Quick...How many movies based on a famous series of novels can you think of, that star the author as their own character?
"Mike Hammer IS Mickey Spillane."
So reads the final credit that closes out the oddball little thriller, The Girl Hunters.
Yes, none other than novelist Mickey Spillane himself takes center stage as his most famous creation, that private eye-as-blunt-instrument, Mike Hammer. In theory, this sounds like a bad idea - but in practice, it actually works surprisingly well. Spillane's no great thespian, of course, but he makes an acceptably terse and world-weary Hammer. The literary Hammer is infamous as a hard-charging, womanizing, beat--the-crap-out-of-you-and-ask-questions-later sort of shamus, bulldozing his way through a case until he's taken out the killer in Old Testament fashion. Spillane is fairly believable as a hardcase, built like a cinderblock, his bullet-shaped head topped with a buzz cut. Granted, he's not the giant of the book Hammer, and is certainly far less believable as a ladykiller. But all told, he holds his own.
Spillane published 13 complete Mike Hammer novels, starting with I, the Jury (1947) and ending in Black Alley (1996) (along with several fragments later completed by Max Allan Collins), a handful of which have been adapted for both film and television. Biff Elliot played a rather stiff Hammer in 1953's I, the Jury (strangely enough, swarthy Armand Assante fared much better in the sleazy 1982 version). Big Ralph Meeker made for an intimidating if charmless Hammer in Robert Aldrich's hard-hitting noir classic, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). On the small screen, actors who took a crack at the role include a pre-Kolchak Darren McGavin, Kevin Dobson, Rob Estes and, most memorably in the mid-80s, Stacy Keach, who gave us a kinder, gentler but still tough Mike.
Spillane not only headlined The Girl Hunters, he co-wrote the screenplay, which follows his own novel pretty faithfully. The Girl Hunters was the first Mike Hammer novel in ten years, after 1952's Kiss Me Deadly; Spillane built this gap in time into his novel, and the movie opens similarly, with Mike as a down-and-out bum. After a botched protection gig which ended in the disappearance - and presumed death - of his beloved secretary, Velda, Mike has crawled into the bottle and become a deadbeat drunk for several years, earning the contempt of his old pal on the force, Pat Chambers (Scott Peters). But all it takes is a whispered deathbed tip from a fatally-wounded government agent, telling him Velda is still alive and in hiding, to immediately sober Mike up and set him on an implacable path to track her down. The dead agent was killed by a former Soviet assassin codenamed the Dragon, and Velda is next on the hit list. Rickerby (Lloyd Nolan), a veteran Fed who was the dead agent's mentor, makes a deal with Hammer: he'll provide intel and reinstate Hammer's gun license (and bring Mike a sandwich!) and in exchange, Hammer promises to find the Dragon and turn him over, alive, within a week. The "alive" part is a tall order for a "vengeance is mine" sort of guy like Hammer, but the bigger question is, does the rusty detective still have what it takes to bring the baddies to justice and rescue Velda?
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