There’s little poetry in a Mike Hammer novel. Creator Frank Morrison “Mickey” Spillane never allowed it in; for in with it may come sentimentality and that didn’t fit in Spillane’s world-view. The world was a hard, sharp-edged thing that both slices and bludgeons. It’s a Burmese tiger-trap. It’s a beach in Guadalcanal, “[T]here in the muck and the slime of the jungle, there in the stink that hung over the beaches rising from the bodies of the dead”. What poetry that does exist has the same flint edge. Take this from the same passage in One Lonely Night: “…there in the half-light of too many dusks and dawns laced together with the crosscrossed patterns of bullets, I had gotten a taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of a normal civilization.”
Hammer is far and away removed from Chandler’s knight-errant or Hammett’s cynical but upright detective. He’s an embittered, battered ex-soldier with wide streaks of racism, misogyny and extreme rage, which he acts out with either his hard-man’s fists or his .45 “Betsy”. His only guidance through this corpse-stench world is his own sense of justice, which can be summed up but the title of his debut, I, The Jury. He hides no secrets, doesn’t ask for understanding, knows that he can only trust his secretary and long-time fiancée, Velda. He has one friend in the police force he left behind, Pat Chambers, and even that relationship is tenuous.
Portrayed on screens both big and small (though doing much better on television) by Biff Elliot, Stacy Keach, Darren McGavin (in a popular show TV Guide itself called “the worst thing on TV”), Ralph Meeker and Armand Assante, perhaps only one man could ever really do the character justice. For Spillane, it was the man upon whom he based the character, a Newburgh, NY, police officer and fellow vet of the pacific theater, Jack Stang.
While Stang had appeared with Spillane in the 1954 thriller Ring of Fear and had even filmed a screen test for a version of Kiss Me Deadly, his turn as Hammer was never meant to be. So for The Girl Hunters, Spillane turned to a logical second-choice, himself. In one of the only occasions where the writer played his creation in a film, as the credits announce with bold intensity: “Mike Hammer IS Mickey Spillane.”
Spillane is completely appropriate to play the mean-willed side-of-beef with a carry permit. Looking like a particularly weary William Bendix when we first meet him, lying face-down, drunk in the gutter. Seems Hammer has been on a seven-year bender after the apparent death of his beloved Velda. He blames himself and so does Pat Chambers, who fishes him out of the drain to beat him up some more. Pat stops short of killing Mike because a fatally-wounded dock worker named Cole is asking for Hammer specifically. The slug they dug out of Cole matches the gun that was used to murder a senator years ago.
Dying in an oxygen tent, Ritchie Cole reveals that his killer was a top-level Soviet assassin nicknamed “the Dragon”. “Tooth and nail,” Ritchie says. Then reveals the Dragon’s next target: Velda. She’s still alive and Hammer is her only hope to remain so.
Seven-year drunk, nothin’—Hammer’s sober as a judge in seconds, hot on the Dragon’s trail. “Dragon’s have teeth and nails. Now I’m St. George.”
Pat wants nothing to do with his old friend, but the heat comes on from a fed named Rickerby, who tells Mike that Cole was a field agent. The fed can get Hammer anything he needs, so long as he leaves the Dragon alive for Rickerby.
Mike starts at what he thinks might be the beginning, at the dead senator’s mansion. There he meets the no-longer grieving widow, Laura Knapp (Goldfinger’s Shirley Eaton), sunbathing in her pool. The details of her husband’s murder don’t add up. It was staged to look like a robbery, but all that was taken were piles of paste jewelry. Senator Knapp had moved all of his secret papers to a safety deposit box the previous week.
The always-bikini-clad Laura comes on strong, eager to help Hammer in solving her husband’s murder, to help him find “that girl” he’s looking for. If Velda was just some girl, he wouldn’t be looking so hard. But seven years is a long time and with Laura’s bikinis come smoldering glances and thick eyelashes. For the next two acts, Mike runs back and forth across the city, into seedy bars and ritzy estates. Occasionally, he runs into television star Hy Gardner, playing himself, and the two go off for an investigation. Nearly every scene ends with a threat, a sap to the head or a stitch of bullets across the wall. But each scene also brings Mike closer to The Dragon. And Velda.
Spillane was never one for subtlety in his writing and that carries over into his acting. Though he is surprisingly (or not) good as Mike Hammer, his characterization is a lot like the detective’s surname. He’s blunt, he’s hard and he packs a wallop. His Hammer isn’t the narcissistic psychotic Robert Aldritch turned Ralph Meeker into in Kiss Me Deadly, but he’s hardly a soft-touch, though he does let his grief over Velda out in both small and large ways. Sometimes it’s a sad look, but more often it’s a fist to the furniture. But you don’t doubt Spillane’s Hammer. When he’s threatened in a skuzzy bar by a Cuban pimp with an ice-pick, Mike/Mickey stares at the man hard, then rolls a bullet down the length of the bar. Sliding a hand inside his jacket, his eyes never leave the pimp’s. “Eat it,” he orders. Choosing his life over his reputation, the pimp leaves the icepick imbedded in the bar and swallows the bullet. There is no misunderstanding in that scene. Maybe Hammer started out as a drunk and a punching bag at the beginning but make no mistake, if you’re in his way or even mildly annoying him, he’ll kill you, with his bare hands, and he will not be sobbing in church come Sunday.
Hammer talks plain too. He notices that Laura has a shotgun shoved barrel-down in a flowerpot inside the door, so he tells her exactly what would happen if she tried to fire that blocked barrel. “Won’t be nothin’ left above the neck. The coronor’ll be picking bits of skull out of that wall with a pair of needle-nosed pliers.” After cleaning the clay out of the gun, he hands it back to her and leaves. Laura responds with a firey glance, lowering the barrel out of frame as the camera dollies into the most suggestive scene in the film. And you just know that blocked barrel is going to come back into play.
The Girl Hunters also contains one of the most brutal fights ever staged. Hammer catches up to a bad guy and the two of them beat the living hell out of each other in a tool-laden basement. A buzz saw goes on, but there’s no false suspense involving the spinning blade. It’s just there to make noise and drown out the punching. In the end, both men are bleeding and exhausted, panting and unable to throw or take another punch. Hammer leaves the man on the ground and, for just a second, considers burying an axe in the man’s chest, even toeing open his ripped shirt for a better target. But instead, he keeps the man alive for later. Without a rope to secure the villain, he makes due with a mallet and a long iron spike, nailing the man’s hand to the floor. This isn’t the way Mike Hammer “rolls”; it’s how he looks at life. He may live in the gray, but he sees it as black and white. What does a guy have to do so he can move forward? Does he go over, around or, more often, through? Ironically, after he finally reaches his goal, his Velda, she’s only seen from the back, unconscious. His denoument is with Laura Knapp, not with his gal, not with Pat. In this case, Velda is Mike’s Maltese Falcon, she’s the stuff his dreams are made of. Rather than to cynically assume that her part was cut due to budget or time, it might make the world a better place to think that she’s someone private for Mike. We get to see the rough and the brutal, but not the man that Velda loves.
After The Girl Hunters, Mickey went on and Mike Hammer went on, sometimes together, sometimes separately, but never again would they be one and the same on the screen. Spillane popped up in guest star appearances on television; Mike Hammer went on to other adventures in filmmaking. Spillane wrote Mike until he died, then Max Allan Collins helped pick up the pieces where Mickey left off, most recently with a novel entitled The Goliath Bone, in which Hammer goes up against the Taliban. And he still hasn’t married Velda.