Six Authors in Search of a Character: Part 4—Mickey Spillane

Sean Gill

“Six Authors in Search of a Character” is a six-part series of essays, each about the rare occurrence of an author playing on screen a character they originally created in print. Typically, an author’s appearance in film is a fleeting cameo or a casual in-joke, but every so often there comes along a role that’s more meaningful, elemental, or mythic. Each of these characters possesses a quality that might only have been expressed by their originator, and each grapples with an idea—or, more likely, an obsession, addiction, or destructive urge—which offers insight into the author’s personality and process. You can read previous entries in the series via this link.


Mickey Spillane is “Mike Hammer”

            “When you sit at home comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought about what goes on outside there? Probably not. You pick up a book, reading about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened. You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with the details of someone else’s experiences… But remember this: there are things happening out there. They go on every day and night making Roman holidays look like school picnics… All you have to do is look for them. But I wouldn’t if I were you because you won’t like what you find. Then again, I’m not you, and looking for those things is my job.”

—Mickey Spillane, from his novel, My Gun Is Quick (1950)

A middle-aged Mike Hammer awakens in the gutter, cockeyed and bloody, a filthy, square-shouldered drunk in a cheap suit being scraped off the pavement by two cops. On his cube-like head, he sports a military buzzcut and a mangy stubble that might’ve begun its career as a five o’clock shadow three or four happy hours ago. He spends the opening minutes of The Girl Hunters slurring badly and being punched directly in the face; this is possibly to prepare us for the subsequent limitations of Mickey Spillane’s performance, which will eventually settle into a Brooklyn-spiced monotone accompanied by Clint Eastwood-level acting tricks such as excessive wincing, squinting, and jaw-clenching.

Mike Hammer—like his creator, Mickey Spillane—has been out of the game for nearly a decade (in Hammer’s case, the disappearance of his beloved secretary and girl Friday, Velda, has prompted a seven-year bender; in Spillane’s, a conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses put his series of brutal paperbacks on hiatus). But now Hammer is hot on the trail of a Soviet assassin called “The Dragon” who is connected with Velda’s disappearance and has been strewing a fresh trail of corpses across Gotham.

After a brief hospital sojourn (whereupon he sexually harasses a nurse), Hammer changes into his iconic, crime-stopping uniform—a porkpie fedora, trenchcoat, and Colt .45—and takes to the mean streets, sobered up (though he continues to gulp beers throughout, including a scene with hilariously blatant Pabst Blue Ribbon product placement) and ready to mete out Old Testament vengeance. A good deal of the runtime involves Hammer walking in and out of bars and nondescript office buildings, adjusting the coat around his bulky, bulldog’s frame. He looks less like Alain Delon and more like someone trying to smuggle a sofa beneath a trenchcoat—but, to be fair, this is not so different than Mike Hammer is actually described on the page (or how Spillane appeared in his book jacket photos).

Hammer romances a bikini-clad femme fatale (played by Shirley Eaton, eventual Bond girl and iconic gold paint/Goldfinger victim) in a plotline that demands an awkward love scene where he paws and locks lips with her, gnawing and sucking as if bobbing for apples (or diving into a bowl of pudding at an early-bird dinner?). It should come as no surprise that The Girl Hunters—a film including shocking Hammer misogynies such as “Beautiful blondes aren’t generally philosophers” and “Hell, I never hit dames, I always kick ’em”—does not pass the Bechdel test.

Eventually, after participating in dozens of exposition dumps, needlessly somersaulting through a pile of tin cans, and karate-chopping a telephone in anger, Hammer faces off against The Dragon in a vicious, knock-down, drag-out fight, incorporating power tools and even crucifixion (!) to reach a level of barbarity that was probably shocking for 1963, or any other time.

In The Girl Hunters, Mickey Spillane is playing his own id; or, rather, the id he’d like his audience to believe in. Spillane had already appeared on the big screen as a crime-solving version of himself in the gimmicky circus-noir, Ring of Fear (1954), and his paperback sales seemed to share no small connection to his lowbrow, “real man,” blue-collar persona. From our vantage point, it’s hard to fathom how popular he was: as late as 1980, Spillane laid claim to seven of the top fifteen bestselling American fiction titles of all time.

In the course of his celebrity, Spillane and his publishers had a history of projecting his insecurities onto his readers: Spillane is Hammer, Hammer is Spillane, and don’t you forget it. This directness appears in the first-person titles of the novels themselves: I, the Jury (1947), Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), Vengeance Is Mine! (1950), etc., and Spillane often joked that the only difference between himself and Mike Hammer was that Hammer was about a foot taller.The above quotation from My Gun Is Quick notably and laughably begins the novel by chiding the reader for the crime of reading his books instead of living them.

As a populist pulp writer who bristled at the “author” label (“you can sell a lot more peanuts than caviar”), Spillane claimed never to do rewrites and insisted he could whip out a novel in three to nine days, easy. He feuded with other tough guy scribes like Ian Fleming (“a gourmet”) and Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway characterized Spillane’s audience as “lots of scared little bank clerks and office boys”; Spillane countered with, “Hemingway who?”), and cultivated friendships with the likes of John Wayne and Ayn Rand. His novels soak their ostensible patriotism in a paranoid, sadistic, and grievance-driven worldview, a familiar American swirl of abstract rage and righteous smitings. When it comes to iconic private eyes, Hammer seems to exist as a single-minded, proto-incel reaction to the inner life of Sam Spade, the vivid wit of Philip Marlowe, and the cosmopolitan joviality of Nick and Nora Charles.

Perhaps because they owed more to the storytelling traditions of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Spillane maintained a dislike of the previous Mike Hammer adaptations, usually citing trivial details like the use of a .38 Special instead of Hammer’s signature Colt .45. The lengthy scenes in The Girl Hunters of Spillane dismantling and reassembling his .45 (and his penchant for whipping it out during interviews, well into the 1990s) drip with this particular fragility.

Supposedly, the producers of The Girl Hunters begged Spillane to star as Hammer and he begrudgingly accepted. The theatrical trailer, which touts Spillane’s “400 million readers” and “Mike Hammer, played as only one man could play him, the man who created him!” would seem to corroborate this enthusiasm. Spillane’s casting approval dictated that none of his costars would be taller than him, and the budget dictated the majority of the film be shot in England. While shooting, he met with notorious figures from London organized crime, including Jack Spot and Billy Hill, the latter of whom supplied the production with prop firearms (which, incidentally, were real firearms)—more evidence of Spillane’s obsession with splashing the testosterone from the page onto his own public image.

There is a certain lack of pretense to his performance, and, despite a shirtless scene, it doesn’t feel tempered by vanity, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s a bit like watching somebody’s dad or uncle perform in their indie film, or spending time with the kind of guy you’d meet at a bar in Bensonhurst that opens at 9:00 in the morning. Spillane never appears to be having fun here, not even in the scene where Hammer forces an ice-pick wielding hoodlum to swallow one of his (unfired) bullets through sheer force of macho intimidation. Naturally, Spillane contended that this scene was based on a true story.

Perhaps fittingly, The Girl Hunters forgets all about its purported heart—the missing Velda, the love of Hammer’s life—and ends, literally, as a head-exploding vehicle of pure revenge. [Velda’s fate was revealed in print in The Snake (1964), but a film sequel never came to pass.] Eventually, Spillane went on to do nearly two-decades’ worth of Miller Lite ads as a Hammer-ized version of himself. Pounding on a typewriter, solving mysteries such as “Rodney Dangerfield stole a case of Miller Lite,” and being an all-around babe magnet, Spillane seemed to embrace a full-on parodic version of Hammer and his eggshell bravado. Obviously, he was being well-compensated to do so, but somewhere, beyond the fringes of this humorless, fascist-superhero persona, Spillane appeared finally to be making fun.

Sean Gill is a writer and filmmaker who won Michigan Quarterly Review‘s 2020 Lawrence Prize, Pleiades’ 2019 Gail B. Crump Prize, and The Cincinnati Review’s 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award. He has studied with Werner Herzog, video edited for Netflix’s Queer Eye, and was directed by Martin Scorsese (on HBO’s Vinyl). Other recent writing has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and at Epiphany, where he writes the “Lurid Esoterica” column.

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