Hard Boiled Detective is one of my favorite film genres, and fictional sleuths don't get boiled much harder than Mike Hammer. 1963's The Lady Hunters is perhaps not the best of the Mike Hammer adaptations, but it has the single distinction of featuring the character's creator, Mickey Spillane, playing the man himself.
This is based on one of the later Hammer books. Mike has been on a multi-year bender, distraught over the disappearance and presumed death of his secretary and partner Velda. He's dragged into a hospital by former friend and police captain Pat Chambers (Scott Peters). There's a dying man who has vital information who says he'll only talk to Hammer. The dying man tells Mike that Velda is still alive, and is being hunted by trained assassin The Dragon. This revelation brings Mike out of his funk, and he sobers up and gets back on the job determined to find Velda.
Of course, along the way he has to deal with federal agents who want information, and might be willing to share a bit too, rich widows, reporters, and all the various lowlifes one expects to find on the mean streets. Mike isn't concerned with subtlety, he's concerned with finding Velda, and he calls in every favor he can, and twists every arm he can find, to do it.
The film is tightly plotted, and faithful book as far as I know. It should be, since Spillane also wrote the screenplay. The main detriment to viewing pleasure is the character of Hammer himself. He's rather unpleasant. This is a staple feature of Hammer, in both books and adaptations, but it's particularly exacerbated here. It doesn't help that Hammer is a drunken slob as the story begins, and admittedly he does get better as time goes on, but never loses his bluntness or abrasive personality. One of the most iconic lines from the film is, "Hell, I never hit dames. I always kick ‘em." Prince Charming he is not. The world he operates in is also rough edged and vicious, and there isn't exactly an uplifting ending. However, there is a lot of cool stuff to see.
There is a terrific scene, a version of which actually happened to Spillane, in which an unarmed Hammer deftly deals with an aggressive fellow with an ice pick. There's also a barn burner of a fight between Hammer and The Dragon toward the end of the picture. The dialogue is punchy and crisp. The performances are all pretty good, especially Shirley Eaton as Laura Knapp, the widow of an influential senator. Even Spillane holds his own, though he is not at all a trained actor.
In short, there's a lot to like about The Lady Hunters, and fans of Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane definitely need to see it. But keep in mind that it takes a stark and pessimistic view of humanity. Recommended.
Interview with Mickey Spillane
Interview with Shirley Eaton
Commentary with Mickey Spillane Historian Max Allan Collins