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?
While it's no masterpiece, The Girl Hunters has several unique elements that make it worth seeing. The first is the aforementioned presence of Spillane. So how does the author hold up against his more-experienced competition? Well, let's just say his Hammer's not as scary as Ralph Meeker's, nor as smooth and likeable as Keach's, but otherwise, he's not half bad. The Girl Hunters wasn't Spillane's first acting gig; he played himself in the perhaps even odder Ring of Fear (1954) (which also featured animal tamer Clyde Beatty, playing himself). Spillane is rough-around-the-edges, but that works for the state Hammer's in here, climbing out of boozy self-pity, and his tossed off, flat line readings are strangely convincing. (Funnily enough, in complete contrast to his hard-living creation, in real life Spillane was a tee-totaller as well as a Jehovah's Witness...not to mention, a one-time lifeguard, trampoline artist for the Ringling Bros., WWII fighter pilot and flight instructor - quite the resume for a highly-successful writer.)
The second reason to see The Girl Hunters is Shirley Eaton as the femme fatale, at the apex of her glamor and sex appeal here, the same year she cavorted with Sean Connery to such long-lasting effect in Goldfinger. (1) The producers wisely arranged for Ms. Eaton to spend at least half of her many scenes in a bikini, the better to show off her “golden girl” hot bod. She's the only feminine presence of any note in the movie, and makes the most of it. She's really a sight to behold, not only bringing the va-va-voom factor, but classing up the joint with her stylish presence. Her love scenes with Spillane do come across a wee bit awkward, however...while Spillane might be a pretty good Hammer, he's no Sean Connery. Miss Eaton smooches it up like a pro, anyway, and so far as I can tell, has never fessed up to which of her manly co-stars was the better kisser.
Another oddity: The Girl Hunters, while being set in New York City, was actually filmed in London. Spillane and Nolan, of course, were native Yanks. The rest of the capable but mostly unknown supporting cast were all either British actors, or North American actors living in England at the time. Everyone speaks in a more-or-less reasonable attempt at an American accent, other than Shirley Eaton (who, thankfully, keeps her lovely, posh "English Rose" tones). It's all a little weird, as it's very clear that the locations, the buildings, the cars, even the fashions, don't quite ring true. The cumulative effect is odd, yet oddly endearing, and the low budget, gritty black-and-white cinematography and workmanlike direction (by Roy Rowland) add to the film's overall ramshackle appeal.
One of the amusing cliches of the Mike Hammer series is Mike's constant supply of old buddies who help him out in numerous ways, despite the danger that frequently befalls them. It doesn't pay to be Hammer's friend, basically...but no matter how many get bumped off in the course of a story, there are always more pals coming out of the woodwork to lend a hand or impart a vital clue. Those familiar with Spillane's books will also not be surprised at the final revelation of the killer here, nor the labyrinthine plot that doesn't really hang together...not helped in The Girl Hunters' case by leaving a certain story element hanging unresolved, which shows an admirable fidelity to the source novel but seems a miscalculation as a way to resolve a one-off film. Nevertheless, as a crime thriller, it gets the job done, and that ending is a doozy. This is one of those one-of-a-kind novelties that diehard movie fans love to seek out. It might leave you a bit bemused, befuddled, perhaps even bored, but it's definitely not the sort of thing you see every day.
(1) As author Max Allan Collins kindly notes in the comments below, Shirley Eaton completed work on The Girl Hunters first, before famously being coated with gold paint in Goldfinger. (Luckily for her fans, the producers of both films saw fit to put the gorgeous Ms. Eaton in a bikini.)
DVD Note: The above screencaps are from the (non-anamorphic) Region 2 PAL DVD. The transfer is only so-so but certainly watchable. Better to opt for the recent Blu-Ray edition from Kino Lorber/ Scorpion Releasing, which looks fabulous, judging from the DVD Beaver review. The new Blu-Ray also boasts some impressive special features, including a commentary track by Max Allan Collins, a lengthy interview with Mickey Spillane and a briefer one with Shirley Eaton.
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