Of Mickey Spillane and “Mike Hammer”

Let’s establish one thing coming out of the starting gate: Mickey Spillane (Frank Morrison Spillane, 1918-2006) was not a good writer. You may see him in Hemingway-esque photographic poses, sitting at typewriters and swilling beer. The inch-deep media may mention him and his character Mike Hammer in the same breath as Dashiel Hammett and Sam Spade, or Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe. But his name deserves no more association with those superlative scribes than one of those painting elephants deserves to be paired with Picasso. I tried reading his books on one or two occasions and had to stop immediately. Spillane is perhaps the worst major prose author I’ve ever come across. His sentences are barbaric. I was about to compare him to AI, only AI has gotten terrifyingly competent of late. (Don’t read that as acceptance; I despise AI on a whole host of grounds). And there’s also this: apart from the fact that Spillane writes like he has a crowbar embedded in his skull, his novels are violent to the point of being morally reprehensible, on account of their frequent sanction of vigilantism, and the aloof and sanguine savor with which he brings to describing grievous bodily harm. Yet….as is frequently the case, he has decent ideas for stories, and so his works have sometimes been adapted for the screen in an improved condition, and some of those pictures are quite good.

Spillane was the son of an Irish bartender, and raised both in Brooklyn and Elizabeth, New Jersey. In his youth he had worked as a lifeguard and a trampoline acrobat for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. Brave service as a fighter pilot in World War Two helped forge his ethic and his personality. Unlike many other authors of crime fiction, Spillane WAS the crew-cut, thuggish tough guy of the kind he wrote about, or at least seemed to be. When not depicted in trench-coated detective drag, you usually see him in a tee shirt or a plaid flannel work shirt, much as you would see contemporaries like Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, or Jackson Pollock. He started out writing for comic books, supplying storylines for heroes like Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel, and Captain America, and also turning out the text stories the publishers used as filler in order to justify a cheaper postal rate. This is how he cut his teeth as an author.

In 1947, his first novel I, The Jury (whose title says it all) became a publishing sensation, selling 6 and a half million copies on the strength of its sex and violence. Dozens of others followed over the next half century, about half of them starring his Mike Hammer character, with titles like Vengeance is Mine, and My Gun is Quick. I, the Jury was made into a B movie in 1952, the first of his works to be adapted for the screen. This was followed by The Long Wait (1954) starring Anthony Quinn. Then came a genuinely interesting one: Ring of Fear (1954) is set at the Clyde Beatty Circus, and co-stars Beatty himself and Spillane himself in the role of a detective! Real-life equestrian clown Poodles Hanneford can be seen in the film. This was followed by what is hands down the best adaptation of a Spillane work, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) with Ralph Meeker in one of his best performances as Hammer , an unforgettable stable of character actors that includes Paul Stewart, Wesley Addey, Juano Hernandez, Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Percy Helton, and Cloris Leachman, and a literal atomic climax.

Meanwhile, in 1954 Blake Edwards made a pilot for a Mike Hammer tv series starring Brian Keith that was not picked up. However, another series did make it to air four years later (1958-59) starring Darren McGavin in the role. Around this time, Spillane made appearances on the variety shows of Milton Berle and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Astoundingly, in 1963 he himself played Mike Hammer in the English adaptation of his novel The Girl Hunters, with Shirley Eaton. The only thing that would have been weirder or more meta is if Spillane began solving actual crimes and committing actual murders. You’re more likely to have seen him in the 1974 Columbo episode “Publish or Perish” with guest star Jack Cassidy, in which he revealed himself to be an even worse actor than he is a writer.

Not long after that, he began showing up in Lite Beer commercials. This was a followed by a major resurgence of the character on television in the ’80s and ’90s in a number of series and TV movies starring Stacey Keach. There were also some theatrical adaptations, such as a 1982 remake of I, The Jury starring Armand Assante. It made all the sense in the world for Spillane and Hammer to click again in the Reagan ’80s when “no nonsense law enforcement” an ethic of “kill the transgressor” were all the rage.

It’s notable I think, and not perplexing, that there have no adaptations of Spillane’s works since the colorful author’s death. Sex and violence will always be with us, but for those we don’t need Mickey Spillane.