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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"It Was Easy:" Mickey Spillane's Hardboiled Masterpiece and The Two Flawed Films It Inspired



I, The Jury

By Mickey Spillane
579 KB
Length: 160 pages
Publisher: Signet (February 1, 1982)
Sold by: Penguin Publishing
Language: English
ASIN: B0031TZ9BM

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read this book or seen the two movies that have been made from it, you may want to give this essay a pass. It contains the solution -- such as it is -- to the murder mystery the story revolves around and describes the fate of a key character.

I, The Jury, the 1947 Mickey Spillane novel that introduced tough and violent private eye Mike Hammer, is arguably Spillane's most cinematic book.

It begins with a graphic description of the death of his one-armed wartime buddy, Jack Williams, that lets the reader relive the dead man's last minutes on earth; it ends with a terse exchange between the private eye and William's murderer that has to be the most memorable dialog Spillane wrote in any of the 13 Mike Hammer novels he turned out as a solo author.

The Mickster: I, The Jury is arguably Spillane's most cinematic book.

In between, the book is loaded with action. By its end, no less than seven people are dead, two of them at Hammer's hands. He is beaten so regularly he might be mistaken for a cowbell in one of Tito Puente's bands. He narrowly misses being killed by gunfire on three separate occasions, and he twice engages in sexual dalliances with a nymphomaniac twin.

For the most part, the dialog is edgy. Some of it -- like the final colloquy -- is about as good as you are likely to find in the world of pulp. Consider the way Spillane's hero sketches the back-story on how Williams saved his life during the Pacific War:

"In there was my best friend lying on the floor dead. The body. Now I could call it that. Yesterday it was Jack Williams, the guy that shared the same mud bed with me through two years of warfare in the stinking slime of the jungle. Jack, the guy who said he'd give his right arm for a friend and did when he stopped a bastard of a Jap from slitting me in two. He caught the bayonet in the biceps and they amputated his arm."

The plot turns on a high-rent prostitution and dope ring with a unique -- if unlikely -- recruitment mechanism: one of the ringleaders uses repeated plastic surgery to maintain a perpetually youthful look. He enters colleges all over the country, seduces promising coeds, and turns them into hookers after he helps them get abortions. 

There is plenty of corruption powering the narrative, and the novel boasts Spillane's characteristic red noir portrayal of wealthy people as inherently evil to the point of psychopathy.

For all these reasons, I consider I, The Jury to be the best book Spillane ever wrote as well as the most promising candidate for movie treatment. Whole scenes require only a little doctoring to convert them into the pages of a motion picture script.

Which raises the question: why do the two theatrical movies that have been made from this novel fall so far short of Spillane's original? (A third film with a vaguely similar plot, Margin for Murder, was made for TV in 1981 with Kevin Dobson as Hammer, but Margin differs from the original source material in so many substantial ways that it doesn't bear inclusion with the two films recapped here.)

The original I, The Jury was a 3-D production produced by Victor Saville's bargain basement Parklane Pictures.

In the case of the original Jury, made in 1953 by Victor Saville's Parklane Pictures, a low-budget indy production outfit headquartered on Hollywood's Poverty Row, the script begins with a faithful on-screen recreation of the murder that keys the action, a grueling sequence that runs the entire length of the opening credits and sets the tone for the film -- or would, if the script written by Harry Essex from Spillane's novel adhered more closely to the original story line. You can check the trailer for the film here.

Hammer (Biff Elliott) and Velda (Margaret Sheridan).

The film actually ends on a high note, using Spillane's words and narrative during Hammer's climactic confrontation with Williams' killer: psychiatrist-turned-madam-and-drug-dealer Charlotte Manning.

Hammer confronts Charlotte Manning (Peggy Castle) 
at the conclusion of the 1953 version.
But in between almost everything goes wrong with the story, despite several fine performances and some excellent noir photography by cinematographer John Alton.  

First of all, as was the case in My Gun is Quick, the prostitution and drug ring is turned into a stolen jewelry racket in the 1953 screen version, a change no doubt forced by the distaste the Motion Picture Production Code -- as enforced by Catholic censor-in-chief Joseph Ignatius Breen -- held for cinematic sex in virtually any form, but particularly as a commercial commodity. (The heroin racket operated by Manning is retained in the retooled plot, but only as a sidelight for the other criminal activity that drives the story).

This shift in story line forces wholesale changes in some of the characters in the story. George Kalecki (Alan Reed), a former numbers runner deeply involved in the prostitution ring, becomes a retired numbers runner now operating as an international art dealer whose globe-trotting travel allows him to traffic in stolen gems.

Bobo (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a semi-retarded messenger boy who formerly worked for Kalecki, becomes a member of Kalecki's gang, posing as mentally slow to disguise his illegal activity. A gang of thugs that appears nowhere in the novel is injected into the film to give Hammer a couple of gratuitous thrashings. The woman who operates the house of ill repute in the novel is transformed into a couple posing as foreign dance instructors, and the whorehouse itself is converted into a spot where a would-be Fred Astaire can get cha-cha lessons.

Needless to say, these silly changes weaken the plot and make the criminals involved seem less formidable and less dangerous.

But even these ridiculous alterations to the story line -- including the ludicrous revisions required to get past Hollywood censorship -- might have worked had Saville found somebody to play Hammer besides the pathetic Biff Elliott, arguably the worst actor to ever appear as a hard-boiled detective.  Elliott manages only two basic expressions in the film: a sort of stupefied amusement, as if he is just getting the punch line of a joke someone told him a day earlier, and a stricken deer-in-the-spotlight stare that he falls back on to demonstrate that he is (1) perplexed, (2) deep in thought, (3) surprised at some development in the case or (4) not sure what his next line in the script is supposed to be.
Mike Hammer avoids collection agents as he leaves his office.
Ironically, although he boxed as an amateur and contended for a New England regional championship, Elliott doesn't make a convincing tough guy. His performance is adequate in Jury's numerous fight sequences, but Elliott simply does not seem big enough, dangerous enough or ruthless enough to be Mike Hammer. 

To demonstrate his hot-headed nature, early in the film Hammer attacks a newspaper reporter at the scene of William's death and slams him into a china cabinet and mirror.  Although this is supposed to show his readiness to engage in violence, Elliott's assault seems more petulant than sadistic. He comes across like a cranky 15-year old instead of a world-weary detective with a mean streak.

Elliott's Hammer also seems too naive; no one would expect Spillane's gumshoe to quote Proust or discuss the strategic errors that led to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, but he is supposed to be fairly shrewd. Elliott's shrewdness is a major fail: he simply seems stupid through most of the film, and gives the impression that perhaps the beatings he receives every few minutes are causing more substantial damage to his brain than to his exterior.

(Saville did much better two years later when his director, Robert Aldrich, hired Ralph Meeker to portray the celebrated gumshoe in Kiss Me, Deadly,  the second of Parklane's Mike Hammer flicks. Meeker's performance in that film strikes the perfect balance between stupidly hormonal and sadistically shrewd; moreover, Meeker, with his cold eyes and flat delivery, radiates danger in every scene, something Elliott couldn't do wearing a belt full of dynamite and carrying a lighted emergency flare. Even today, 58 years later, Meeker remains the gold standard for cinematic Mike Hammers.)

Not that there aren't some good performances in I, The Jury; Preston Foster does an excellent job as Hammer's police friend, Pat Chambers, even though he seems too old for the part opposite the youthful Elliott; when Hammer sasses Chambers, it's hard not to imagine Foster paddling him and sending him to bed without supper.

Peggy Castle is sensational as the femme fatale Charlotte Manning, and Margaret Sheridan is easy on the eyes as Velda, Hammer's faithful but romantically frustrated assistant. It would have been nice to see her given more to do in this picture.

There are also some good lesser parts. Cook, who gets a break here from playing a cold-eyed psychopath like Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon or a hopeless schnook like Harry Jones, the loser forced to drink poison by Lash Canino in The Big Sleep, is fine as Bobo, though the character plays a more significant part in the novel than in this film. Joe Besser, who was a foil for Abbott and Costello on their TV show in the 1950s and later replaced Curly Howard as one of the three stooges, seems to be having fun as Hammer's elevator operator, Pete.

But ultimately, the movie fails, for reasons that have nothing to do with Mickey Spillane, but everything to do with Hollywood.

The 1982 version of I,The Jury starring Armand Assante as Hammer and Barbara Carrera as Charlotte Manning, is also a failure of sorts, though it achieves the cynicism and nihilistic world view of the original. Its errors also stem from plot changes, albeit changes that were made for totally different reasons from those in the version produced twenty-nine years earlier.

The 1982 cinematic version of Spillane's masterpiece substantially kicks up the sex and violence quotients.

Both the violence and sex are ginned-up in the 1982 Jury: unfortunately, they keep tripping over a complicated plot line that involves crooked CIA agents, corrupt cops, traditional gangsters, gun trafficking and the use of a sexual psychopath to eliminate political undesirables, a plot point that seems thrown in simply to give Hammer somebody else to kill.

Take a look at the theatrical trailer linked here.

Once again, the body of the film is sandwiched between the death of Jack Williams and Hammer's score-settling confrontation with Manning. But Williams' death must wait while director Richard Heffron tacks on a prologue in which Hammer beds a woman he has been hired to surveil for adultery. 


Velda (Laureen Landen) and Hammer (Armand Assante)
hold office hours in the 1982 I, The Jury.
This intro is unrelated to the rest of the story, and was included solely to demonstrate that Assante's Hammer is the kind of stud Biff Elliott could not have imagined himself being in his soggiest wet-dream.

Superficially at least, Assante makes a much stronger Hammer that Elliott: he is quicker with a quip than Spillane's original, less of a drinker and more of a bedroom artist. He also hits the red-line on the danger meter -- there isn't a time in this film when you aren't convinced that Assante's Hammer is at least as frighteningly out of control as the bad guys.


Hammer (Assante) loads and locks for a confrontation
with corrupt CIA agents and an underworld kingpin.

The 1982 film is almost a fun-house mirror inversion of the 1953 Parklane movie. It has all the sex that was included in the novel and left out of the Biff Elliott flick, plus enough extra to make an additional film. The Assante version even has full frontal nudity -- twice, in one instance, courtesy of sex surrogate twins who work at Manning's "clinic." 

In the clinic sequence alone, the film explicitly makes up for all the sex that is hinted at but never delivered in the 1947 novel: Naked, dope-addled couples grope each other while a murderer is at work upstairs. Unfortunately, this upper-middle-class orgy doesn't precisely conjure up the intended atmosphere; it is supposed to portray a CIA mind-fuck experiment, but all the scene lacks is strobe lights, a wah-wah pedal and body paint to give it the psychedelic flare of a Mitchell Brothers blue movie about the "Summer of Love."

Manning's sex racket in the novel was run by proxies, allowing her to maintain her image as a respectable psychoanalyst. But in the 1982 film, Manning runs the brothel operation herself -- as a sexual dysfunction clinic that uses prostitutes as surrogates and drugs its clientele as part of the "healing" experience. The rogue CIA operatives behind Manning have cobbled together an intelligence gathering adjunct to the sex racket and maintain detailed files on all the patients, collected in part through illegal electronic surveillance.

None of these pieces really make much sense, but they don't have to: by 1982, a decade of revelations about illegal U.S. spying, dope testing, assassination plots and honey traps had conditioned Americans to distrust their espionage services almost as much as the KGB.

And while the critics didn't much care for Hammer's violently thuggish persona in the Spillane flicks of the 1950s, the 1982 version makes the earlier Hammer seem as soft as a cream puff.

No fewer than nine people end up dead in the more recent movie, six of them at Hammer's hands. Velda and Mike are separately tortured, a pair of twins are carved up by a psycho, a prostitute on a "date" with a customer in a Benihana-style Japanese restaurant has her throat slashed by the chef for no apparent reason, and Hammer retaliates by doing a face-griddle fu demonstration on the cook.

One thing is clear from this last episode: Hammer doesn't care for teppanyaki.

What's more, there were no car chases, explosions or machine-gunnings in the 1953 version, but all three occur in the Assante film.

Given the overdose of sex and violence, it comes as no surprise that at the climax Hammer faces off against a Charlotte Manning who is topless; in the 1953 film, the shrink never got more than her coat off.


The fatal clinch at the end of I, The Jury.

Both movies do one thing right, however, and it comes straight out of the 1947 Spillane novel: as Manning tries to talk her way out of her final confrontation with Hammer, he shoots her without a moment's hesitation, setting up the best dialog in the film:

Manning (dying): How c-could you?

Hammer (deadpan): It was easy.

A lot easier, apparently, than making a Mike Hammer film that is faithful to Spillane's original story. In my opinion, both films of I, The Jury would have been vastly improved by simply sticking to the Mickster's version.


Ratings:

Spillane's original novel: five nooses.




1982 film version: three nooses.


1953 film version: two nooses.





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