Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer

October 21st, 2014 by Max Allan Collins
The Girl Hunters Blu-Ray

The day this update appears, the limited edition blu-ray disc of THE GIRL HUNTERS from Scorpion (1000 copies) will be released. Here’s where you can get it for a great price.

It’s also available on DVD, and here’s the Amazon link (and they of course have it on blu-ray, too).

For this Mike Hammer fan, having THE GIRL HUNTERS on blu-ray is a big deal. I don’t pretend that THE GIRL HUNTERS is a great movie, but it’s a very good P.I. movie by any standard and an almost hallucinatory treat for longtime Spillane/Hammer fans. I’ve stated many times that KISS ME DEADLY is the best Mike Hammer film, a statement with which few would take issue. I also feel that I, THE JURY with Biff Elliot is terrific representation of the feel and mood of the early novels, with a fine Franz Waxman score and great John Alton cinematography that seen in 3-D is something very special. And Elliot is a much better young hot-headed Hammer than he is generally given credit for.

It should be noted that in 1963, Mickey didn’t like any of the movies made from his novels (he was more charitable about the Darren McGavin TV series). He came to like KISS ME DEADLY, but that would take many years (and my efforts to sway him). The basic notion behind the film of THE GIRL HUNTERS was to do a Mike Hammer movie right for a change. And a good argument can be made that Spillane succeeded in his wish.

THE GIRL HUNTERS has a solid Hollywood director in Roy Rowland, whose interesting body of work includes everything from ROGUE COP to THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T. The melodic big band score, considered overbearing by some, is by Philip Martell, a composer more associated with that other Hammer, the one Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing worked for. That’s a clue to an oddity about the film (as is the presence of lovely co-star Shirley Eaton), which is that it’s a British/USA co-production, predominantly shot in the UK though with considerable B-unit location work in Manhattan. This two-country combo of shooting is skillfully done but limiting, and a funding source that fell through on the eve of production kept the film from being shot in color. The latter is fine with film noir fans of today, but in 1963, when the film was released, it hurt box-office potential considerably.

What is of course unique about THE GIRL HUNTERS is that Mickey Spillane portrayed Mike Hammer. Mickey had starred as himself in John Wayne’s RING OF FEAR (1954) and later would appear self-spoofingly in the wildly popular, long-running series of Miller Lite commercials, as well as in a couple of indie thrillers called MOMMY and MOMMY’S DAY. But in ‘63, Mickey had only RING OF FEAR and a few TV appearances for screen credits.

The risk of putting a non-actor in the lead role of a film, where he would appear in every scene and carry the picture on his shoulders, is staggering to contemplate. So is Mickey’s self-confidence and even audaciousness in accepting such a gig, the publicity value of which is topped only by its suicidal nature. But even more impressive is how good Mickey is – critics of the day loved him as Mike Hammer. Over the years, some viewers have been less impressed, but it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking Mickey was anything less than adequate.

And whether you think he’s great or merely passable, there remains the brain-frying fact that Mickey Spillane was playing his famous creation himself. We don’t have Conan Doyle on film as Holmes (or for that matter Watson) nor do we have Agatha Christie portraying Miss Marple, however ideal that casting might seem; and Ian Fleming seems to have been beaten out for the Bond role by somebody or other, and thank God we were spared Bob Kane as Batman. Yet the famous creator as his famous creation is exactly what happens in THE GIRL HUNTERS, as attest the film’s opening credits: MICKEY SPILLANE IS MIKE HAMMER.

THE GIRL HUNTERS puts on the screen, faithfully and well, the Hammer of the early and mid-‘60s, and it shows without doubt the manner in which Spillane viewed the character, which is to say with a steely-eyed mix of mercilessness and mirth. As tough as his Hammer is on screen, both actor and character (and writer) have a sense of fun. Of humor. (The prior screen Hammer closest to Mickey is McGavin.)

The film can seem a little slow to audiences today. Mickey himself said he wished he could cut himself, down to ninety minutes. (He also wanted to colorize it!) This may be the writer’s own fault, since it’s his screenplay; but it was the director’s responsibility to tighten it up. Still, for anyone even vaguely a Hammer fan, this is the one time a book in the series was translated almost word-for-word to the screen, with none of the sex or violence watered down. Only John Huston’s MALTESE FALCON rivals it in faithfulness. I have not received any copy of the blu-ray yet, so I can’t comment on the quality; but I am confident Scorpion did a good job. I played a role by doing a commentary, and also went to the original raw footage for my 1999 Spillane documentary and (with editor Phil Dingeldein’s help) put together lengthy interviews with Spillane and Shirley Eaton as bonus features for the disc. These interviews far surpass the “sound bites” that made it into my film (which you can see as an extra on Criterion’s KISS ME DEADLY release).

Truth be told, I have no idea whether my GIRL HUNTERS commentary is worth a damn – I haven’t heard it. It was strictly a down-and-dirty affair, with me at Phil’s dphilms studio in Rock Island going in and recording a non-stop, unedited commentary as I watched a DVD of the movie. I had done some prep, re-watching the film the night before and making some notes about what I might say. I’ll report back after I get a copy of the blu-ray.

But for now I am thrilled this even exists. We have the wonderful Criterion KISS ME DEADLY. We have the complete McGavin TV series on DVD. We even have a decent DVD of MY GUN IS QUICK, as well as a double-feature of the first two Keach TV movies. Now if we can only get blu-ray releases of both I, THE JURY movies, with the 1953 one in 3-D….

Here’s a very nice write-up at Detectives Beyond Borders about my intro to JACK CARTER’S LAW.

Here’s a Scotland paper’s review of DEATH SENTENCES, a collection of bibliophile mysteries edited by Otto Penzler that includes the Spillane/Collins “It’s in the Book.”

M.A.C.

Death Sentences

Novels Aren’t Movies

October 14th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

GONE GIRL is doing well at the box office, and many critics like it, but that doesn’t make it a good movie. It reflects a new trend – so very much at odds with Hollywood’s traditional approach – of filmmakers being extremely faithful to their bestselling-novel source, apparently out of fear of alienating the book’s enthusiastic fan base. This started with the HARRY POTTER films, and goes on through the TWILIGHT series among others. Traditionally, Hollywood has played fast and loose with even the most popular source material (GONE WITH THE WIND a famous exception), including even Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films.

Frequently I get asked about the changes Hollywood made to ROAD TO PERDITION, usually with the asker’s expectation that I’ll do a rant about what the filmmakers “did” to my book. While I don’t agree with every change made – I would have retained the adult narration and my ending – I fully understood the need to rework the material for the screen. Some of what they did was an improvement – more was done in the film with the Looney father-and-son relationship, for example, and the Jude Law character was created to be a single tracker, combining my ongoing, oncoming fleet of such hitmen into one nemesis.

Novels are not movies, and novelists rarely make good screenwriters. One of the exceptions – Donald E. Westlake – refused to adapt his own work to the screen, basically on the “fool for a client” theory. Certainly novelists have trouble killing their darlings when adapting their own work. But it has more to do with basic differences between the forms, novels being an interior telling of a story and films an exterior one. There’s a reason why many classic films come from short stories, not novels – it’s easier to expand a 40 page tale into a 100-page screenplay than to reduce and compress a 300- to 800-page novel into one. GUN CRAZY, REAR WINDOW and STAGECOACH began as short stories, for instance.

I don’t know if Gillian Flynn is a good novelist – I haven’t read GONE GIRL, but it’s certainly popular – because (as regular readers here know) I don’t often read contemporary crime fiction, for reasons I’ve stated plenty of times. Still, a couple of things seem apparent. First, GONE GIRL the novel would appear to be one of those big popular mystery thrillers read by mainstream readers who don’t regularly read in the genre. I say this because the big surprises such readers go on and on about are (in the film at least) very obvious to seasoned mystery fans.

Second, GONE GIRL – adapted to the screen by Flynn – has a structure designed for a novel. Without getting into spoiler territory, major characters are off screen for long stretches of time. There is no focus, no one to root for (or against), despite the best efforts of a strong director (David Fincher). Flynn has in interviews spoken of how many characters and scenes she dropped, and the painful process of doing so, but she didn’t drop enough – the film runs a bladder-busting three hours. VERTIGO runs a little over two hours. LAURA is 88 minutes. Both were adapted from novels, the latter from a novel with a structure similar to GONE GIRL’s, but dropped in the otherwise faithful film.

GONE GIRL is a well-directed mess, and the faults largely come from the script. I don’t know whether putting this story on film reveals flaws in the novel, or whether Flynn couldn’t figure out how to deal with character and plot weaknesses on screen. The number of plot holes are staggering (the married couple has money troubles, except that also have endless supplies of money and live in a five-million dollar home), and the characters who don’t come alive are near legion (Neil Patrick Harris, generally a good actor, is defeated by a character so unbelievable as to be laughable). Three hours just weren’t enough for Flynn. Well, for me they were.

I was reminded of Brian DePalma’s THE FURY (1978), which I revisited on blu-ray recently. Some of you will recall that PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is one of my favorite films, and that in the mid-‘70s I considered DePalma my favorite contemporary movie director (he’s still high on my list). SISTERS, OBSESSION, CARRIE – all blew me away. THE FURY, DePalma’s first big-budget film, was a stumble, filled with great set pieces but an unfocused narrative. The screenwriter was John Farris, who wrote the original, sprawling novel. Based on what’s on screen, he provided DePalma with a bewildering Cliff Notes version of his book, retaining a novelistic structure that put star Kirk Douglas on the bench for twenty or thirty minutes at a time.

The Judge

Ironically, one of the most novelistic recent films – in a good sense (rich characters, intertwining story elements, exploration of setting) – is the first-rate courtroom thriller, THE JUDGE. Chiefly the film is an acting showcase for Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, the former a big city amoral lawyer who returns to the small town he grew up in (and despises) to attend his mother’s funeral, and winds up defending his father, an idealistic judge with whom he’s been estranged for decades, on a murder charge. It’s a melodrama and a soap opera but a damn good one, and the supporting cast is rich with fine actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farminga, Vincent D’Onofrio) and interesting, fleshed-out characters. The focus is Downey. The film is leisurely at 148 minutes, but the characters and the narrative earn and use the time. The screenwriters are Nick Shenk (GRAN TORINO) and Bill Dubuque.

Of course, Rotten Tomatoes tells us that GONE GIRL is 87% fresh, and THE JUDGE only 46% fresh. Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir says of THE JUDGE: “It’s ‘what people want.’ Whereas I say the hell with people and what they want.” Well, guess what? I say to hell with jaded critics who have contempt for the moviegoers they are supposedly guiding. Oh, and O’Hehir loved GONE GIRL.

This is possibly another installment in my long-running AM I OUT OF TOUCH? series. But I don’t think so.

M.A.C.

How We Make The Sausage

October 7th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

Now in Paperback!

A little more behind the scenes stuff this time….

The writing week began with detailed discussions between Barb and me over the plot of the next ANTIQUES novel, which she will be diving into soon. The story takes place outside of our usual setting of Serenity in a village that was founded by Brits and has patterned itself on their model of smalltown life.

Barb struggled some on the previous novel because we’d been a little too open-ended on our plotting, and this time she wanted to try working from a somewhat more detailed plot breakdown. Lots of back-and-forth ensued, I put my ideas down on paper, and finally she developed all of it into a several-page chapter-by-chapter breakdown. I went over this, discussed some possible changes and additions, and then we locked it. Since then Barb has written a second chapter (we had already written the first chapter, a requirement of our Kensington contract – we have to give them a brief synopsis and a first chapter for approval) and we seem to be on our way.

In the meantime, with my desk cleared of all other writing assignments, I dug in full-time on research for the next Heller novel, BETTER DEAD, which deals with the McCarthy era and specifically the Rosenberg case. Lots to read, and some of it fairly mind-numbing. I find at this age I tend to read a lot, nap a little, read, nap, etc. I was trying to get as much read as possible before the arrival of my longtime researcher (and friend) George Hagenauer. In recent years, every Heller novel has included a preliminary visit from George, who arrived Sunday afternoon around two p.m., lugging more reference books for me to read.

At this point George is more on top of the history than I am. Our sessions often involve fairly heated discussions reflecting our conflicting takes on the material. George tends to be more fixed on the historical accuracy issues (although he’s loosened up) while I am the guy reminding him that first and foremost a Heller novel is a private eye thriller. He is very good at the underlying political currents and at spotting material that can link us back (and in this case forward) to other Heller novels.

Three hours of discussion and brainstorming finally had the first (longer) section of the novel revealing its shape. The story I want to tell was fitting into, and flowing out of, the history. The timeline was behaving itself, too, so that little or no compression would be needed. But the final aspect that needed attention was (private eye thriller, remember): where will the sex and violence come from?

However much the Heller novels are historically accurate, and outpace other such novels, they still need to have the classic hardboiled PI elements – murder, lust, betrayal, action…the good stuff. So the conversation turned to: who’s trying to stop Heller in his investigation? We kicked around possibilities and came up with something fresh, largely thanks to George.

Over supper at Salvatore’s Restaurant (Barb stayed behind, as George had a cold she didn’t want to catch), we hashed out more issues. Tomorrow morning (I’m writing this on Sunday evening) we will get back to it, and talk about the final section of the book, which concerns CIA dosing its employees with LSD to see what would happen. You know, like teenagers at a party in 1968.

George will probably be on the road shortly after lunch (he came here straight from a Minnesota comic con – and ended Sunday with some comic art trading, which is how we met three-plus decades ago).

By the way, the most recent Heller, ASK NOT, has just been published in mass market paperback by Forge.

* * *

The moderator on my upcoming Bouchercon panel has taken to reading the QUARRY novels by way of prep. He’s even posted this very nice essay on the books.

And check out the Forge/Tor web site where they promote the ASK NOT paperback.

Out of Touch?

September 30th, 2014 by Max Allan Collins

It seems like periodically I have to write on the subject of how out of touch I sometimes feel with the current popular culture.

Let’s start with this week’s Saturday Night Live. I have stayed loyal to this show from the beginning, even through its weakest, most disastrous seasons. But that may be at an end. The opening episode of the new season was truly abysmal, yet I’m seeing very positive reviews online.

Let’s start with Aidy Bryant, a pleasant overweight woman who has been on for several SNL seasons for no other reason, it would seem, than to be pleasant and make overweight people feel good about themselves. She has apparently been designated a star at SNL, because she was given the central role in four sketches, during which she mangled lines on every one. The high point was a lengthy sketch were she rapped about having “a big fat ass” to guest host Chris Pratt, who was generally poorly used, particularly in a sketch that had him as a kid’s action figure come to full-size life. The joke here was that the living action figures of He-Man (Pratt) and Lion-O of Thundercats (played poorly by the talented Taran Killam) patted their genitals and ate cake or anyway smeared their faces with it. This travesty, which appeared in the post-monologue sweet spot, was among the worst SNL sketches I’ve ever seen.

Weekend Update has replaced Cecily Strong with Michael Che, who did an okay job, with Strong back to do a trademark dumb girl character abandoned last year when she became an effective co-host with the bland Colin Jost. A new player, Pete Davidson, 20, did a piece about how it would be okay to have fellatio for money. This was (I kid you not, as Jack Parr used to say) the best thing on the show. (Next best was a Marvel movie trailer parody, not a live piece.) A pair of weak sketches on the NFL scandals (including the “cold open”) failed to score any points. Another sketch was based on the hilarious premise that every animal taken to a pet hospital promptly died. Online, Slate (among others) raved about the episode.

Let’s not leave out the musical guest. A small, attractive young woman – Ariana Grande – wore cat ears for both her songs (neither of which were about cats) and sang in a breathy, almost-on-pitch articulation-free caterwauling (maybe that’s the connection) imitation of Lady Gaga, which is like a soft drink imitating Pepsi, in this case badly. In cat girl’s second number, a black guy with a bizarre haircut that looked like a vulture was perched on his skull came out and did some sing-songy stuff. Turns out his name is the Weeknd. That’s right, no damn third “e” for Weeknd!

Here’s my “Weeknd” Update: SNL, I give up. How can anybody older than twenty-three identify with this stuff, and why the hell do they like it?

Moving on to films, the critical favorite THE BOX TROLLS (yes, Barb and I went to it, further establishing my son’s theory that I will go to any 3-D movie) turned out to be the most hideously unpleasant “family movie” I’ve ever seen. Highlights include: a boy at a fancy party noticing he should be using a fork, prompting him to puke up his food on his plate and eat it with a fork; a villain who loves to eat cheese (the “money” of this quaint Brit village) even though he’s allergic, causing his lips and other parts of his face to swell up grotesquely (SPOILER ALERT: he eventually explodes, Mr. Creosote style); and a long-lost father who has been tied upside down in a dungeon for a decade, causing him to grow a lot of facial hair and giggle as he yells, “Jelly!” Everything in the film – technically well-made, involving many talented artisans – is ugly and frequently horrific.

I don’t mind kids getting scared in movies. In fact, I think it’s good for them. Give them a taste or two of the Island of Lost boys and a poisoned apple. But not a steady diet. BOX TROLLS is whimsical without wit, precious without point, nary a laugh in the over-long dire mess. And guess what? It’s rated 72% fresh on ROTTEN TOMATOES!

The Equalizer

On the other hand, the terrific Spillane-style THE EQUALIZER with Denzel Washington opened to some devastatingly bad reviews (Entertainment Weekly gave it a D-), though it did well at the box office and has since risen to 60% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. This gives me hope. By the way, I invoke Spillane because THE EQUALIZER and the TV series it’s based on were pure Mike Hammer. The film even begins with a scene that re-works the opening of MY GUN IS QUICK. Washington is terrific as the self-contained, haunted hero, and a final action sequence in a Menard’s-type big-box store is blackly funny and satisfying as hell.

But it seems like out here in the hinterlands that I have to work very hard to find even an okay movie to go to (I like to go once a week). These days TV is more my go-to place for quality storytelling. MASTERS OF SEX just wrapped up an amazing second season, for example. Last week Barb and I enjoyed season eight of MURDOCH MYSTERIES, as I mentioned, and I understand more LEWIS is coming. JUSTIFIED’s final season is on the way, and more ARCHER lies ahead. AMERICAN HORROR STORY, too.

So I am relating to certain things in current popular culture.

But cat ears? Is a thing?

* * *

Here’s a pretty good review of SUPREME JUSTICE. About as good as I can expect from somebody who spells my middle name “Allen.”

Here’s a good list of hardboiled/noir books and writers (linked here because I’m on it!).

Check out these delightful reviews of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and STRIP FOR MURDER (scroll down for A KILLING IN COMICS, previously linked here). What Rip Jagger does is intersperse photos of the real-life folks I used as the basis for characters – very cool.

My role in getting GET CARTER and other Ted Lewis books back into print is mentioned here, but the overall piece is terrific…like Ted Lewis.

Finally here’s a very good interview with my pal Ed Gorman, one of our best writers, from Gravetapping.

M.A.C.

aug 19, 2003 visitors since August 19, 2003.