Mike Hammer: Murder Me, Murder You

The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing catalog of one man's attempt to stave off  acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs until he can take better inventory of the ones already in his possession. Today's excursion:

Directed by Gary Nelson.
Written by William Stratton.
(Note: Girl in picture not Stacy Keach.)

This CBS Saturday Night Movie is about as 80s chicks-and-punching-bro clickbait as it gets. But it goes about its business so sincerely and with such conviction that it stands out, particularly against the backdrop of what aired against it; as retrograde as it may seem, it's a lot closer to our own era than The Love Boat and Fantasy Island are. Mike Hammer lives on in Jack Bauer and even Omar Little. A man's got to have a code.

Here's the character as described by his wiki page:

Mike Hammer is a no-holds-barred private investigator with an army-issue Colt .45, named "Betsy." Brutally violent and fueled by a genuine rage against violent crime. His love for his secretary Velda is outweighed only by his willingness to kill a killer. 

I've never read the Mickey Spillane source material or seen or heard any other incarnations of the character, so all I have to compare it to is the other movies and shows starring Keach as Mike Hammer. He starred as the character in over one hundred episodes in the 80s and 90s, more than any other actor. I haven't seen more than a handful of them. I like them, and I like the novelty of one actor being the caretaker of the role for several decades running.

Hammer's supporting cast is pretty standard fare for how these things go. Let's start with:

He's his loyal companion, the only guy Mike trusts to restrain him when the goddamn bleeding hearts and red tape try and trip him up. Captain Chambers can't help but notice his inferiority as a man compared to his best buddy/ idol's, so he's decided to make himself as useful to Mike as possible. Also useful: his connections downtown.

"This is the Me Generation, Mike."
"I thought they closed that show in the 70s."
"Held over by popular demand."
"Let me tell you something, old buddy. It's time for the We Generation."

(2) Every hard-boiled private detective needs the District Attorney who constantly reminds him his license is hanging by a thread and says things like "As far as I'm concerned, you're the pizza man, and you will deliver." 


Like Captain Chambers, the D.A. realizes how hopelessly inferior he is when compared to Mike, but he sublimates this into browbeating. But that's all surface tough-guy flirting - they tolerate one another and have a mutually beneficial relationship underneath the snark. The D.A. saves his true fury for the beyond-the-reach-of-the-law scumbags Mike helps shoot in the face, and Mike saves his contempt for (2.5) the DA's gorillas, aka the "empty suits" the DA employs. 

One of these is rather ironically played by Eddie Egan, the real-life Popeye Doyle.

To amuse himself, Mike lets them take him back and forth to the DA's office, but once there, they get a goddamn judo chop in their dumb faces if they don't watch it.

(3) The client, Jack Vance, played by Tom Atkins, the mirror-cracked version of Mike Hammer/ insert-action-hero. Vance, a fellow vet who came back from the 'Nam with a speech impediment but founded a helicopter manufacturing empire.

You're dropping into a red hot LZ, Hammer...

(At story's end, it's revealed that Vance's stutter is an affectation, employed merely to give the trophy wife "something to do." Boobs, amirite?)

(4) Of course there's the incompetent fellow detective on his tail. When Mike isn't shaking him, he's letting him know how goddamn on top of the situation he is.

And finally, (5) there's Velda, the eroticized assistant. Velda is more than a secretary, less than a partner, the Joan Holloway to Mike's Don Draper.

Played by ubiquitous early-to-mid-80s sexpot Tanya Roberts.
Another idealized version of an assistant, this one female, so of course she's Playboy-esque and she and Mike secretly want one another.

Equally of course, the one time she actively assists in a case, it's to tantalize the camera-man so Mike can gain entrance somewhere he shouldn't.

If you're even a casual fan of hard-boiled fiction, or even just action movies, all of the above is very familiar. What separates Murder Me, Murder You from the pack? Mainly, its commitment to its own absurd premises. I don't knock these premises - hell, Spillane is one of the architects of the hard-boiled genre so it's far more appropriate here than in his imitators - I'm just saying: this cannot be confused in any way with genre deconstruction. Which is something that never fails to appeal to me: those projects that so aggressively embody their genre's tropes that they end up at least pointing the way to full-on satire / deconstruction.

Let's walk through the plot from end-to-end. (All quoted material below from the script itself.) Our story begins with Mike at his office, his voice-over assuring us that today was off to a goddamn good start.

Money in his pocket, rounds in his chamber, a whole city full of crooks just waiting to meet Betsy. Or his fists.
And Velda!
"The Dow Jones was going up."
His reverie is interrupted by the D.A.'s gorillas, who deliver a same-day subpoena for the grand jury. (Does this ever happen? Imagine the real-world chaos.) The star witness of the D.A.'s case against Jack Vance and corrupt third world dictators is a woman named Chris (Michelle Phillips,) who in no particular order, works for an all-female courier service, won't testify without Mike's protection, and is the only woman he ever asked to marry him.

Naturally, she still smolders for Mike, but before they can pick up where they left off, she tells Mike that he's the father of a "bouncing nineteen year old girl" he didn't know existed. As these ramifications sink in, she resumes her testimony, whereupon the D.A. decides to batter his star witness with news of said daughter's fiery death in a car wreck until she has a heart attack.

Adios, Chris.
Jack tries to retain Mike's services to figure out who's framing him, but now he's goddamn personally committed. He grabs Betsy and it's off to find out more about the love of his life's courier service and the daughter he never knew he had.

Like Theseus, he descends into the labyrinth:
A labyrinth of cleavage and excessive positive regard from every woman he meets.

Although Mike refers only to the courier service as "thirty-one flavors of women - and I wasn't on a diet," it's more or less his constant state of affairs. In his office, at home, on the streets, at the hot dog stand, on a job, in his car, Mike Hammer is never far from a set of "double-dipped delights" and women who would do anything to bang him.

"Bon-jourr Monsieurrrr..."
Eventually, he's escorted by Paula (Delta Burke,) one particularly flirtatious lass who likes to swing her bosom back and forth while standing in place, around the premises, for no real reason except to allow Mike to scope out the maximum amount of girls possible.

Although forbidden to do so by her boss, whom we'll get to in a second, Paula simply cannot resist the idea of getting to know Mike Hammer as nakedly as possible.

Meaning, they have actual sex. Three guesses what that gets her:

I mean, any fan of the genre knows that if you go beyond mere flirting and cleavage-swinging with a hard-boiled dick like Mike Hammer (or Travis McGee, or across genres, James Bond or Jack Bauer) you're going to end up with a tag on your toe, just more fuel for Mike's ceaseless rage. This is Hard Boiled Hero 101, here.

Nevertheless, everywhere Mike goes he runs into someone who makes it clear she's willing to line up for the morgue nonetheless. It cannot be repeated enough - Murder Me, Murder You's commitment to filling every inch of the frame with plunging necklines and over-the-top attraction to our hero borders on the pathological. At the same time, you've got to hand it to the Volume Eleven of it all - if you're going to play, go all-in.

There are only three women in the story that break the pattern. The first is Lee Meredith as Marty, the bartender at Mike's favorite watering hole.

It's kind of a cheat, though, as Meredith was well-known at the time for va-va-voom roles, like Ulla (r) from The Producers. Almost as if the producers are letting us know, "Hey hey, we know, but context, people, context!"
This even extends to the associate producers: Lana Wood aka Plenty O'Toole and Demon Rage.

The second is his long-lost daughter, Michelle, who it turns out was not killed in the fiery car wreck. Meaning, her poor mother was scared to death for no reason other than to clear the way for Mike to keep on Boobs Patrol.

Played by Lisa Blount.

Some exceedingly creepy stuff surrounds Mike's many interactions with his daughter. First is Mike's discovering she was a fairly well-known porn star, but she never performed without a leather mask, so it's not as bad because people don't recognize her face. Later, they dance around this discovery of Mike's. "You saw the films?" she asks. This is the closest Murder Me, Murder You comes to breaking out of its genre-box and into Lars Von Trier land, for lack of a better term.

We're spared watching Father and Daugher work through these icky emotions, though, thanks to how events play out. She says improbable things about waiting for a phone call that never came, and Mike comforts her with the hard truth about his life while telling her of other women he loved beside her mother:

"The VC threw a satchel charge through the front door. I didn't have a scratch. But they had to pick her up with a shovel. (...) I take women seriously, and you know what it gets them? A body bag."

Ladies, when a man warns you that anyone who gets close to him ends up dead, trust him and walk away. 

The last woman who's defined by more than her cleavage is the lady who runs the courier agency.

This, too, is kind of a cheat, as we'll see later.

Mike's hunt for the right face to punch leads him to the inevitable destination of every private detective: into the den of the local pornographer.

Played by a young Jonathan Banks.

After Paula (as aforementioned) succumbs to post-Mike-Hammer's-loving syndrome, i.e. taking a life-ending bullet meant for him, Mike uses it as an excuse to go out of control.

In this scene of bare-chested knucklebruisery, he charges out into the corridor of his own apartment building and fires off a dozen rounds.
Presumably his neighbors are used to this sort of thing, and a trip to the Shock Trauma ward is just the price you happily pay for living next door to such a goddamn ass-kicker like Mike "Goddamn" Hammer.

Further shenanigans ensue, and eventually Mike Hammer has placed his daughter in the protective custody of Captain Chambers. The elusive head bad guy appears and - naturally, I mean, who does Captain Chambers think he freaking is? Mike Hammer? - kidnaps her.

Things congeal around a briefcase filled with dead presidents, which Mike finds through inspired detective work, i.e. slamming his fist into the fridge perfectly timed with "Where is the body of Janice WELLS?!" and then playing a hunch that the corpse is probably at the morgue under an assumed name designed to grab his attention.

He brings the briefcase to the warehouse, filled with naked mannequins.

A setting that ensures no interruption of plastic boobs in the frame.
This is perhaps the only other scene in the movie that could reasonably seem "meta."
The ending of this whole affair is textbook conservative panic. Not the small-government/ limit-foreign-entanglements kind of conservative; the queers-and-libs-are-running-wild-and-need-a-punch-in-their-collective-goddamn-face-YOU-STUPID-CHIEF kind. You'd almost think it was a montage-parody put together by The Daily Show, or SNL back in the day.

REVEAL: The head of the all-female courier service is the super-villain.
She is a MAN, baby!
At one point, Mike's daughter has him dead to rights.
Thankfully for him, she's a woman and can't figure out the safety.

Naturally, it's not enough just for Mike/ Betsy to shoot the transvestite baddie; Mike has to keep pounding the living crap out of his corpse until he gets it out of his system.

This one screencap says it all, really, or would, if the baddie's transvestite-ness was better suggested. Somewhere, a guy with a mullet is playing this and the end of Rambo (and maybe all of Cobra) on a loop and doing shirtless arm-curls under a framed picture of Ronald Reagan. (Aww, poor Ronnie - he works for the joke, though.)

His life spared the ongoing plot complications of a daughter and the return of The One Who Got Away, Mike Hammer ends Murder Me, Murder You where he started it: thanking God in voice-over for three things: his gun Betsy,

and "the City."
"The City" shout-out kind of comes out of nowhere, but let's face it: it was as inevitable as the deaths of Chris, Michelle, and Paula.
Sooner or later, the detective always pays his verbal homage to the open-air bars of his cage.

That brings me to my last point: for as aggressively boilerplate as all the above is, the cinematography is surprisingly great. No fancy tricks or tricky dissolves, but everything looks fantastic.

Also DP for a little film called The Wrath of Khan.
The soundtrack is also excellent.

Some of the incidental music seems to recall the jazzy surrealism of Dirty Harry, another story concerned with an urban enforcer's violent reaction to the changing America of the 60s and 70s.

Gary Nelson directed some of my favorite films as a kid (Freaky Friday, The Black Hole, and (allegedly-the-actual-director-of) Nighthawks) and went on to have a long career. William Stratton's post-Murder Me, Murder You career wasn't as long, but for his work here he received an Edgar Award. Which cracks me up - not because I think it's undeserved but because it means it parks its car in the same garage as David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, not to mention The Wire, both fellow Edgar winners. 

Few things are less alike than Murder Me, Murder You and either of the two Simon works, but such is the equalizing terrain of murder, fact or fiction - something with which the author after whom the award is named would undoubtedly agree.


  1. I've never seen any "Mike Hammer"s, and boy is that starting to seem like a mistake. This one sounds goddamn insane.

    I got quite a chuckle out of some of the screencaps here, although the thought of Stacy Keach engaged in vigorous grunting is making me feel gross. Luckily, those Tanya Roberts images serve as a nice antidote.

    Is "Harlem Nocturne" here the same as the version used in "Christine"? If so, 1983 was a pretty good year for Earle Hagen licensing.

    What a great supporting cast! Jonathan Banks, Lisa Blount, Delta Burke, Michelle Phillips . . . not to mention Tom Atkins.

    1. I do believe it was - the Hagen estate got a little well-deserved scratch in '83.

      I can't wait to tackle the next one of these. Mike Hammer's world is goddamn two-fisted fun. Glad you enjoyed!