The First Screen Mike Hammer, R.I.P.

August 21st, 2012 by Max Allan Collins

The first actor to portray Mike Hammer in the movies has passed away. Read Biff Elliot’s obituary here in the Hollywood Reporter.

I count Biff as one of the best Hammers, and obviously a pioneering one. He left an indelible stamp on the role, though, at the time, some (even Mickey himself) expressed disappointment. Biff himself stated that his approach was to make a human being out of Spillane’s comic strip-style character, and I feel he succeeded. I had a brief but warm e-mail exchange with Biff last year and he signed a still from I, THE JURY to me, which I treasure even more today.

Here is a piece I wrote for Classic Images (the great Muscatine-based film publication edited by my pal Bob King) on I, THE JURY, specifically singling out Biff’s performance:

Mickey Spillane was not a fan of the films British producer Victor Saville fashioned in the 1950s from the mystery writer’s bestsellers, I, the Jury, The Long Wait, Kiss Me, Deadly and My Gun Is Quick. So incensed by what he considered a mishandling of his famous private eye, Mike Hammer, Spillane wrote and co-produced THE GIRL HUNTERS (1963), in which he starred as Hammer himself.

Time has been kind to several of the Saville films, notably KISS ME DEADLY (1955), starring Ralph Meeker, directed by Robert Aldrich and written by A.I. Bezzerides. The film had a strong anti-Spillane subtext but was nonetheless a brilliant evocation of Mike Hammer’s violent, sexually charged world. Late in life, Spillane came to appreciate KISS ME DEADLY, which is now considered a noir classic; but he never warmed to the others. With MY GUN IS QUICK (1957), wherein Robert Bray portrayed Hammer, Spillane had a point: it was a slipshod quickie. THE LONG WAIT (1954) (with Anthony Quinn as a non-Hammer protagonist and an array of beauties including Peggie Castle) does have its admirers, with a particularly strong climax involving starkly expressionistic lighting.

Though he counted Biff Elliot a friend, Spillane disliked I, THE JURY (1953). He thought Elliot was too small, though his chief complaints were with the script and such details as Mike Hammer’s trademark .45 automatic being traded in for a revolver, and he howled about Hammer getting knocked out with a coathanger. He found director/screenwriter Harry Essex obnoxious and disrespectful, and was irritated that his handpicked Mike Hammer – close friend, ex-cop Jack Stang (for whom the hero of the posthumously published Spillane novel Dead Street is named, and who appears briefly in I, THE JURY in a poolroom scene) – was turned down for the part.

In 1999, Mickey and I were invited to London where the National Film Theater was showing my documentary, “Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane,” as part of a retrospective of Spillane films. Mickey did not bother to attend any of the screenings except my documentary. But I was eager to attend a rare 3-D screening of I, THE JURY.

I’d always liked the film, and had argued its merits (and those of KISS ME DEADLY) to Mickey over the years. Of all the Saville films, I, THE JURY seemed to catch best the look and flavor of the novels; it was fun and tough and sexy, and the dialogue had crackle. What had disappointed moviegoers at the time remains disappointing: the most overtly sexual aspects of the plot (a dance studio may or may not be a brothel, several characters may or may not be homosexual) became incoherent due to censorship issues, and the famous striptease finale reduced lovely Peggie Castle’s disrobing to taking off her shoes!

But Elliot himself was a terrific Mike Hammer – an emotional hothead who could be as tough as he was tender. That he was a little smaller than readers might have imagined Hammer only makes him seem less a bully. He fights hard and loves hard, and may not be as smart as most movie private eyes, which gives him a nice everyman quality. It’s a shame Elliot, with a screen presence similar to James Caan’s, was not better launched by the film.

The revelation of the screening, however, was the 3-D cinematography – seen “flat” on TV, the film doesn’t seem to be much of a 3-D movie, with only a few instances of objects and people coming out of the screen. But the 3-D screening revealed the brilliant John Alton’s mastery at creating depth, bringing the viewer inside the images. As one of a small handful of 3-D crime films, I, THE JURY is an unacknowledged 3-D gem.

Crime writer Mike Dennis has published the first TARGET LANCER review, and I’m pleased to report that it’s glowing.

I will finish by expressing my disappointment in the new film, THE EXPENDABLES 2. I love these action heroes, and I even liked the first film, though it was disappointing in many respects. The new one at least has a strong villain (Jean Claude Van Damme!), but the screenplay (attributed to numerous hands, including those of Stallone, normally a good screenwriter) is a lazy mess. When you find out the youngest member, taking one last job, left the service because somebody killed his dog…seems he’d been killing Ay-rabs all day, and that was just one killing too many…you can only wonder if you can make it through your popcorn before the shock of his tragic death. Could Arnold S. and Bruce Willis be any more lame in their humor, most of which is “I’ll be back” jokes? And maybe it’s supposed to be funny when Chuck Norris shows up out of nowhere to save the Expendables, and then wander off. But whose idea was it to play a Morricone theme associated with Clint Eastwood behind Norris? Do you really want to remind your audience that Chuck Norris is no Clint Eastwood?


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5 Responses to “The First Screen Mike Hammer, R.I.P.”

  1. Graham says:

    I was disappointed in THE EXPENDABLES 2 as well, but I believe Chuck Norris’ theme is actually from LONE WOLF MCQUADE, which was a very Leone-esque try at a modern western. And you’re right, Van Damme was great.

  2. The music behind Norris was the GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY theme — incredibly iconic to be slapping behind an actor other than Eastwood. I went to plenty of Norris B movies back in the day, and dug them…but he was never of the stature of these other guys, and the movie acting like LONE WOLF McQUADE (which is directly referenced in dialogue) as if it were some pop cultural touchstone is ridiculous.

    And as good as Van Damme is, did you notice this villain’s name in the picture was “Vilain”? Was Nasty McMeanie Pants taken?

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Brian_Drake says:

    Chuck Norris isn’t going to like this.

    Seriously, though, now I want to see I, THE JURY.

  4. I, THE JURY is readily available on the gray market. But what we want to see (and some efforts are being made in this direction) is a 3-D Blu-ray. It’s a much-underrated film, and easily the second best of the Saville quartet.

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