Having recently splurged for the Criterion Collection disc of Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY, I’ve been in the mood to get Hammered. Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor’s MICKEY SPILLANE ON SCREEN: A COMPLETE STUDY OF THE TELEVISION AND FILM ADAPTATIONS arrived just in time to be my guide.
Note that nowhere in the title do the names “Mike” and “Hammer” appear. While Spillane’s tough-as-nails detective composed the bulk of his works adapted to screens big and small, a few non-Hammers exist, from RING OF FEAR (which Spillane starred in as himself and did an uncredited rewrite) to a 007-style spy thriller called THE DELTA FACTOR.
Collins and Traylor briefly spend time on the backstory of Spillane himself. There was a lot of information here I didn’t know about one of our best-selling authors, such as:
• He wrote a mystery novel just to earn $1,000 for supplies to build his own house.
• For a time after becoming successful, he was a Jehovah’s Witness.
• He wrote an award-winning children’s book.
• He never described what Mike Hammer looked like.
It’s this last point that bears remembering, because ironically, Spillane complained about the initial screen Hammers not having the right look. Like many protective writers, Spillane disliked much of others’ interpretations. Ceding creative control was not his strong point.
Refreshingly — and surprisingly, given Collins’ closeness to Spillane in real life, both personally and professionally — the book is not a circle-jerk treatment of the subject; the authors even disagree with several of Spillane’s summations. Most notable is how much the author despised KISS ME DEADLY (and director Aldrich, in turn, despised Spillane), yet Collins and Traylor consider it a masterpiece — as do film critics in general.
Collins and Traylor eschew mere plot descriptions; on each work, they dig in to get to the real meat, and deliver rich, chewy essays of honest criticism that are as well-written as Collins’ crackerjack-thrills fiction. They won’t spoil your enjoyment if you have yet to see the entire filmography; for example, I actually read the chapter on KISS ME DEADLY a day before watching the film, and my experience wasn’t spoiled by knowing the movie’s turns, but enriched by viewing through an expert’s perspective.
The paperback is well-stocked with publicity photos, but not for most of the key evocative and highly praised sequences referenced; however, that’s no fault of the authors. Nor is it their doing that a good chunk of the feature films aren’t commercially available at this time, which is irritating given how much they have piqued my interest.
I still can’t keep straight of the umpteen TV series and miniseries and specials that gave Stacy Keach his signature role, but I didn’t expect a miracle. MICKEY SPILLANE ON SCREEN comes strongly recommend for fans of Spillane, Hammer, Collins, Keach and/or crime cinema in general. —Rod Lott