Saturday 1 November 2008

I, the Jury (1982)

I'm a big fan of Armand Assante and an even bigger fan of Mike Hammer, but the two just don't seem to connect themselves in my mind. Assante can play sleazy like few others and would make a great hardboiled PI, that's for certain, but would he make a great Mike Hammer? That I didn't know and was very interested to find out. What confuses the issue here even more is that it opens with the clear possibility of moving in a whole number of completely different and mutually exclusive directions.

It begins with a two scene character teaser: the first has Hammer accepting a job from a husband worried his wife is cheating on him and the second has him reporting back over the phone from this wife's bed. Then it hits the title credits, which play like a TV show two years before Stacy Keach found his way to the character. As the film runs on, we realise that this is an early eighties (but very rooted in the seventies) sex and violence Hammer, written by exploitation legend Larry Cohen, who also directed for about a week until Richard T Heffron replaced him for budgetary reasons. Apparently the studio was already worried about overruns, one week in.

There's a murder, of course and to Hammer, it's personal. He knew the victim, a one armed fellow detective called Jack Williams, shot dead in his apartment. Hammer's friend, police captain Pat Chambers tells him to stay out of it and he just looks back and mutters a half hearted 'yeah' that really only acknowledges the pointlessness of such of a request. Hammer was never really interested in the law, he was always focused on justice and his own particular brand of justice too. The two are supposed to tie closely together, but in Hammer's world they couldn't be further apart and he's well aware of it.

Beyond being a tough, violent and misogynistic PI, though a fundamentally honest one, this film makes it pretty obvious that he only seems to belong when he's surrounded by violence. The early scenes here show him floating through life, angry, depressed or disinterested, only coming alive when he's being shot at or when he's surrounded by a bevy of scantily clad girls offering him plenty of attention. The girls are at the Northridge Clinic, a sex clinic run by Dr Charlotte Bennett that's the first stop on Hammer's trail, and the place seems to be tied to some sort of government conspiracy. The CIA isn't just tied to the mob, it's been experimenting with mind control to turn people into serial killers and somewhere within this conspiracy is the reason for Jack Williams's death.

Armand Assante is a powerful and magnetic actor with a serious artistic range and he's worth watching here, as he always is. However he's totally miscast. To answer my initial question: no, he isn't Mike Hammer. Then again Mike Hammer here isn't really Mike Hammer, especially when we close in on the bad guy, when for some reason he turns into John Rambo. There are other people here with talent like Barbara Carrera, Geoffrey Lewis and Alan King but none of them get too much to do. Carrera looks great naked but the part she was given is a waste of her talent. Judson Scott is effective as a very seventies serial killer.

Surprisingly the most interesting performance here seems to be Laurene Landon's as Velda, Hammer's secretary. I've seen a lot of Veldas over the years and they include some very beautiful women: people like Shannon Whirry, Tanya Roberts, or, if you like that sort of thing, Pamela Anderson. Laurene Landon is a beautiful lady herself, when posing for the camera, but there's something about her that goes a lot deeper than the conventional. She's too tall and too angular for convention but I think that mostly it's in how she moves: she doesn't stand the way a model would, she moves awkwardly and seems firmly rooted in the real world rather than the catwalk.

In short, she's really believable: tough and capable, yet vulnerable and reactionary. It's what made her so great in films like Hundra and Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold and it makes her great here too. She gets a strange part, obviously not the focus of the film and not stealing any scenes, but she resonates the way nothing else in the film does and ends up being what's most memorable. I loved the way she got information out of the serial killer's mother by threatening her TV. In a film that really isn't very good but remains interesting at least, she's the most memorable thing.

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