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Sex and violence are incestuously twinned in Hammer's mind. For him, every encounter is intimate. He gets in the faces both of his adversaries and of his for-the-moment girlfriends. Both forms of intervention involve a sock in the mouth, leading Mike to one of two responses: kiss or kill. And every smooch is a heavyweight event. ("I kissed her so hard I hurt my mouth this time.") Sex is violent, and violence sexy. They are the two things that give him a thrill. And once in a while he can combine the two. "I don't hit women," he genially assures pearly Shirley Eaton In The Girl Hunters. "I always kick 'em."
As a man's man, Hammer knows the code of brawling; he can instinctively anticipate a man's moves. He initiates contact with men. But women initiate it with him. (He's the female to their sexually avaricious male.) Being on the receiving end makes women a mystery to him. He can joke about it, saying, of lipstick, "I could never figure out why the stuff came off women so easy and off the men so hard." Other times he's just perplexed: "What is it that gives them that look as if they know the problem and the answer too, yet hold it back because it's something you have to discover yourself?" Poor Mike: he thinks that if he doesn't know something it's not worth knowing. So he's forever lumbering into the traps, innocent or near-fatal, that women set for him. And when another man dares to claim the sexual prize Hammer keeps turning down, he gets in a competitive fury. Mike put the lousy in jealousy.
MIKE AT THE MOVIES
In I, the Jury, Hammer takes Charlotte to the movies: "...we sat through two and a half hours of a fantastic murder mystery that had more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese and a Western that moved as slowly as the Long Island Railroad in a snowstorm. When we got out I thought I had blisters on my butt."
Spillane didn't have much more luck with the films made from his novels than Hammer did that afternoon with Charlotte. He sold his movie rights to the English director-producer Victor Saville. "I always thought that Saville would have the sense to do what was right," Spillane told Collins. "He never did." The result was four '50s big-screen adaptations: three cheap little dogs (I, the Jury, The Long Night and My Gun Is Quick) and one large, strange, rabid animal (Kiss Me Deadly).
Hammett, Chandler and James M. Cain all wrote novels that were turned into A pictures (respectively, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity) that still play well today. Spillane, who outsold them all, and I mean all together, should have got some sharp films made from his work, through his power or the law of averages. But the very elements that made him a hot property on the paperback market the sex and violence made him too hot for '50s Hollywood. If the studio bosses didn't exactly blacklist Spillane, they didn't rush to film his books.
I, the Jury was written and directed by Harry Essex, a specialist in science-fiction screenplays (It Came from Outer Space, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) who had no notion of alchemizing menace from pictures and performances. Shot in 3D by noir whiz John Alton, and featuring occasional thrusts into the camera (a rifle, a dying man's hand, the pointed bra worn under a satiny blouse by Peggie Castle as Charlotte), the movie stays perfunctorily faithful to the book, including the use of a few famous lines. "Act like a clam or I'll open ya up like one" is there, and of course the final fatal dialogue.
The most obvious failure was in casting Elliot as Hammer. A shortish guy with a strident, high-pitched voice, he's like a teenager playing Hammer in a school pageant, and he's dressed in a trenchcoat so oversize, it seems to be holding Chuck Bednarik's shoulder pads. Elliot is further undercut by the dialogue. "I like to stick my neck out," he tells Charlotte, "Makes me think I'm tough." (Mike can't have the pretense of toughness; he's got to exude it.) In one scene, Elliot's Mike is knocked out cold when bad-guy Paul Dubov hits him with ... a coat hanger. What a wuss!
The Long Night, with Anthony Quinn as a non-Hammer hero with amnesia, is a drab affair, and My Gun Is Quick buried its chance at B-minus competence with another unknown, inapt Hammer, Robert Bray. You might say that Spillane should always have played him, as he does in the 1963 The Girl Hunters. (Richard Wright, of Native Son fame, is the only other best-selling novelist I know who played his own major character in a movie. Anyone know others?) But that would be to overrate Spillane's hulking amateurism. He has fun in the movie, but maneuvers only on the surface of Hammer's tortured meanness.
That leaves Kiss Me Deadly, a film not quite meriting its latter cult eminence. The movie so stresses its characters stereotypes (the comic Italians and wasted dames) and facile aural editorializing (braying trombones, in case you didn't catch the blatant ironies in the dialogue) that the exaggeration almost becomes a style, as it surely does in Spillane's writing. This was 1955, when director Robert Aldrich's consistent coarseness was brave and bracing in Hollywood, rather than routine.
Some things Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides kept from the book: a secret message from a dead woman; a scene where Mike slams a desk drawer shut on the fingers of a suspect; the slapping around of an Athletic Club guard; and the ultimate villain (who goes up in flames). But they changed the Mafia to an, I don't know, atomic-weapons gang. It's as if the Rosenbergs didn't give the Russians the plans for a bomb but the bomb itself. They also perverted the relationship of Hammer and his police buddy, Pat Chambers. Wesley Addy's Pat is so drawling and insinuating in his banter with Hammer, he might be making a gay play for him.
The Hammer personality got an overhaul too. This Mike isn't a lonely knight, or even a psycho with a hero complex. He's a sleazy guy in a slimy business his specialty is divorce cases who does mean things for fun. I still remember, from seeing the film 51 years ago, a scene where Hammer picks up a man's beloved old Caruso record and snaps it in two. (The same year I'd seen Blackboard Jungle, where the vicious high-school punks smash a teacher's Bix Beiderbecke records. So I knew Mike was a bad guy.) The music plays up his thug character as well. When Mike shows up in a doorway, we hear the clanging chords that usually greet the first appearance of a monster. This isn't a private eye film; it's a Hammer horror movie.
A film of winding stairways and furtive descents into darkness (and a final cauterizing blast of light), Kiss Me Deadly does its coarsely artful best to lure viewers into the lurid. What movies can't do that fiction can is chain you to the power of first-person narrative. Spillane puts you inside the thick, teeming skull of some modern-medieval creature part Galahad, part dragon and locks you there. You may want out, but you also want to stay, if only to see how similar Mike Hammer's atavistic codes and instincts are to yours, and how swiftly and deftly Spillane etches this urban underworld. (As novelist Mirian Ann Moore says, "Nobody ever hit a noun against a verb like Mickey Spillane.")
It's primal therapy through fiction, and the book releases you only at the last page from the awful fascination of its grip. A thrilling or sickening ordeal for you, dear reader. But for Mickey Spillane... it was easy.