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If He Had a Hammer: Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer

TV's Mike Hammer could never be as violent and cynical as in the books; it wouldn't be allowed by censors.

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer: The Complete Series

Distributor: A&E
Cast: Darren McGavin
Network: Syndicated
Release date: 2011-09-20

My mom and I enjoyed both seasons of this late '50s TV series, and she summed it up with a startling simplicity: "A woman comes to see Mike Hammer. She lies. Then he gets into a fight. Then he's happy." That truly nails a lion's share of these 78 episodes: Our hero gets hoodwinked by sexy dames and beats up bad guys. It's a living.

Mickey Spillane's fast and sadistic pulp novels of private eye Mike Hammer were a '50s phenomenon that exploded onto the publishing industry in a manner not unlike Harry Potter. Soon there were movies, most notably Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich despised the Hammer character and his strong-arm techniques, so the film turns him into a bully who does all the wrong things. Spillane didn't think much of it.

Darren McGavin embodies a relatively gentler Hammer in this syndicated series. TV's Hammer could never be as violent and cynical as in the books; it wouldn't be allowed by censors. For example, there's one episode where Hammer declares "I'm no judge and I'm no jury", which directly contradicts the title of the bestselling debut I, the Jury! True, there's later an episode called "Jury of One", but that's no exercise in vigilantism; it typifies the twisty, clever plots that prove to Mike his original assumptions were wrong.

He's also more chivalrous with the "chickie-babies", always helping them out and never hurting them. He occasionally puts on a menacing air to a duplicitous one, but he never does anything more agressive toward women than grab an arm. Nor is it true that there are only good clean girls or evil dames; some are insightfully complicated, as for example the confused heroine of "Baubles, Bangles and Blood". This is quite different from the literary hero, who was notorious for gloating while he shot a femme fatale in the gut.

Even watered down, this is a surprisingly violent show, and the fights are among the most realistically choreographed I've seen on any series. The camera usually retreats to a long view, reminiscent of televised wrestling matches, as the brutal fisticuffs unroll across the space in front of us, the characters throwing each other over in cathartic dances. Hammer clearly enjoys the workout and isn't above punctuating a conversation with a smack to the head, a twist of the arm, or a drawer crunched upon a hand in a convincingly painful depiction. It's similar to but more intense (and illegal) than what Lee Marvin does in the contemporary series M Squad.

The violence, along with Hammer's pulp reputation, seems to have confused a lot of contemporary reviewers into thinking the show was more extreme than it was. According to Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh's Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, it was roundly panned in Variety and TV Guide. Hammer's demeanor with the ladies is misdescribed as "either kissing them or killing them", with Angie Dickinson cited as example for being "bumped off in the first episode". Actually, Dickinson appears twice and neither is the first episode (but it's hard to say how a syndicated series was broadcast), and in the one where her character dies, it's not Hammer who shoots her.

For a show set in late '50s New York, it doesn't have much explicitly to say about the time or place. Now and then comes an already outdated reference to beatniks or juvenile deliquents, here a jazz spot, there a Negro (as though spotting a rare bird). These stories already existed in a kind of removed neverland, a gritty idea of a seedy yet relatively clean city where the classes don't exactly live cheek by jowl, but they at least cross each other's paths. Actually, the Chicago of M Squad conveyed this a little better. Although it has the qualities of a time capsule, the series also feels timeless in that its bare bones cover stories that could be ancient or told today.

As each episode begins, Mike Hammer looks out over the New York harbor for the opening credits. Then we're given the episode's title, often a sardonic bit of wordplay like "Tattoo Bruté" or "Swing Low, Sweet Harriet". Then we often hear Mike's moody, jazzy, wounded, weary narration setting up the tale. It sounds uncannily like McGavin's narration 15 years later on Kolchak: The Night Stalker. If you only hear the narration, you can get temporarily confused about which McGavin series you're watching.

Sometimes the stories are told mostly from Hammer's point of view, which would jibe with having a narrator, but just as often the story is divided along various activities where Hammer's not present and wouldn't know anything about it. This structural schizophrenia doesn't seem to bother anyone.

The story unfolds in studio sets, either in Hammer's box of an office or sundry faceless clubs, offices, theatres, apartments, and warehouses. These narrative scenes are linked by footage of the hero expending shoe leather around real New York locations while his voiceover fills in the gaps.

Presumably these bits of location footage were shot indiscriminately over the course of a few days for the purpose of salting the episodes, and sometimes they are recycled. Occasional episodes are presented out of town, with two unconvincingly placed at the Brussels World's Fair, one on a cruise ship, and one in the fictional Latin American country of San Salvador. This mix of studio scenes and outdoor locales is the same formula seen in other Revue Productions of the time, including M Squad and Staccato. The same group of photographers handled all these shows, with Jack MacKenzie as primary DP on this one.

While presented simply within that even, ritualistic rhythm, these half-hour stories are often complex enough to accommodate more than one reversal or surprise. Hammer doesn't just beat the facts out of people (although he does that often enough). He also reasons astutely about motives and circumstances to unmask a killer. Although no time is wasted, there's an even balance between smart talk and action, and the stories have more plot than many padded one-hour shows. Maybe it's because the show's cluster of writers contains a lot of ringers who cranked out novels in their day job.

The most frequent writer is Frank Kane, a tireless scribe who started out on radio shows like The Shadow and Gangbusters before moving into the pulp market with the adventures of a tough, wise-cracking New York gumshoe named Johnny Liddell. Now forgotten, the Liddell books used to move a lot of paperback units. They too had jokey titles, like Trigger Mortis. One of his Hammers is "Crepe for Suzette"! Since Kane was known to recycle material, it's easy to imagine that many of his Hammer scripts are reworked Liddells, as some internet sites have hinted, but other researchers must nail this down.

One of his early scripts in the lovely title "Dead Men Don't Dream", a rather grim tale of protection rackets against small businesses. It stars mousy bald character actor Russell Collins and tough characters Richard Bakalyan and Lawrence Dobkin (also a TV director, including this series). The original story on this one is credited to someone called Curt Cannon. Who? According to IMDB, that's a pseudonym for Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain, creator of the 87th Precinct books.

Some thoughtful person has provided excellent quotes from this episode at IMDB, and these perfectly give the flavor of the series' dialogue and narration. "My old neighborhood was dying and I was back for the wake," says the opening voiceover. Then there's the funeral of an old friend where one guys says, "Charlie looks nice and peaceful like he's sleeping." Hammer responds, "No, he just looks dead with his throat cut!"

Another Cannon story credit is "So That's Who It Was", scripted by James Gunn and Fenton Earnshaw. The latter was a busy writer on this show and others like it, while Gunn made his rep with the classic noir novel Deadlier Than the Male. It turned out to be his ticket to Hollywood (filmed as Born to Kill) and he wrote a few high-profile movies such as The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman, and Douglas Sirk's All I Desire with Barbara Stanwyck. This Chinatown episode is a showcase for semi-retired diva Anna May Wong, with support from Barbara Luna and Keye Luke.

Many intriguing episodes are scripted by one B.X. Sanborn, whose only other IMDB credits are some installments of the concurrent M Squad. Who was he? IMDB doesn't know it yet, but it's prolific novelist Bill S. Ballinger, who wrote well-regarded trick novels that play with alternating points of view. As Ballinger, he also wrote lots of other TV shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and eventually some of McGavin's Kolchak.

Other frequent scripters are regular TV scribes Steven Thornley and Lawrence Kimble. Most of the latter's episodes concentrate specifically on dysfunctional families, including several parent/child stories.

Almost a third of the episodes are directed by Boris Sagal at the beginning on an illustrious career of many high-profile TV movies and serials (e.g., Masada). In their book The American Vein, critics Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi state that Sagal's early career "combined a certain black humor with a tough, sometimes sadistic view of genre affairs" and that "as the '70s have wound on, it has become clear that Sagal is, in fact, a most bizarre misanthrope, turning out yet more bleak and heartless shows which carry the same strange electric charge". What's revealing here is that the authors weren't even aware of Sagal's work on Mike Hammer.

Many episodes are handled by William Witney, an incredibly prolific director of Republic serials, B pictures and TV episodes. His episodes often have an extra degree of polish, not to say flourish, that adds dynamism to the proceedings. For example, all episodes open with a title card, but "Dixie Is Dead" opens with the title superimposed over the action as the titular Dixie (Sue Ane Langdon) pops her head up into the frame and belts out a song. Witney continues to make good use of the nightclub set for unusual angles and movements. (This is one of Ballinger's "B.X. Sanborn" scripts.)

Wicking and Vahigami hail Witney as "the most vital and engaging of the veteran directors" and declare that "any episode of a western series directed by Witney is likely to be head and shoulders above the work of his colleagues," with nods also to Zorro and Tarzan ("in effect, a naked Zorro"). They speculate that after cranking out Republic serials at a frantic pace, the relative maturity and calm of series television must have seemed to him like meeting Henry James in a dark alley.

Witney directed some of the most brutal outings towards the end of the run, when Hammer seems to get meaner. Possibly the sourest, most bloody and sadistic episode is "Wedding Mourning", scripted by Barry Shipman, where Mike makes the mistake of falling in love and proposing marriage to a certain knockout (Linda Lawson). As everyone who's ever watched a masculine TV show knows, and as the episode title tells you, that plays hell with her actuarial tables. I'll swear in court that the restaurant where they spend much of the episode is, in fact, the same set where the hero hangs out in Staccato.

Witney's co-director on many of those Republic serials was John English, another prolific B-westerner. He also handles several episodes here, and this tells us where we are: a world of proficient, smoothly paced action uncluttered by clumsiness, yet not without plenty of snappy dialogue and moments of unobtrusive style. Another frequent director is Richard Irving, who became a producer on the carefully written Columbo. Not a shabby roster.

Hammer's secretary Velda is alluded to in an early adventure but never seen or mentioned again. Seen in a minority of episodes is Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers, Hammer's buddy on the NYPD. Diminutive, variously ethnic character actor Vito Scotti, often a comic, makes several appearances as miscellaneous near-sighted snitches who get a beating; he shows up a few times under random names until he settles into the moniker Geta late in the series.

Although several guests would become famous in later years, the show never relied on well-known names and undoubtedly couldn't have afforded them. The only exception is "Music To Die By", with a special musical appearance by the Ames Brothers! Most of the actors belong to the type instantly if vaguely recognizable by face rather than name. Many show up more than once, sometimes only two or three episodes apart, as though contracted for back to back shooting.

Besides those already mentioned, guests include DeForest Kelley, Whitney Blake, Herbert Rudley, Diane Brewster, Constance Towers, Raymond Bailey, Frank Albertson, Fay Spain, Herschel Bernardi, Gloria Talbott, Nita Talbot, Marion Ross, Ruta Lee, Virginia Christine, Gail Kobe, Walter Reed, Ken Lynch, Doris Dowling, Dick Van Patten, Jack Weston, Bethel Leslie, Anthony Caruso, Denver Pyle, Carl Betz, Grace Lee Whitney, Paul Langton, Robert Vaughn, John Hoyt, Jeanne Cooper, Alan Mowbray, James Westerfield, Allison Hayes, Yvette Vickers, Bek Nelson, Barbara Bain, Patricia Huston, Jan Arvan, June Dayton, Madlyn Rhue, Joan Tabor, Robert H. Harris, Ted Knight, Mike Connors, Tom Neal, Lloyd Corrigan, Dorothy Provine, Johnny Seven, Frank Ferguson, Theodore Marcuse, Lisa Lu, Lorne Greene, Andrea King, Edgar Stehli, H.M. Wynant, Abby Dalton, Virginia Gregg, Walter Burke, J. Pat O'Malley, Dennis Patrick, Eleanor Audley, Arthur Batanides, Val Avery, and Ned Glass.

Each disc is preceded by a warning that the DVD has been remastered from the best materials they could find but that there are occasional imperfections in image and audio. It's true that a few episodes are subpar, but the vast majority are surprisingly crisp and sharp, the better to hear those crunches and see McGavin's rumpled smile.

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