08 February 2017

Mike Hammer: Through a Glass, Darkly

David Edgerley Gates


The start point here is that Ralph Meeker wandered into my mind's eye, I'm not sure why, but I remembered a play called Something About a Soldier. It went maybe a dozen performances when it opened in New York, but I'd seen it in a try-out run. Shows used to open in Toronto, and then travel to Boston or Philadelphia, working out the kinks on the road before they got to Broadway. This one starred Sal Mineo, along with Kevin McCarthy and, yup, Ralph Meeker.

My first Mike Hammer was Darren McGavin, on TV. The series lasted two seasons in syndication, half-hour episodes, black and white. (I'd prefer to draw a veil across the later version - meaning no disrespect to Stacy Keach - but seriously, a show that manages to make both the character and the star appear brain-dead, and then wastes Don Stroud, into the bargain? Please.)

Now. Mickey Spillane. I, the Jury sold more than six million copies, domestic. An interviewer asked Mickey how it felt to be a best-selling author. He told the guy, "I'm not an author, I'm a writer." The story goes that he cranked out the first book in nineteen days. What you have to realize about Spillane, and Mike Hammer, is that the books are very like fever-dreams. They come out of a collective unconscious. Spillane just gives voice to it. He doesn't second-guess himself, and Hammer isn't the kind of character who's plagued by doubts. I, the Jury still has a shocker of an ending, even these days. A lot of people thought it was snuff pulp, utter trash. Spillane, again. "People eat more salted peanuts than caviar." He was tapping into something, no question. A generalized postwar unease, an appetite for the sensational, vicarious thrills. Hammer smacked punks around and dished out vigilante justice with relish. He was brute force. He was the raw, elemental, unreconstructed Id.

Ralph Meeker never made it big. He had some good parts over the years, The Naked Spur, Jeopardy, Run of the Arrow, Paths of Glory. Did a fair amount of television. Got a lot of attention for Picnic, on stage, in 1954, but he turned down a chance to do the picture, and it went to Bill Holden. He's probably best known for his Mike Hammer in Kiss Me, Deadly. Thing is, though, the Mike Hammer of Kiss Me, Deadly is not only odd, he's for sure not Spillane's.

The received wisdom seems to be that Robert Aldrich was hostile to the material. He certainly reshaped the story and the character. Aldrich wasn't at this point the marquee-name director he later became, but he'd had a solid hit the year before with Vera Cruz, and he was able to write his own ticket with his next movie. He and Meeker make Hammer pretty repellent. His saving grace is that there ain't no quit to him, he just keeps coming. In the context of the story, though, this comes across less as grit and determination than as psychopathology. Hammer's a bully, a thuggish bottom-feeder.

Then there's the MacGuffin. Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street had come out in 1953, two years before. Fuller has a little more of the Commie menace in his picture than Aldrich does, but I don't think either one of them really cares much about the politics, it's a handy dramatic device that heightens the paranoia. And stuffing the H-bomb in a suitcase? Not all that farfetched in this day and age, but back then it was pure science fiction. Story elements you wouldn't associate with Mickey Spillane, in other words. His brand of hysteria is more likely to be sexual, or maybe gun porn, but he was always red meat, never a Red-baiter.

Last but not least, the visual style. Kiss Me, Deadly is relentlessly claustrophobic, with a lot of tight close-ups, which are all the scarier when the face is Jack Elam's. (The cinematographer was Ernest Laszlo, who did seven pictures with Aldrich.) You don't think of Aldrich as a guy who uses shock effects - or at least, not like Fuller - but he's got his arresting moments. And the design of the movie, the set dressing and decor, is 1950's garish contemporary. Hammer's apartment, for one. You couldn't live with that furniture, let alone the artwork he's got on the walls. It's oppressive.

So, what have we got? More than an artifact. Kiss Me, Deadly is disturbing. It throws you off-balance from the beginning, the darkened highway, and the woman running into the headlights. The less than certain POV, an unreliable narrator. The sudden stops and starts, the false flags. Hammer manipulated by sinister forces, utterly indifferent to him, and taking his frustrations out on people who can't help themselves. This is beyond noir, it's nihilism, the lowest common denominator. Everything's a transaction, and everybody's for sale. It's all about negotiating a price. You have to wonder whether Aldrich really means to leave us with nothing but the taste of ashes in our mouths,

5 comments:

Eve Fisher said...

I saw the movie, Kiss Me Deadly, about a year ago, and was surprised at what sheer, relentless brutality it is. It left a bad taste in my mouth. But so did Spillane's books: Hammer was a raw, elemental, unreconstructed Id, but primarily, perhaps only, for men. The times when Hammer roughs up a woman and then has sex with her - with her cooperation and apparent enjoyment - were why once was enough. Of course, James M. Cain did the same with "The Postman Always Rings Twice"... Maybe why I prefer "Mildred Pierce".

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for this post, David. You always provide such fascinating insights into films. I'm not sure I'll put this one on my list just yet, especially considering Eve's comments. But I enjoyed learning about it.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Absolutely right, Eve. And it's worth remembering that Chandler thought Cain's stuff was pretty distasteful - even though he admitted it was expertly done. (I don't know what RC thought about Spillane, but probably not flattering.)

Steve Liskow said...

I've never been able to get through a Mickey Spillane novel. I don't think I've ever seen any of the films, either. I know, that ear thing I talked about a few days ago...

But a fascinating post, as usual, David.

John Floyd said...

Fascinating column, David.

I heard someplace that by the late 70s, half of the top twelve bestselling novels of all time had been written by Mickey Spillane. I might not be remembering that exactly right, but the point is, he was incredibly good at writing popular fiction.