Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: The Complete Collection
by Jef Burnham
Available September 20, 2011 on DVD from A+E Networks Home Entertainment.
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For the first time on DVD, you can experience all 78 episodes of the first syndicated television series centered around Mickey Spillane’s hard-headed, short-tempered, chauvinist, shamus, Mike Hammer. Joined by a who’s-who of television personalities (this series marking some of their earliest screen appearances), Hammer is played Darren McGavin, who would go on to star in Kolchak: The Night Stalker. McGavin delivers a thoroughly terrific, if tongue-in-cheek, performance as the hard-boiled detective, bringing a refreshing levity to each mystery with his character’s confident, subtextual disdain for everyone and everything he encounters.
And while my experience with Hammer extends no further than this series and 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, I find it fascinating that within these two examples there’s a significant difference in both the presentation and portrayal of the character. Whereas Kiss Me Deadly’s presentation of Hammer is primarily satirical, the television series’ would have viewers perceive him as one of your typically romanticized noir detectives. Conversely, Ralph Meeker plays his meat-headed version of Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly straight, emphasizing the overall satire of the piece, while McGavin portrays Hammer satirically despite the production team’s contradictory efforts. As a result, the series can be a bit tonally schizophrenic at times, but I found it to be one of the series’ greatest charms.
Given the half-hour time constraint, each episode is necessarily tightly plotted. The series is quick to the point and quick to the punch, for that matter. By this I mean that it’s surprisingly quite violent for a 1950’s television series. Much of the violence is on screen of course, as Hammer is prone to throw a fist at the drop of a hat, but there is quite the wealth of gruesome implied violence as well. For instance, in one of the early episodes, Hammer discovers the body of a woman with her hand thrust up rigidly into the bottom of the frame. Hammer, in voice-over, explains how she had been killed either with the butt of a gun or a hatchet, he can’t tell. The images such scenes are able to stir up in the mind of the viewer are quite vivid indeed, and serve to remind us of the constant real danger facing Hammer at every turn. This is aided in no small part by the series’ location photography. Whereas the interiors are pretty obviously studio sets, the majority of the exteriors are shot on-location around New York City. This adds a necessary degree of realism to the mysteries, further amplifying the tension of the proceedings throughout.
At this point, I’d like to touch upon the clever episode titles in Mike Hammer. Each episode details its own standalone case, and each of these stories is endowed with a title, usually involving “death” or some sort of play on words. While many of these are just silly and not worth noting, some have absolutely incredible noir titles. My absolute favorite episode titles in the entire series are “Death Gets a Diploma” and “For Sale: Death Bed— Used.” Although both these episodes spin solid mysteries, I have to admit that they hardly live up to the promise of their titles.
Among the series’ most notable guest stars are Angie Dickinson, Dick Van Patten, Robert Vaughn, DeForest Kelly, Ted Knight, and the Ames Brothers. The Complete Collection A+E contains the series’ entire 78-episode run on 12 discs for a total running time of 32 hours and 50 minutes. Some of the episodes are plagued by a fair amount of debris and damage— understandable given the age of the original elements— but overall, both the picture and the sound exceeded my expectations. Additionally, the set is predictably and unfortunately lacking in special features.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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