Many authors get identified with their fictional creations. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received letters from people requesting the services of his sleuth Sherlock Holmes and Dashiell Hammett posed on the cover of his novel The Thin Man as the book’s detective Nick Charles. But the first author to truly assume the role of their creation in a story has to be hardboiled detective writer Mickey Spillane, who took on the role of his famous two-fisted detective Mike Hammer for 1963’s The Girl Hunters, hitting blu-ray todayfrom Scorpion Releasing.
Mike Hammer is pulled out of a seven year drunk by former friend and police partner Capt. Pat Chambers (Scott Peters), who has a dying gunshot victim who will only talk to Hammer. The dying man tells Hammer that his former secretary and love Velda was not dead as Hammer had been presuming for the last seven years he had been curled up inside of a bottle, but in hiding from a Soviet assassin known as “the Dragon.” A quickly sobered Hammer sets out to find Velda and discovers himself plunged headlong into a mystery of Cold War espionage with roots back to World War Two. Along the way he is harassed by Chambers, helped by Federal Agent Arthur Rickerby (Lloyd Nolan, no stranger to hardboiled detective films with Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Lady In The Lake and the lead in the Michael Shayne series for 20th Century Fox on his resume) and romanced by future Goldfinger victim Shirley Eaton.
One would think that an author playing their own character on screen would be the height of a vanity project, but in the case of Spillane and The Girl Hunters you would be wrong. It is not just a case of him knowing the character, Spillane had previously posed in trench coat and fedora totting a gun for Mike Hammer book covers, setting the physical template for Hammer. But a resemblance isn’t the only thing Spillane brings to the role. He knows how Hammer moves and talks and that knowledge helps him bring a physicality helps his performance and allows him to handle his character’s terse, rat-a-tat dialogue with ease. With only the previous experience of playing himself in the John Wayne-produced Ring Of Fear nearly a decade earlier, Spillane not only holds his own in scenes with more seasoned actors like Nolan and Eaton, but raises up the moments he shares with friend and fellow non-professional actor, real world syndicated columnist Hy Gardner.
The transfer here is quite crisp and shows off cinematographer Kenneth Talbot’s stunning midtown Manhattan location photography to great effect. You can really feel the grit of 42nd Street as Hammer strolls down it, cutting through alleys and Times Square buildings alike, sometimes moving in and out of shadows. There is a little print damage that shows up now and then, but it is barely noticeable. Judging by the times it makes its appearance, I am guessing that this is mostly reel change issues.
If there’s anything in the presentation that merits serious critiquing, it is the film’s sound mix during the scene in which Hammer is told that Velda is alive, which keeps the dialogue at a softer level than the preceding dialogue and incidental music. A stylistic choice to be sure to accentuate the dying man’s barely whispered words, but if you up the volume to hear what he’s saying, you might find yourself reaching for the remote a bit later to lower it back down when Philip Green’s admittedly wonderful trumpet-based score kicks back in. Interestingly, director Roy Rowland leaves Hammer’s big confrontation with the Dragon at the end of the film unscored, which helps emphasizes and brings to the screen the raw brutality that Spillane brought to his stories.
Spillane friend, historian and sometimes collaborator and mystery novelist in his own right, Max Allan Collins, provides a comprehensive commentary track that sheds much light on the writer and the film, but which doesn’t ignore the other actors in the movie. Of particular note is Collins’ observations on how this film – with its tough guy lead, Cold War plot and future Bond girl co-star – sits at the intersection of the hardboiled detective genre and the rise of the James Bond phenomenon.
Additionally, the disc features two interviews – a 30-minute one with Spillane and a ten-minute one with Eaton, both reminiscing of their time making the film. Rounding out the extras is a trailer which is a bit rougher in shape than the main feature, but not distractingly so. It is also presented in a slightly horizontally compressed 1.73:1 aspect ratio versus the film’s 2.35:1 ratio, a framing which also reveals just a bit more vertical information in some shots.
While The Girl Hunters is not the best cinematic Spillane adaption – That honor rests with 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly – it still remains a solid entry in the Mike Hammer cinematic canon, enough so that it leaves one wishing that they had gotten around to their intention of filming Spillane’s followup novel The Snake, which continued the Velda storyline. That particular dangling plot thread aside, this disc is a worthy addition to any genre fan’s shelf.