Mickey Spillane's Best Mike Hammer Hits Criterion via Kiss Me Deadly

by Simon Abrams
June 28, 2011 11:19 AM
4 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
As the Criterion Collection releases Robert Aldrich's B-classic Kiss Me Deadly, Simon Abrams explains why Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and hardboiled cinema were a perfect match:

“As the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous.” –Dr. G.E. Soberin, Kiss Me Deadly

In many ways, Mickey Spillane’s influential purple prose marked the apex of the startling violence and tawdry milieus of post-war American detective and crime stories. That’s partly because Spillane, who popularized an innovative and dynamic prose style that became synonymous with the “hard-boiled” aesthetic in genre fiction, wanted detective Mike Hammer to be seen as a graceless caveman of a private dick.

Thompson on Hollywood
Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, which the Criterion Collection released earlier this week, is more violent, sexist and overpoweringly primitive than rival fictitious detectives like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Here was a character too rough around the edges to be played even by Humphrey Bogart, whose early gangster pictures emphasized his brawler’s charisma. Hammer was most memorably portrayed by Ralph Meeker in Dirty Dozen director Aldrich’s classic 1955 film noirKiss Me Deadly. In it, Meeker’s muscular physique and well-practiced squint convey Hammer's flinty skepticism as written by Spillane.

Kiss Me Deadly was neither the first nor the last film adaptation of Spillane’s Hammer stories. Almost two a decade after Deadly’s theatrical release, Spillane himself played Hammer in the 1963 film The Girl Hunters. That film was made at a time when the real-world, war-fueled malaise that fueled Spillane’s prose was in the process of transforming into a paranoia that Spillane’s Hammer character wasn't ready for.

Hammer’s character belonged smack inside the ‘40s and ‘50s (Spillane also played a detective in the 1954 film Ring of Fear). Kolchak star Darren McGavin found fame playing Hammer from 1958-1959 in the popular TV series Mike Hammer, which signaled the end of the first wave of Hammer popularity. Throughout the ‘80s, especially from 1986-1988, when nostalgia for atomic age alarmism in genre fiction was at its peak, Hammer returned in a couple of made-for-TV movies produced by HBO. Stacy Keach starred as Hammer and played him with a brio that the character hadn’t enjoyed since Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly.

Meeker’s Hammer brings across little intimations of violence without having to speak a word. Meeker’s body language is perfect: his lip curls when he slowly snarls, “Tell her to shut up.” He puts a sneering emphasis on “shut up” that makes the line drip with palpable disdain. Hammer’s misogynistic streak in the film’s stunning opening scene is an essential part of the character. When Hammer tells a young and nearly-naked Cloris Leachman, “I’ll make a quick guess: you were out with some guy who thought 'no' was a three-letter word,” Meeker believably sets up a power dynamic that, once overturned, defines much of Hammer’s latent attraction to Leachman’s wispy dame.

As the definitive Mike Hammer, Meeker makes Kiss Me Deadly the definitive Spillane adaptation.

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More: Genres, DVDs, Thriller, Books, Classics

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4 Comments

  • Cranky Ol' Film Critic AK | June 29, 2011 12:45 PMReply

    There may be more substantive criticisms to make of this piece, but it's beyond me how someone could refer to a 1956 film -- actually 1955, as noted on Criterion's back cover, as well as at the IMDb and dozens of other sources a mere click away (if one possesses the massive energy and industry such a click requires) -- and then a mere three sentences later write "Almost TWO decades after Deadly’s theatrical release, Spillane himself played Hammer in the 1963 film The Girl Hunters"? I mean, I realize that math education isn't what it used to be, but...even arithmetic?

  • DavidC | June 29, 2011 8:18 AMReply

    Armand Assante was a good Mike Hammer in the otherwise deplorable "I, the Jury" (1982)

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084112/

  • Brian | June 29, 2011 4:50 AMReply

    I meant: "Hammer’s misogyny and boorishness," not "Spillane's." It's easy to get the two confused.

  • Brian | June 29, 2011 3:59 AMReply

    I'd forgotten about those HBO TV movies with Keach. I'd love to see those. Keach went on to play Hammer in a CBS TV series that ran from 1984-87. If I ever watched it, I don't remember it. And I'm a fan of Spillane/Hammer.

    The interesting thing about KISS ME DEADLY is that it's something of an inversion of Spillane's view of the character. In the novels, Spillane's misogyny and boorishness are considered admirable and are even survival mechanisms. Aldrich plays up those aspects in the film and we see how unadmirable and even dangerous they are. However, in the novels, Hammer is quite the white racist. Yet in the movie, he hangs out at a black bar in L.A. where he appears to be friendly with the bartender and the club singer each of whom call him by his first name, something not that common in black-white interactions on screen up to that time.

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