Hammer nails another
The opening of The Girl Hunters (1963) reveals ultra-tough detective Mike Hammer in a familiar situation: beat up, drunk, and lying in an alley. But there’s something unfamiliar here: though Hammer surely has his own voice and demeanor, he seems a bit smaller than you’d think.
That’s because, lacking an actor to fill the big shoes of the iconic private eye, Hammer’s author and creator Mickey Spillane took the role himself. It may be a trifle disconcerting to see an author portray his own creation, but it’s not as though Anne Rice decided to play Lestat or Edgar Rice Burroughs donned the loincloth of Tarzan. The Hammer of The Girl Hunters is written as an older character than the three Hammer films made previously (I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick, and the classic Kiss Me Deadly). Also, writers are always creating characters for themselves to play onscreen. The difference here is that I doubt Spillane ever thought he’d find himself playing Hammer in a movie when he created the character 17 years before.
In fact, in the mid-Fifties, Spillane wrote, produced and directed a screen test for his pal, ex-cop tough guy Jack Stang, in the hope that Stang would land the lead in Kiss Me Deadly. I guess by 1963 Spillane figured he’d be acceptable – after all, Darren McGavin had starred as Hammer on television, and Spillane certainly looked the part more than McGavin.
And he turned out to be not such a bad actor at that. Roused by the cops and dragged downtown, Hammer gets another beating from his former friend Pat Chambers (played by Scott Peters of the camp classics They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Cape Canaveral Monsters, Attack of the Puppet People, Amazing Colossal Man and Invasion of the Saucer Men!). Seems just about everyone blames Hammer for the disappearance of his secretary, Velda. In fact, Hammer blames himself for allowing Velda to help him on the case that led to her disappearance, and has been on a binge ever since.
Chambers needs Hammer now as much as he despises him. A man is dying in the hospital, victim of an assassin, but is refusing to give vital evidence to anyone but Hammer. The man can only get out so much before he dies: Velda is alive, in hiding from the killer that attacked him. Seems Velda found out too much about a communist spy ring on her assignment, and the spies found out too much about her. Hammer has to string together whatever clues he can to find Velda before the assassin (a big hulk called The Dragon, played by Larry Taylor) beats him to it. It doesn’t help that The Dragon is taking his shots at Hammer all along the way, and killing off witnesses before they can be questioned.
The film only lags a bit during conversation, when Spillane has to deal with a lot of dialogue. Thankfully, director Roy Rowland knows how to spice up the scenery enough with odd camera angles and shadows to get through these dry patches. Rowland, who started out in movies directing the popular Robert Benchley short subjects, picked up some tricks by helming some film noir thrillers in the 1950s. Mike Hammer stories have never been about talk or plot, but mood and action. The main flaw of The Girl Hunters is that Hammer could have found Velda much earlier if he’d only picked up his mail.
My first dose of Spillane’s prose was the Hammer novel “One Lonely Night.” After the first chapter, I was surprised that so little of his work had been adapted to film, as his style is rich with action and smooth visualization. Spillane took Hammer from his comic-book character Mike Danger, using Danger as a heroic outline on which to drape the postwar bitterness and pain he saw around him.
Danger had been inspired by hard-boiled pulp characters like Race Williams, detectives who’d rather out-shoot their enemies than outwit them. What set Hammer apart from those characters was World War II, and the international unease that followed. Hammer was a hero, but he had a mean and sadistic streak that gave him more dimension – at least in the eyes of his millions of devoted readers.
What the hero of The Girl Hunters lacks in size, Hammer makes up for with attitude. Those that have only seen this film on TV will remember the scene where Hammer stares down a hood in a bar and makes him eat a bullet – but they may not have seen the savagery of Hammer’s final battle with The Dragon in a barn full of dangerous tools. It’s as rough a fight as I’d ever seen on films made up to that time. And after it’s over, it’s even meaner. A chill went up my spine watching Hammer hobble over to grab an axe, and drag it slowly over to the body of his unconscious foe. Sheesh!
The film is edgy in other ways as well. Bond girl Shirley Eaton (Goldfinger’s golden girl), as the widow Hammer seeks to protect (and more), spends most of her screen time in a skimpy bikini by the pool, and there’s no doubt about the fact that Mike is doing more than kiss her to relieve her mourning.
Image has given The Girl Hunters a beautiful new widescreen transfer, enhancing every frame. What looked like a routine mystery in 16mm TV prints looks like a much bigger story with the proper framing. Unfortunately, Image has given the film another of their careless sound mixes, punching up Philip Green’s jazzy (and inappropriately light) score to unbearably high volume, while shushing dialogue to a whisper. This often happens in theaters when engineers incorrectly adjust a Dolby soundtrack. Here, they’re obviously trying to give the mono track some Dolby depth, at the expense of those of us who don’t own a top home theater system.
Another negative is the fact that the disc bears no extras – not even a single subtitle to help those that can’t make out that low-level dialogue. This is a great disappointment, as I would have loved to hear a commentary track with Spillane, or even top Spillane-buff (and damn good writer in his own right) Max Allan Collins. Hopefully, somebody will get these guys in a screening room with a microphone when the other Hammer adventures make it to DVD.