Friday 9 March 2018

The Girl Hunters (1963)

Director: Roy Rowland
Writer: Mickey Spillane, Roy Rowland and Robert Fellows
Stars: Mickey Spillane, Shirley Eaton, Scott Peters, Guy Kingsley Poynter, James Dyernforth, Charles Farrell, Kim Tracy, Hy Gardner and Lloyd Nolan

Index: 2018 Centennials.

It’s a rare literary detective who didn’t make it to the cinema screen both early and often. The Guinness Book of Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the ‘most portrayed movie character’of them all, with his first appearance on film arriving as early as 1900, so early that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t even written The Hound of the Baskervilles yet. This was Sherlock Holmes Baffled, a thirty second piece that was exhibited in Mutoscope machines in arcades. Most of the longest running film series in the western world feature a detective, such as Charlie Chan, who has now appeared in over fifty movies, or the Lone Wolf, who’s racked up half as many. While I grew up in the UK in the eighties, watching Jeremy Brett play Sherlock Holmes and Joan Hickson play Miss Marple on television, both still arguably the most authentic versions of those characters, my go to detective was Mike Hammer. I adored Stacy Keach’s performance on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and devoured the original novels. In rural Yorkshire, this was akin to exotica.

Keach was far from the first actor to play Mike Hammer, though the hardboiled detective first saw life in print, back in 1947 in the novel I, the Jury. Spillane published five sequels in the three years between 1950 and 1952 and, naturally, the media paid attention. Ted DeCorsia was the first actor to take on the role, on radio in 1952’s That Hammer Guy, but Biff Elliot played him on film the next year in I, the Jury, in 3-D no less. Ralph Meeker took over in 1955 for Robert Aldrich’s fantastic Kiss Me Deadly. Robert Bray was next in line, in 1957’s My Gun is Quick, before the character moved to TV, with Darren McGavin portraying the title role in 78 episodes of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. What came next, though, was something unique. I don’t know if The Girl Hunters, an indie production in the UK, marks the only time in which the author of a beloved character played it himself, but I can’t come up with another one. ‘Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer’ proclaim the opening credits, while the closing ones add ‘Mike Hammer is Mickey Spillane’.

Yes, Mickey Spillane, who would have been a hundred years old today, plays Mike Hammer himself in this picture and, to be fair, he does a surprisingly good job. He certainly looks the part, short and stocky like a boxer, and perhaps that sort of toughness was bred into him, given that he was born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn, to a Scottish mother and an Irish bartender father. At various points in his career, he was a lifeguard; a performer for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; a flight instructor in the Army Air Corps during World War II; and a salesman for the Gimbels department store. His first major job, however, was as a comic book writer, scripting an eight page adventure every day for Timely Comics. In fact, Mike Hammer was originally intended to be a comic book character named Mike Danger, only to find his way into a novel instead when Spillane and his first wife wanted to buy a country house and needed the money to do so.

Writing a novel to pay for a house, in nineteen days no less, is hardly the usual way to do things, but it shouldn’t surprise us much to find that Mike Hammer’s creator didn’t follow the usual rulebook. It certainly worked for Spillane, who sold an incredible 225m books (and counting), but a left turn into acting must have seemed even wilder a life choice in 1963. He had next to no experience, his one appearance in film being as a fictional version of himself in Ring of Fear, a 1954 mystery in which Clyde Beatty asks him for help in solving the sabotage plaguing his eponymous circus. Oddly, that nine year old picture was more recent than Kiss Me, Deadly, the sixth and prior Mike Hammer novel to The Girl Hunters, which took eleven years to appear. I’m not sure what Spillane was doing during the fifties, but he came back with a vengeance, not only starring in this picture, but writing the screenplay himself too, in collaboration with producer Robert Fellows and director Roy Rowland, doing so with a rare faithfulness to the source novel.
One of the best aspects of this movie is its attention to detail. The testosterone almost drips off the screen, all the way down to the Old Spice bottles in columnist Hy Gardner’s office. This extends to Mike Hammer himself who, as the film begins, is about to end a seven year stretch at the bottom of a bottle, spent there after the disappearance of his beloved secretary, Velda, after a supposedly routine job. The first scene of the film has him found in an alley by cops, not the corpse we immediately assume but a bloodied and unresponsive drunk. They deliver him to the house of Capt. Pat Chambers, his former friend on the force, who is clearly holding a major grudge. ‘We stopped being buddies a long time ago,’ he tells him after a few punches. He’s already thrown Mike’s clothes in the garbage, adding ‘It’s where you belong too.’ The reason he’s had him picked up is that Richie Cole, a man with crucial information, is about to die in hospital and he won’t talk to anyone except Mike Hammer, so Chambers needs him sober for an hour to get that info.

I didn’t remember The Girl Hunters too positively, possibly because I saw it soon after the fantastic Kiss Me Deadly, but it does stand up surprisingly well. Spillane is clearly not the actor that those around him are, many of them English but putting on fair accents. His voice is oddly flat, but his intonation is great. His body language is good too, not just through being frequently beaten up, but in his whole world weary manner. He wears a trenchcoat and hat well and he has all those little details down, like eating the meat out of a sandwich but not the bread or drinking a beer right after giving up liquor because it doesn’t count. Offscreen, Spillane was a Jehovah’s Witness who didn’t drink or smoke; or, as he said it: ‘I never drank. A beer maybe, sometimes.’ And he sparks up very well when Cole spills the beans. Velda is alive, Cole tells him, but the Dragon is seeking her. Get to her first, the dying man pleads. So this drunkard finds his way back to his old life, ditching the bottle (if not the odd beer) and rediscovering his old office and gun.
I found that I appreciated Spillane more and more as Mike Hammer as the film ran on. He’s neither as smooth as Stacy Keach or as nihilistic as Ralph Meeker, but he knows the character better than anyone else because he created him and he wrote him for years. Spillane’s biggest problem isn’t his lack of acting ability, because he fakes that pretty well, but his lack of charisma, that intangible factor that the big stars have and we don’t. It hinders him a little in the toughest scenes, such as when he faces off against a couple of tough guys in Joe Grissi’s Bar and Grill, but a lot more when playing the ladies man. Spillane was 45 years old at the time and, as suggested above, was playing a character who’s been sleeping in the drunk tank for seven years. His leading lady, Shirley Eaton, a single year away from her most famous role in Goldfinger, was a mere 26, playing a senator’s widow with elegance and class. There are actors who could make this romantic connection work but there are precious few of them and Spillane is clearly not one.

Eaton is in the film because of a different connection. The dying man who would only talk to Mike Hammer was shot and the bullet came from the same gun that killed Senator Leo Knapp a number of years earlier. Eaton plays Laura Knapp, his trophy wife, and an obvious early stop on Hammer’s investigative trail. He acquires more information from a variety of old contacts, like Hy Gardner, a syndicated columnist for the New York Herald Tribune who plays himself; he was a personal friend of Spillane, who also included him as a character in some of his novels. Most of the really useful material comes from law enforcement though, occasionally from Pat Chambers but mostly from Arthur Rickerby, a federal agent who has a personal interest in the case, being the dead man’s mentor; we soon discover that Richie Cole was a federal agent working undercover as a seaman, albeit one who had started to disregard his orders for reasons thus far unknown.
This trail reminds of The Big Sleep, in which Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe doesn’t so much follow a trail of clues as stir one up so that clues fall out. To me, that’s still the textbook on how the stereotypical hardboiled detective goes about his business, caring more for his however many dollars a day plus expenses than for actually solving anything. They get results, but don’t always have much interest in whether they’re the right ones. Mike Hammer, for all that he was a clear predecessor to Dirty Harry in his strong disregard for the law, does at least have a very well defined sense of justice. He does want to solve every mystery brought his way, especially one with his lost secretary at its heart; he’s just willing to leave a litter of corpses on the side of his trail. A fantastic extra to this one is that he’s given a shortcut from the very outset that would have springboarded him past that litter of corpses, but he’s unable to find it and circumstances prevent it coming to light until it’s too late. ‘Ain’t life a bitch’ could be Hammer’s motto.

My favourite character is Arthur Rickerby, the most prominent of the cavalcade of amazing faces that give texture to this movie’s background. In some ways, he’s a more sophisticated, authority version of Spillane’s take on Hammer, looking for the same result, albeit for a different reason, and willing not to break the rules himself to get there but to let Hammer break them for him. It’s clear that Rickerby is not someone to mess with, but he stays agreeably hands off in order to keep those hands from getting dirty. Lloyd Nolan is the actor who plays him and he’s a joy to watch. This film came towards the end of his career, though he still had a couple of decades left, and he’s a recognisable face. I’ve seen surprisingly few of his 93 movies, though, albeit including his 1935 debut in ‘G’ Men and his final film, Hannah and Her Sisters, over half a century later. I should look for his seven outings as Michael Shayne, P.I. on film and his two long running TV shows in the fifties, Martin Kane, Private Eye and Special Agent 7.
Fans of Mike Hammer will find most of the component parts they expect here. Hammer beats people up and gets beaten up for his troubles. He calls all men ‘kid’ and all women ‘kitten’. He’s loyal to Velda, especially now he knows she’s still alive, but still stops to kiss the dames, including a very surprised nurse early in the movie. There are some notable scenes of violence, including one gem close to the end when Hammer lives up to his name and nails an unconscious villain’s hand to a barn floor and a particularly brutal test of loyalty that wraps up the picture. The locations are surprisingly appropriate, given that we can hardly believe that Hammer ever left New York but this film was shot in England. Part of that is due to the highly effective cinematography by Kenneth Talbot, who also shot pictures as varied as Born Free, Countess Dracula and Doomwatch. The score by Phil Green helps too, full of the jazz that we expect but less smooth than would accompany the later Stacy Keach interpretations of Mike Hammer.

We also get a thoroughly complex plot that ties together not only the initial dying man with the Senator Knapp cold case, but also Velda’s disappearance seven years earlier through her wartime background and the Cold War shenanigans she stumbled into. The most obviously missing element is the sex, given that Mike Hammer is an admitted misogynist who makes James Bond look like he should sign up for pickup classes. That’s not to say that there isn’t any, but there are only three ladies in the film and that includes a nurse who’s there to be kissed and a landlady who’s there to scream. If Mike Hammer was, as his critics often point out, nothing but sex and violence, Shirley Eaton has to carry the former all by herself and it never rings true, not through any fault on her side but because she looks too young to be Spillane’s daughter, let alone his love interest. The lady with the fourth most screen time is the one on the cover of Cavalier magazine at Dewey’s newspaper stand, clearly there because they published Spillane’s work.
The other traditional element that’s missing is Velda, but that’s because she’s the MacGuffin of this film and would have been a lot more prominent in the projected sequel. The Girl Hunters was the seventh Mike Hammer novel and the eighth, The Snake, picked up where it left off. Robert Fellows, who produced this film and who had brought Spillane in, wanted to adapt that next, but it never happened. He’d had quite the career, producing 37 previous movies between 1940 and 1954, including some in direct partnership with John Wayne, but this was his second and last of two returns to that role, five years after Screaming Mimi, itself four years after his previous work. He died in 1969, clearly putting an end to any possibility of a second ‘Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer’ picture. Instead, Hammer went back to print, where Spillane wrote another half dozen novels about him, staying off the screen for a long time, until somehow finding a home in the new decade of the eighties in a variety of forms.

Kevin Dobson played him in the TV movie Margin for Murder in 1981 and, one year later, Armand Assante starred in the big screen remake of I, the Jury. Stacy Keach showed up for two TV movies, Murder Me, Murder You in 1983 and More Than Murder a year later, a successful enough pair to bring Keach to television for a new Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series, then The New Mike Hammer and, a decade later, Mike Hammer, Private Eye. In between the latter two was another TV movie, Murder Takes All, and, mostly after them, a succession of audiobooks read by Stacy Keach, who must be very happy to have found the character. Spillane himself kept up with Hammer novels, but diversified somewhat over time, writing a series about Tiger Mann and a set of standalone novels, including a couple for children, such as The Day the Sea Rolled Back, about a father/son team searching for a lost Caribbean treasure, which won him a prize from the Junior Literary Guild and infuriated his detractors, who couldn’t write that off as just sex and violence.
Ironically, for a Jehovah’s Witness who didn’t drink or smoke, many will remember Mickey Spillane best today for his long run of commercials for Miller Lite that lasted for two decades. In 2002, he explained to Crime Time’s Michael Carlson that, even a decade further on, he and his co-star, Lee Meredith, would be recognised in the street for those adverts. I wonder how that made him feel because, however prominent those commercials were, hawking lite beer was hardly the focal point of his life. Nobody recognised him in the street for selling a couple of hundred million books, at one point being recognised as the fifth most translated author in the world, after Lenin, Gorky, Tolstoy and Verne, all of whom were long dead. And, given that it must have taken a notable ego for a writer with almost no acting experience to play his own character in a feature film, nobody recognised him for The Girl Hunters. A week ago, before revisiting this, I’d have laughed at the latter, but a fresh viewing prompts me to have more respect.

Interviewing Mickey Spillane (by Michael Carlson)
‘Comics Were Great’: A Colorful Conversation with Mickey Spillane (by Roy Thomas)

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