Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mickey Spillane's MIKE HAMMER Comes to Television, 1950s Style!

Last year A&E/NBC Universal released to DVD the complete two-year run of MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER TV series, broadcast from 1956-1959.  The series was a product of tame 1950s television and could not duplicate the hardboiled antics that occurred in the Spillane hard-boiled literature.  Many people smile when they learn that Darren McGavin, the “Old Man” from the classic CHRISTMAS STORY and the beloved, eccentric Carl Kolchak from THE NIGHT STALKER TV movies and series, was cast, in his prime, as one of literature’s greatest private detectives.  However, defying all odds, the series is a gritty delight and McGavin is excellent in his portrayal of the independent, vigilante P.I. who works closely with the police, namely his worthy adversary and friend Pat Chambers (Bart Burns).  Episodes only ran 25 minutes, making it difficult to tell dirty little crime stories with substance in so short a time. But Revue/Universal did a fantastic job back in the day.  Unfortunately, the series never became a TV hit on the level of THE NAKED CITY, THE UNTOUCHABLES or M SQUAD, but it deserved to join those icons of television crime classics.

The series lasted 78 episodes, improving as it went along.  The crowning final four episodes of season one introduced the superior second season, where the visuals became bloodier and the scripts crisper and more complex.  Looking at the credits during the relatively short run, we find directors such as Boris Sagal, William Witney, John English, Earl Bellamy and Ray Nazarro working regularly (Sagal directed 25 episodes).  Even though Mickey Spillane wrote none of the scripts, tight little scenarios were created by the likes of Frank Kane, Steven Thornley, B.X. Sanborn and Evan Hunter, among others.  Both rising and established stars appearing on the series included Lorne Greene, Andrea King, Angie Dickinson, Ruta Lee, John Hoyt, Paul Dubov, Walter Reed, Robert Fuller, Yvette Vickers, Virginia Gregg, DeForest Kelley, Pat O’Malley and Mike Connors.  And the jazzy music score created by multiple composers (Maury Leaf scored 33 episodes and Harold V. Johnson 14) supports the smoky noir tone.

So how do we truncate the complex plots crafted by Spillane and boil teleplays down to less than half an hour per week?  How do we dumb down the literature yet still retain most of the characters’ integrity?  Surprisingly, the series did a marvelous job of retooling the series for a 1950s family audience, but that family had better get quickly acquainted with violent fist fights, bloody bullet wounds and heated battles to the death with hand guns.  For its time, MIKE HAMMER was quite envelop-pushing.  In many episodes a gunman fires two or three shoots at Hammer, who dodges the bullets or sometimes gets winged.  But instead of looking the other way, Hammer, whether he truly needs to or not, returns the gunfire, usually killing the villain without a second thought.  While McGavin’s Mike Hammer is playful, comical and wears a smile or pleasant face, he is not hesitant about cleaning up his city by sending criminals to the morgue.

The first reason for the show’s success was Darren McGavin’s starring performance.  Yes, the most beautiful women were too instantly attracted to the rugged but not legitimately handsome star that wore a rumbled suit, loose tie and battered hat. However, McGavin’s performance was instilled with integrity and a sense of fair play and always doing the right thing.  In his clich├ęd but almost expected crusty voice-over narration, Hammer reveals his love for New York City and the old neighborhoods.  Being a product of the city, he goes on a limb multiple times for old childhood friends who are now in trouble with the law or else need help for friends or relatives missing or in “The Tombs,” the New York prison system.  The actual New York location photography is quite impressive and brings a gritty, urban setting to frame the dark crime stories.  Even though most of the action occurs on cheap television sets, the location shots add budget and scope to the proceedings.  And many episodes begin with McGavin’s narration that creates lovely noir love letters to the city he embodies.  And to me this is where the TV series comes closest to the literature, because most of the Mike Hammer novels are themselves touching homages to The Big Apple.

But even though Darren McGavin might be relatively too slight and jocular to represent the true Mike Hammer created in the literature, McGavin does a mighty fine job with the material handed him.  For instance, McGavin constantly cocks a half-smile—some might say a sneer—during every episode.  And this blending, this ying and yang, of showing disdain for humanity and compassion at the same time sits at the heart of the performance.  Hammer constantly returns to his boyhood neighborhood and reunites with relatives, neighbors and friends he left behind years ago.  In reconnecting, Hammer sometimes finds himself in the company of people with a similar value system, but often he discovers that these faces from his past have become tainted, seduced by circumstance, want or greed, and that his life is sometimes put in jeopardy because of his trust and need to help the needy.  And while Hammer always seems like the dutiful P.I. working on retainer for the good of his client, he often figures out his client’s dirty little secrets before all the facts are in place.  It is Hammer’s special ability to read people and use his intuitive abilities to solve the case often before all the evidence has been collected (which constantly angers his police pal Pat Chambers).  He allows himself to be physically attracted to beautiful clients and even lose himself in one or two passionate kisses, but at the same time his hand is only inches away from his shoulder holster and he is not shy about roughing up any black window who tries to seduce him to get the upper hand.  He is a character who appears to truly enjoy his work and he is always bouncing from one part of the city to another, speaking to one suspect after another, never tiring, never complaining (complaining is what he does when he has no case and is forced to pay his bills or clean up his office), never losing his focus or sense of humor.  For all the hard working dads of the late 1950s, Hammer is the perfect escapist hero for that generation.

In contrast, his nasty other side can be found in his relationship with recurring character Geta, played by Vito Scotti.  Geta runs a little soda shop, but the stereotypical Italian is the local source to purchase illegal guns. He is an informant both to the criminal world and the police. He is the type of weasel that always plays one side against the other.  When Hammer enters Geta’s shop for “a name,” Geta always nervously clams up and sputters that he knows nothing.  But it is Hammer’s not so playful interrogation blended with veiled threats, always delivered with an all-knowing smile on his face, that establishes this good cop/bad cop relationship.  Hammer usually slaps Geta around the ears, pokes him in the chest or punches him in the stomach to loosen up the sneak’s lips.  The audience can tell in seconds that Geta cannot be trusted and that he would say anything to save his skin, and in a few episodes Hammer leaves the poor guy’s soda shop in shambles, with glasses broken, tables overturned and chairs smashed to bits.  But we all know that Hammer will be back, that sooner or later Geta will know something that he is not willingly able to share, but that Hammer’s persuasive methods will prevail.

One of the better episodes, Pen Pals (from season two), really explores the film noir morality inherent in these 25-minute morality plays. In this episode, Holly (Angela Austin), wife to ex-con Marty (Mike Connors), hires Mike Hammer because her husband is in some type of trouble. Marty has been straight since his release from jail, running a small neighborhood antiques shop, but two ex-cons from Marty’s past threaten to expose his criminal past unless he works with them to rob nearby neighborhood shops.  The thugs Simmons (Ed Kemmer, star of television’s Space Patrol) and Luger (Dort Clark) plan to rob Marty’s store first, to make him appear to be the innocent victim after which more and more shops will be robbed.  The conflicted and basically honest Marty is afraid to tell the truth to Hammer and even his wife. Hammer explains to the dense Marty that after the criminals rob his shop, Marty and his wife will know too much about the criminal operation to be allowed to live.  But Marty is too scared to think straight.  In the hard-hitting drama, Hammer tries to use his own muscle to force the hoods to leave Marty alone, but instead they kidnap Marty’s wife and get even more of a grip on the nervous shopkeeper.  In the film’s climax Marty finally comes around and allows Hammer and police protection to be on the scene the night of the robbery, and the show ends in a hail of gunfire as the good guys prevail.  The curious thing is that Hammer acts just as tough and roughs up the good guy as much as he does the two criminals.  Hammer, very street wise, knows how to play the cards dealt him, but the problem is the fear that crime instills in the hearts and minds of the innocent, making even seasoned ex-cons play right into the criminals’ hands.  So we have the morally confused Marty debate what scares him the most—the fear that he might go back to prison, concern for the life of his kidnapped wife or the financial success of his small business.  It is never an easy decision for the stressed out victim every week, but for Mike Hammer it’s always an easy decision because he sees right through to the heart of the situation.  Hammer, unlike many of his clients, has the courage to do the right thing without hesitation, whether that involves walking directly into the criminal’s lair, slapping a bad guy around, fighting with his fists for his life or charging into a deadly room with his gun blazing.  And often when an underprivileged client waves money his way, Hammer tells the client to hold on to the money.  Even with wealthy clients he sometimes tells them to pay him what they think he’s worth.
Perhaps the best episode and one that demonstrates how complex the scenario can become in a mere 25 minutes is season two’s 10th episode, According to Luke (referring to the villain Luke Lund and to the Biblical scripture from the Gospel of Luke pertaining to an eye for an eye).  Former New York mobster Luke Lund (Tom Neal, who starred in the film noir classic Detour, appears here in his final performance) has relocated to Shale City, near San Francisco, as a supposed legit land developer.  It seems five years earlier Lund was responsible for the murder of an innocent girl and the only witness, Al Kruger (Tom Gleason), was paid off handsomely by Lund to keep his mouth shut.  Kruger still continues to be paid off for his continued silence.  Mike Hammer represented the murdered girl and wants justice. Lund’s hired gun from the East Coast, Lloyd Barnum (Lewis Charles), is told by Lund to phone Hammer and reveal where he can find Kruger.  The potentially violent reunion occurs at Kruger’s hotel, but before Hammer beats a confession from Kruger, a corrupt cop Dacon (Joseph Mell) intervenes.  Lund finally phones Hammer and tells him to come to his gated mansion that night, but when Hammer arrives the hidden Barnum knocks Hammer unconscious near the front door. Hammer awakens almost an hour later outside of town, left by the side of a rural road. Dacon soon brings Hammer to the station for questioning, revealing that Kruger was beaten and shot dead … with Hammer’s pistol.  Hammer smells the frame, overpowers the soft cop, and finds Barnum in his hotel room.  There we observe the beast within nice guy Hammer as he takes his open hand and almost slaps the gangster to death.  Finally, with blood flowing freeing from both his nose and ear, Barnum confesses and implicates Dacon as being in on the murder and frame.  As Hammer is ready to leave, Barnum dives for a gun hidden in the sofa, and Hammer shoots him to death, having killed the only man who can clear him.  Using Lund’s sexy and honest secretary, Hammer lures Lund to Barnum’s hotel room and agrees to back off implicating Lund as long as Hammer’s pistol is no longer associated with Kruger’s death.  The crafty mobster agrees, but as Hammer is about to exit the small hotel, he stops dead in his tracks and backtracks to kick in the door to Barnum’s room, catching Lund signaling someone outside.  Hammer tells the thug that he knows Dacon is outside ready to gun him down, but he forces Lund to change coats and hats with him, that Lund can “get it” from him right here or Lund can take his chances by walking outside.  Outside Lund screams, “Dacon, it’s me, Lund, it’s Lund” as Dacon opens fire and kills him.  Hammer comes running outside as Dacon flees, Hammer firing and wounding the cop.  Police sirens are approaching and Hammer’s voice-over ends the superb episode with the suggestion that the police will get the picture when they arrive, but not the frame, referring to his own quick escape.  Director Earl Bellany, working from one of many scripts written by Steven Thornley, brings out the trapped beast in Mike Hammer who constantly reminds himself of the fool he’s been played for as he desperately tries to clear his name before it’s too late.  The tension generated and all the twists and turns make the 25 minutes just fly by.

Television and crime series have evolved since the late 1950s, but Darren McGavin really breathes life into the character of Mike Hammer, transforming Hammer into a lovable rogue and babe magnate with that sly wink in his eye.  McGavin’s Hammer might not have been Spillane’s, but the television series kept the action flowing, the guns blazing and the fists flying.  It is a mostly forgotten series that deserves to be rediscovered.