This week at the Hardboiled Hangover, we’re taking a look at some films based on the books of Mickey Spillane – the prolific pulp maestro of sex and carnage. During his time on earth, Spillane (1918 – 2006) sold tens of millions of books, most notably his Mike Hammer series. A private detective who was fueled by rage and moral righteousness, Hammer was a misanthrope who preferred beating confessions out of anyone rather than question them. Spillane put the hard back in hardboiled, with Mike Hammer as his literary tool for vengeance. He certainly wasn’t going for deep insights into the human condition. Mickey wrote to get paid and his books were all about instant gratification of the two-fisted sort.
I, the Jury (1947) was the first Mike Hammer novel published and the first film adaptation. The novel became quickly notorious for its final line, which has become one of the most infamous bits of dialogue in crime fiction history. Ask around, someone will tell you. I, The Jury the film was released in 1953, when cinema wasn’t nearly explicit enough for Spillane’s brand of pornographic justice. This toned down version of the book pretty much follows the same plot, which is a convoluted one that begins with a simple murder and leads to an international art black market, hypnosis, and lots and lots of fisticuffs.
Jack is an insurance investigator who saved Mike Hammer’s life back in the war. When Jack winds up dead, shot in the dark, Hammer doesn’t take it well. He loudly proclaims his goal of vengeance in the face of the cops. If he finds the killer first, he tells them, he’s going to kill him. Straight up. Hammer is played by Biff Elliot, a television regular and an interesting choice for this kinda role. He’s not particularly physically intimidating, something Hammer takes pride in. Elliot does at a quivering voice that adds hints of actual emotion to a remorseless character. That’s about the only notable aspect of Biff’s otherwise lackluster performance.
Hammer gets a big break when he learns that all of the suspects attended a party thrown by Jack shortly before his death. Amidst the lineup there’s one dish that really catches Hammer’s eyes: psychiatrist Charlotte Manning, played by Peggie Castle, who acts circles around Biff. As Hammer “interrogates” the rest of the party goers, corpses begin to pile up until there’s one sucker left.
Also, my man Elisha Cook Jr. has a bit role as an excitable bee-enthusiast riff raff in I, The Jury. I love seeing this guy in anything, even if it is in a stupid Santa suit for a couple minutes.
It’s bizarre to note that the film was presented in 3-D when it was released. Besides one brutal fist fight near the climax, there aren’t many coming-at-ya type of shots you’d find in these early 3-D flicks. Cinematographer John Alton does manage to infuse some creativity and sharp noir aesthetics into the low budget presentation. There are absolutely no establishing shots in the film – the budget wouldn’t permit it. So Hammer is typically seen entering doors as a way to signify a change of setting. Transitions are also displayed via Christmas postcards that read “Greetings from…” followed by wherever Hammer happens to be. The Christmas motif and use of carols really juxtaposes the warpath through Manhattan that Hammer carves out.
Mike Hammer is a polarizing figure in crime fiction. He’s not clever like Spade or as charming as Marlowe, but he’s just as important. He’s got a primitive world view and a simple solution to his all of his problems: fists and his dick. It’s pure macho fantasy bullshit, albeit entertaining and appealing as hell. I, the Jury isn’t the greatest adaptation of a Hammer novel (we’ll be covering that bad boy later this week), but it’s a fun, cathartic film that fans should definitely seek out.
I, the Jury isn’t available on DVD yet, but you can find it easy enough on YouTube.