Showing posts with label Mike Hammer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mike Hammer. Show all posts

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,

20 September 2012

Playing Detective

by
Deborah Elliott-Upton

Though it's not politically correct, I have a strong affection for the hard-boiled novel detective of yesteryear.

Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer keep me turning pages, wondering what it'd be like to be their Girl Friday (or any other day of the week.)

Women wanted them and men wanted to be like them.

Ian Fleming's James Bond character may have been the last of their kind. It seems most of our heroes in fiction today are showing their softer side. And for me, it just doesn't ring as true a hero.

Before you jump to conclusions, I am not some hater of the Feminist Movement. I believe in equal rights and that women detectives can be just as smart as the male detectives. I read and write about several women investigators, police officers and amateur sleuths. I just am not appreciative when women aren't allowed to be women and men men whether it be in real life or between the covers of a book or magazine.

I guess I like characters to be as real as possible just like my friends. I want them to react without thinking what people will think about them if they do. I want them to go with their gut instinct, go with their street smarts and figure out who the bad guy is and where to find him because they have brains to do so instead of someone feeding them information or a computer telling them what to do.

There is something about the 1930-1940's era. The clothes were appealing. Women wore billowing skirts that showed off their waists and legs. Men in hats (NOT baseball caps) just looks commanding. A man in a fedora is not overlooked, especially when he is in a trench coat. (Yes, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca gets my vote for a real man's man. He isn't really handsome, but a woman knows he is going to take care of her.) And while we're at it, let's discuss Ingrid Bergman in her own hat and trench coat in that movie. She didn't need Rick to save her either. They were equals and neither of them were namby-pamby. Emotional when they heard Sam play it again? Definitely, but that's part of the magic, isn't it. They touch our hearts because they are so darn real.

In the hard boiled stories, the men were sexist. They were also sexy as hell. My opinion is it took a strong woman to get them, keep them and make them happy.

There were two types of women populating these stories:

1. long-legged, voluptuous beauties who came on stage as a damsel in distress, but who could turn the tables on the detective in a New York Minute and become their adversaries

and

2. the long-legged, voluptuous beauties who had a heart of gold, could type as well as dress their wounds. They were usually the girlfriend/secretary who waited endlessly for their "guy" to figure out she was the one for him.

In the real world, everyone probably looked like the people living on Walton's Mountain, but that's what fiction does for the reader in transferring him away from the regular and straight into the glamorous life of a detective. (Real life detectives probably read mysteries for the same reason.)

Okay, so I said I want the characters to be real, but not so real that they don't offer me an escape from the day-to-day routine. If I am reading about a cop, I visualize a Bradley Cooper, not so much a Seth Rogen. 

I also believe women can be just as dastardly as men when it comes to crime. I actually welcome female sleuths as long as they are as smart, savvy and as sexy as I wish I were. Bring it on, Wonder Woman (who never had to stomp on a man just to prove her worth – although she certainly could have.)

I like Katniss from Hunger Games who had skills, bravery and the foresight to pay attention and learn from her mentor. I like Indiana Jones when he isn't standing in a classroom where he seemed less sure of himself. Give him a whip and let him loose.

I like to read and I am in search of a great old-time detective story that will take me away from the kid gloves approach of too many authors trying to make everybody happy.

Is that too much to ask?