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Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer character had almost been forgotten in the 1970s. Completely overshadowed by the James Bond craze, the two-fisted misogynistic tough guy was remembered mostly through TV airings of Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, in which Marty's Bronx pal Angie pores over pocket books and repeatedly murmurs, "Gee, that Spillane sure can write" and "That Mike Hammer sure knows how to handle women."
There was a short-lived series of Hammer films in the early 1950s. Biff Elliott played the bruiser opposite the voluptuous Peggie Castle in the 3D I, The Jury. Now heralded but then ignored, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly starred Ralph Meeker and attempted to criticize Spillane's world-view from within.
The literary Hammer was deplored by the cultural watchdogs of the 1950s. The private detective was really a rogue vigilante who casually murdered crooks, gave forth with rabid monologues against Commies and 'sexual degenerates' and was particularly rough on women. Spillane's women came in two types. Gentle sweethearts were suffering victims, while Hammer made it his business to dole out punishment to the femme fatales, all of whom seemed to be oversexed bombshells driven by greed and guilty of the vilest acts. Naturally, Hammer got to play avenging angel. I the Jury has him taking a semi-nude villainess in his arms and shooting her in the stomach with a .45 automatic, a situation cribbed from James M. Cain's (and Billy Wilder's) Double Indemnity. The mortally wounded dame staggers back, croaking out "How could you?" Hammer answers, "It was easy."
The Girl Hunt Ballet in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon was a direct Spillane takeoff, with Fred Astaire playing a hero who "hits hard --- and hates hard." The latest cultural lampoon of the Spillane world has been on radio's A Prairie Home Companion for a couple of decades, in a recurring skit called Guy Noir, Private Eye.
Spillane's facility with sadism thrilled readers even while critics tried to link it to a rising arc of violence in American entertainment. Unlike horror comics, Spillane was spared investigation by the bluenoses and un-American activities snoops because his text waved the flag. The odd thing is that he's a genuinely good writer; books like Kiss Me Deadly read better than many instalments in Ian Fleming's Bond series. Fleming obviously derived his superhero spy from Spillane and film noir crime thrillers; Spillane's attitude may be ugly, but he's a home-grown original.
There was a quick attempt to revive Hammer in the early 1980s when genre writer-director Larry Cohen (It's Alive, Q, the Winged Serpent) started a film version of I, The Jury with Armand Assante, and was fired as the production began. But a couple of years later Hammer appeared on television in a kinder, gentler Reagan-era incarnation "created" by Larry Brody, a busy series writer and producer. 1
Able tough-guy actor Stacy Keach was rougher than earlier television private eyes but far softer than the sadistic Hammer of the Spillane universe. This 1980s Hammer is yet another knight in armor doing his best for justice. He may talk about vengeance but his actions are generally free of vigilantism, and he spends a lot of time curbing the instincts of other more hostile bad-guy chasers. If Hammer goes even slightly ballistic on the bad guys, it's usually saved for the finish. The usual best friends and witnesses get killed, but Hammer no longer communicates with his cop pal Pat Chambers by leaving him a path of dead bodies to follow.
This more laid-back Hammer likes to hang out in jazz clubs, is kind to women and children and in essence is a real softie. The Mike Hammer show was never as popular as the all-time TV detective champ The Rockford Files, but it wasn't a bad way to pass the time.
Brody's Hammer lasted two years ('84-'86). Ten years later, the entire franchise was resurrected as an independent venture based around Stacy Keach. Although there are stock shots taken on the streets of Manhattan, the bulk of the show was shot out in the city of Ventura, Northwest of Los Angeles.
Stacy's charcterization hasn't changed, although the scripts are even simpler than before. Mike Hammer frequently stumbles into a case after the killing of a pal. Both he and his new police buddy Skip Gleason (Peter Jason) have their badges taken away by the DA Lawrence Barrington (Kent Williams, a holdover from the first teleseries). The shows are much more modernized. The new Velda (Shannon Whirry) helps Mike with his computer. Showing a rather disagreeable conservative bias, newsmen and television people are all disreptutable creeps. In one show about a 'misunderstood' hired killer, Mike wishes in his voiceover that some assassin would shoot Saddam Hussain.
Mike also has a new sidekick, Nick Farrell (Shane Conrad). He's the son of a cop pal killed in action and becomes an assistant who aids Hammer in the rough stuff in the field. Neither Velda nor Nick are given much in the way of characters to play. Keach's wife Malgosia Tomassi plays Maya Ricci, the yoga instructor down the hall from Mike's office. She's a nice touch, allowing Hammer someone to be sweet to while acting macho with everyone else. As a running gag, Rebecca Chaney plays an elusive mystery girl called 'the face' that Mike keeps seeing in hallways and crowds. Once per show, he gets a glimpse of her, but she always gets away.
This series is less organized. Early shows are taut and expressive but later in the season they tend to get downright sloppy, with no-budget production resources. Cheap video transitions replace the classier designs of earlier episodes. Free from whatever constricts still remained at the networks, the shows glory in the openness of drug use and other vices, although most all of the rough stuff is implied in Hammer's cool-cat voiceovers. Every once in awhile a tasteless joke or an uncalled-for bit of gore slips into the mix. One episode shows a man murdered with a ball-point pen jammed through his eye.
Overall, the series is a good time-killer, with earlier episodes being both peppier and better shot than later ones. Nicholas Von Sternberg's cinematography varies from atmospheric effects to plain set-the-camera-and-push-the-button utility. 2
Prodigal Son, Beat Street, www.murder, hoop nightmares, false truths.
Halloween, Sins of the Father, Body Odor, A Penny Saved, The Life You Save, The Long Road to Nowhere.
The Art of Murder, Countdown to Murder, The Cutting Edge, Dead Men Talk, A Candidate for Murder (One Happy Gumshoe), Dump the Creep, Big Brother's Secret.
Lucky in Love, The Maya Connection, Songbird Part 1, Songbird Part 2, Chop Shop, Gone Fishin', A New Leaf Part One, A New Leaf Part 2.
Tango's DVD set of Mike Hammer, Private Eye comes in a folding card container and jams 26 hourlong episodes onto four double-sided discs. Fans will need a magnifying glass to identify what they're seeing on the tiny text rings. The last two discs have more episodes, resulting in a much lower bit rate that makes them break up slightly on large monitors, with many pixillated faces and an overall posterized look. The opening shows have much less compression, and look great. On a smaller monitor the degraded images won't be as disruptive.
The first disc has Stacy Keach answering some questions in a new interview. He scores points by proclaiming his favorite Mike Hammer to be Ralph Meeker. There's also a TV promo billed as a trailer.
The 90s Mike Hammer, Private Eye TV series isn't as good as the first 80s version but fans of Stacy Keach's laid-back tough guy delivery will be pleased just the same. This boxed set could stave off boredom for a good week or so of intermittent viewing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mike Hammer: Private Eye rates:
1. Did you know that there
was a 1997-98 Saban animated television series of Diabolik, written and produced by Larry Brody? I've
never actually seen an episode.
2. Von Sternberg is indeed the son of the famous director; he was a UCLA student
in the early 70s.