laszlo’s photography keeps things dark and moody.

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The only quibbles I have with KISS ME DEADLY are strictly as a Hammer purist. Moving the action from Hammer’s New York City base to Los Angeles seems sacrilegious, and having him use Velda for his sordid set-ups with suckers makes Hammer look like a douchebag. But I suppose I’ll have to grant Aldrich and Bezzerides their artistic license here, because for the purpose of this film it all works. KISS ME DEADLY is like a cinematic punch in the face, and the best Mike Hammer adaptation ever, despite my quibbles. I just wish I’d have kept all my Mickey Spillane paperbacks, because viewing this film and writing this post makes me want to dive back into the Sex & Violence-filled world of Mike Hammer once again!