Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled private “detective” Mike Hammer first appeared in the writer’s debut novel I, The Jury in 1947. Spillane filled the Hammer stories with scandalous – for the time period – violence and sex. Critics frowned on the hundreds of millions in book sales that followed but readers continue to make the many Mike Hammer novels a success to this very day.
The Mike Hammer movies, on the other hand, have always been a very mixed bunch of projects. The expression “from the ridiculous to the sublime” has never been more fitting than it is for those films, from the 1950s onward, from the U.S. to Japan. Here are some standouts, in no particular order.
MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER (1954) – This was a failed pilot for what would have been the first Mike Hammer television series. Brian Keith starred as the title dick (as it were) while Blake Edwards wrote and directed, years before his Peter Gunn series.
In my opinion, trying to do Mike Hammer on television was as bad an idea as Spillane’s own novels which set the P.I. in any decade later than the 1950s. This 1954 effort is an exception to my tv rule because it was deemed TOO VIOLENT FOR TELEVISION and was never aired!
Now that’s more like it! The raw violence and lurid sex of Spillane’s novels were what made Mike Hammer stand out. Anything less than Quentin Tarantino levels of sex and violence has been what doomed most Hammer productions on the big screen, let alone the small.
Spillane didn’t exactly concoct ground-breaking mysteries, so the adult elements were what fueled sales of his novels. Stripped of those elements, any story is just a pale imitation of Mike Hammer. As much as I like Darren McGavin, his 1958-1960 Mike Hammer series is way too tame and plays like any other bland detective series of the era.
Brian Keith is great as the title character in this pilot and I’d love to see how he’d have done in a cinematic depiction of Spillane’s hero. Robert Bice is adequate in the thankless role of police captain Pat Chambers, but the absence of Hammer’s secretary Velda is a serious blow to the production.
Typical of so many Mike Hammer stories, there’s no client. The misanthrope is filled with personal rage and decides to take down a gangster when he sees the man’s gunsels kill a paper boy as collateral damage when they mow down a potential mob witness.
THE MOST TERRIBLE TIME IN MY LIFE (1993 in Japan, 1994 in the U.S.) – Masatoshi Nagase IS Maiku Hama, the Japanese rendering of the name Mike Hammer. This unusual film, directed and co-written by Kaizo Hayashi, is in black & white for all but the final 20 minutes.
The Most Terrible Time in My Life starts out so slavishly derivative of Mickey Spillane, Film Noir and Seijun Suzuki that a viewer finds themselves wondering if this is supposed to be a comedy, but it’s not. Hama comes to the aid of a Taiwanese waiter living in Yokohama, Japan. The waiter wants Maiku to find his missing brother, which investigation leads Hama to over the top violence, the Yakuza, gangster warfare and a secret vendetta between the Taiwanese brothers.
Our title detective gets a finger cut off and reattached at one point in the midst of the routine severe beatings that Mike Hammer usually suffers. Some of the beatings come from his old, revered detective sensei, Jo Shishido, the “cheeky” Japanese star of gritty crime cinema. (He’s sort of the Eddie Constantine of Japan, so his appearance as Hama’s mentor is an iconic moment.)
Instead of Captain Pat Chambers we get Lieutenant Nakayama (Akaji Maro), Balladeer’s Blog’s old friend Shinya Tsukamoto shows up as Yamaguchi and, in an odd bit of business, we learn that Maiku Hama is paying his sister Akane’s way through college.
This film was followed by two more movies and a 2002 television series Hama Maiku aka Private Detective Mike. The 12 episode series debuted in 2002, and a 71 minute extended version of the debut episode A Forest With No Name was released as a feature film. Masatoshi Nagase returned as the title character.
THE STAIRWAY TO THE DISTANT PAST (1995) – Kaizo Hayashi is back as director and co-writer plus Masatoshi Nagase is back as Maiku Hama. Also returning are Akaji Maro as Lt Nakayama, Mika Ohmine as Akane Hama and Shinya Tsukamoto as Yamaguchi.
Absurdly, Maiku Hama has fallen on such hard times that his car has been repossessed and he is forced to travel by bicycle as Hayashi again mixes humor with ultra-violence and lurid subplots. The Stairway to the Distant Past is in color from start to finish, however.
Maiku and Akane’s long lost mother returns in this movie, and involves our detective in a manhunt for an elusive Japanese gangster known only as “The White Man.”
If you enjoyed The Most Terrible Time in My Life then this sequel will be your kind of thing. If not, it won’t be.
(WANA) THE TRAP (1996) – Kaizo Hayashi’s Maiku Hama series comes to a close with this much grimmer and even more violent film. The Trap severely minimizes the humor and replaces it with elements that seem more fitting for a horror movie.
Maiku Hama’s life has vastly improved since the previous flick, but suddenly he finds himself thrust into the investigation of a serial killer who murders women by injecting them with poison. As the plot thickens the killer starts leaving Hama’s fingerprints at the crime scene.
As part of the eerie, quasi-horror aspect of this film, the crazed murderer seems to think he’s being controlled by a comatose patient. At any rate, most of the cast returns for this final bow.
Maiku’s latest girlfriend, a mute girl, helps him solve the case and even saves his life at one point. Very weird finale to a film series which definitely leaves a lasting impression.
I, THE JURY (1953) – Mike Hammer IN 3D is the Mondo appeal of this very first big-screen adaptation of Spillane’s detective. Well, that and the fact that the director Harry Essex went on to do the Golden Turkey Octaman in 1971.
Former boxer Biff Elliot starred as Mike Hammer and set the bar pretty low for every actor who followed in his footsteps. He’s very stiff and awkward, almost laughably so at times.
As Christmas approaches in New York City, Hammer’s old army buddy and current insurance investigator Jack Williams is shot to death in his home. There’s more than meets the eye to what happened and the cops seem impotent, so Mike takes the law entirely into his own hands (hell, just remember the title).
Hammer’s friend Captain Pat Chambers (Preston Foster) warns him to stay out of the case, but when he refuses, Pat cynically decides to toss Mike into the thick of things and trust to his pal’s fists and bullets to accomplish what the police can’t. He does this by having a reporter run a story about Hammer digging into Jack Williams’ murder, thus putting Mike in the crosshairs of the perps.
The odd psychological and criminal conspiracy that gets exposed has been reworked in subsequent adaptations of I, the Jury but it’s kept fairly stream-lined for this 1953 effort. Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone himself, plays the gangster Kalecki, one of the main villains, and THE Elisha Cook, Jr has a small role as a simple-minded former boxer working as a department store Santa Claus.
Margaret Sheridan plays Mike’s secretary Velda, B-Movie regular Peggie Castle is typically sultry as psychoanalyst Charlotte Manning and Tani and Dran Seitz appear as the kinky twin sisters Esther and Mary Bellamy.
The controversial Charlotte Manning death scene is Exhibit A for why Quentin Tarantino SHOULD have done one or two Mike Hammer movies. Preferably right after Pulp Fiction. Picture Michael Madsen as Mike and Harvey Keitel as Pat. Quentin would likely insist on casting Uma Thurman as Velda, but what the hell, why not?
THE GIRL HUNTERS (1963) – Mickey Spillane STARRING as Mike Hammer? Now THAT’S Mondo! Part gimmick, part cinematic travesty, the casting of Spillane himself as his fictional creation was an experiment for the ages!
Mike Hammer starts out the story like he did in the novel of the same name – still wallowing in a multi-year drinking binge to drown out his sorrow and frustration over being unable to find his missing secretary Velda.
Captain Pat Chambers (Scott Peters) drags Mike out of his self-imposed isolation and forces him to help out in a case involving the shooting of a federal agent and the murder of a United States Senator. The novel The Girl Hunters made more concrete connections between this case and Velda’s disappearance than does the film version.
The movie deals with the way the violence against the agent and the senator are both tied to a World War Two era spy ring and an assassin killing off people connected to that spy ring. Sexy Shirley Eaton portrays the widow of the late senator and naturally can’t be trusted.
Spillane raises taking one’s jacket off and putting it back on to Laurence Olivier levels in a performance every bit as moving as his old beer commercials or his brief appearance on Columbo in the 1970s.
For the hardcore Mike Hammer fans who are reading this, I can genuinely say that The Girl Hunters novel and its immediate sequel The Snake are the only Hammer adventures I find still completely work beyond the 1950s.
After that, I wish Spillane had set his continuing Mike Hammer novels in the 40s and 50s, using parallel situations from those decades as settings for Mike’s exploits from the 1960s novels onward. One of the reasons I find Stacy Keach’s tv series as the detective to be so hilarious is the way I think Mike Hammer is an icon tied to a particular time period. Taking Mike’s fictional stories into the JFK years can still fit, but in my opinion that’s as far into the modern era as the character should go.
To me the 1960s setting of The Girl Hunters is also appropriate given the real-life gap between that 1962 novel and Mickey Spillane’s previous Mike Hammer opus Kiss Me, Deadly in 1952.
MARGIN FOR MURDER (1981) – This telefilm production starring Kevin Dobson of Kojak fame as Mike Hammer is another of the few television efforts that are almost acceptable for Spillane’s controversial hero.
Calvin Clements, Jr was nominated for an Edgar Award for his Margin for Murder screenplay, which was loosely adapted from I, the Jury. Dobson as Hammer investigates when he feels the death of a friend was murder and not the car accident that it seemed.
Dobson is tough and almost suicidally daring as Mike, Cindy Picket is capable and independent as Velda and Charles Hallahan sleepwalks his way through the Pat Chambers role. The altered conspiracy in this adaptation involves a corrupt Congressman who wants to become the governor of New York.
In Margin for Murder, Kevin Dobson put me in mind of Fred Dryer, and THAT made me reflect on how good Clint Eastwood might have been in a 1970s Mike Hammer movie.
MY GUN IS QUICK (1957) – Though the title may sound like it’s from an educational short about premature ejaculation, this is actually a movie based on Mickey Spillane’s second Mike Hammer novel.
The Mondo appeal of My Gun is Quick comes largely from the fact that this marked the first film music credit for the one and only JOHN WILLIAMS. He did “additional music” for the movie. Older viewers have told me this flick is also noteworthy for its capture of now-destroyed Los Angeles locations.
This time around, Hammer (Robert Bray) chivalrously comes to the aid of a down and out actress turned prostitute (Patricia Donahue). She is soon found murdered with Mike’s business card on her person and thus our hero gets caught up in a hunt for a long-missing treasure of jewels stolen by the Nazis during World War Two.
Pamela Duncan is Velda, Booth Colman is Pat Chambers and Whitney Blake provides some feminine allure in a supporting role. Donald Randolph finds his niche in Mike Hammer trivia by having appeared as a heavy in the Brian Keith television pilot AND as the sinister Colonel Holloway in this movie.
KISS ME DEADLY (1955) – I saved this for last since this is easily the most discussed and most praised Mike Hammer film. Director Robert Aldrich is credited for his off-kilter visuals and for playing up the campy elements of Mickey Spillane’s pulpish dialogue. Very fitting approach toward an author whose writing comes across like a simultaneous tribute to and parody of Hard-Boiled detective stories going all the way back to Carroll John Daly.
(I threw that in just in case anybody thought they could get through a Mike Hammer article with no mention of Daly and his detective Race Williams.)
Ralph Meeker portrays a very scurvy version of Spillane’s hero with Maxine Cooper as Velda and Wesley Addy as Pat Chambers. Cloris Leachman made her film debut in this, while Jack Elam and Strother Martin show up in supporting roles.
Everyone knows the central plot of this movie – Mike Hammer tries to track down a box containing stolen government technology. The box – whose contents glow in an unearthly way – was referenced by the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
Many reviews of Kiss Me Deadly run with the assumption that it is nuclear material in the mystery box and that Mike and Velda die along with the villains at the end. However, the extended cut of the finale shows the pair surviving. In addition, the prolonged footage of the opened box and the bizarre sounds that emerge from it can’t help but put a modern-day viewer more in mind of recovered alien technology from some Roswell-type crash.
Nothing is ruined by pondering such a background theory since we aren’t meant to really understand what was in the box anyway, and I can’t help but think of the noises from the box (as its contents kill off the bad guys) as a voice attempting to communicate in an unknown tongue.
The box containing secrets the government didn’t want known is a concept that is still intact so there’s no harm in letting your imagination indulge itself a little. The extended ending scene also reminds me of the controversial black & white portions of Episode Eight of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival in 2017.
If you’ve seen that episode, try telling me that the extended box opening scenes from Kiss Me Deadly wouldn’t fit in perfectly.
PAT AND MIKE (1952) – Spencer Tracy IS Mike Hammer and Katharine Hepburn IS Pat Chambers in this 1952 classic!
Aldo Ray plays a psychotic criminal while Pat Chambers goes undercover as a female athlete to smoke him out. Mike Hammer joins him undercover as Pat’s new manager.
The bantering between Pat and Mike this time around seemed really weird to me (And what is up with that massage scene?) but I gather other people immensely enjoy this flick. Yes, I’m KIDDING! I know this isn’t a Mike Hammer movie.
At any rate, that wraps up this look at some Mike Hammer oddities. I consider the 1982 Larry Cohen version of I, the Jury to be overrated. I’m not a fan of Stacy Keach’s portrayal of the character. If you want Mike Hammer with a moustache give me Charles Bronson. I’m neutral on Rob Estes as Hammer, so I have nothing more to add on this topic. BELOW: Watch the extended, original finale to Kiss Me Deadly from 1955 and see what I meant above. You can subscribe to them HERE.