Friday Night Film Noir: The Girl Hunters (1963)

This is a bit of a cheat. The Girl Hunters has some fine black-and-white cinematography and features a haunted protagonist who navigates a shadowy world, but does it meet the textbook definition of a film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace? Perhaps it does. But "noirish" is such an over-applied term. Pretty much any film 1945 to 1965 shot in black-and-white that is not a war film is referred to as film noir, it seems to me, so I appreciate that there is thematic and stylistic criteria that must be met to be accurately described as such.

Max Allan Collins mentions on the commentary track that The Girl Hunters - Mike Hammer in general - is more fantasy and melodrama than straight-up noir. I agree with this. Nevertheless, I've seen films that I personally consider even farther afield from a proper film noir aesthetic held up as classics of the genre. So! Let us proceed.

"I've been shot before."
"Sure. But you've never been dead before. When you go down, it's gonna be a six foot fall."

THE PLOT: Mike Hammer has been on a seven-year drunk since the disappearance of Velda, his faithful assistant. She was undercover on a case, but things went awry. When the police pick him up unconscious in the street after a drunken brawl, he is brought to Captain Pat Chambers, who angrily beats him some more.

Pat was in love with Velda and holds Mike responsible for her disappearance.
It was at first a little disorienting to see Pat Chambers as anything but Mike Hammer's confidante and fisticuffs back-up/ connection on the force. But I quickly cottoned to this dynamic between the characters - and a seven year vendetta, to boot. Drama! 

It turns out that someone involved in the Captain's case is on his last legs the hospital and will only make his deathbed confession to Hammer. So Mike -

armed with a stuff bourbon administered by the doctor at left -
trudges down to the hospital and learns that Velda is still alive. The dying man, Cole, tells him that she is marked for murder, though, and knows too much. He dies, and Hammer vows to get sober. As he convalesces:

he sexually harasses a nurse, and
learns Cole was an undercover agent of the Feds, who are very interested in finding who killed him. Spillane agrees to help him, but not without some mid-century sass: "I don't like the police version of the hard sell, see?"
I haven't mentioned yet that Mike Hammer is played by Mickey Spillane, i.e. the man who created him.

How often do authors even act in films, much less play the lead in a big production like The Girl Hunters, based on his own novel? 

How does he do? It's no surprise he understands Mike Hammer as a character well enough to play along, but Spillane is in practically every scene in this movie. I can't think of more than a handful of other films where an amateur acquits himself so competently in the company of professional actors. He is called on to carry the film on his back, and rather astonishingly, he does. 

His strained friendship with Chambers (Scott Peters) requires a range of reaction and restraint.
While he and Federal Agent Rickerby (Lloyd Nolan) have a whole different dynamic.
Nolan cut his acting teeth on several recurring hard-boiled characters, so it's a special treat seeing him and Spillane share so much screen-time.

That Spillane does more than just show up and read the lines as he wrote them and instead genuinely and authentically collaborates with his co-stars is the film's most distinguishing feature. He handles the action and male comradery as well as he handles Hammer's romance with Laura Knapp (Shirley Eaton.)


The plot continues: 

As Hammer investigates further, he realizes the same bullet that killed Cole was fired from the same gun that killed a Senator who was investigating ties to a WW1 espionage ring since taken over by the Soviets.
Ballistics play a fairly large role in the unfolding mystery.
He makes his way to the Senator's widow's house.
Enter Laura. (Shirely Eaton.)
As Max Allan Collins notes, Eaton's next film after The Girl Hunters was Goldfinger.
Where she played her more memorable bikini-girl role.

The introduction of the rich widow/ blonde bombshell to the plot can only mean she's either in on whatever dastardly plot the protagonist is trying to unravel or an innocent victim. In this case, she's the former. 

Spoiler alert, I guess, though it's really just Hard Boiled 101.
All the plot threads converge...

One of the things I like best about Mike Hammer stories is the variety of allies he has, and how loyal they are to him. Not in a mindless or uncritical way - many candidly point out how flawed he or his approach is as they're slapping him on the back or turning him in a more fruitful direction - but it's a depth of character trick that I enjoy. And Spillane brings it out well, with these folks with whom he interacts.

The aforementioned Fed who wants justice for Cole's murder.
His pal in the newspapers.
His pal in the newspaper stand.
And his building manager, whose loyalty to Mike extends not just to keeping his office ready for him (for 7 years!) but also Velda's desk-plant.
Sure, I wouldn't want to see him play Vito Corleone, but as Mike Hammer, it's hard to argue with Spillane's performance. 

Collins mentions in his commentary how Hammer was the publication model for James Bond, who was widely referred to initially as "the British Mike Hammer."

This is interesting not just for the Shirley Eaton connection -
but it explains some aspects of Dr. No for me, or rather, the characterization of Bond in that story. Attention was paid to establishing both Mike Hammer and James Bond as oversexed men who went above and beyond in executing their duties. 

This is especially noticeable in The Girl Hunters.
Mike has promised not to kill the main baddie, so he instead hammers his hand to the floor.

The film's final confrontation between Mike and Laura is another feather in Spillane's cap, both acting and writing-wise.

He subtly calls her out -
and predicts her response, which recalls a previous scene in the film.

One final note - the film was shot almost entirely in Britain, but at no time (except for the very beginning, where the police who fish Hammer out of the gutter don't bother hiding their British accents) does it seem anywhere but New York City. I am forever impressed by the care and detail British production designers bring to such things - they are capable of making their island look look anyplace in their world and deserve more acclaim for this than has been received.

Chapeau, Pinewood and all UK studios.
with a


  1. Crikey! SPILLANE plays Hammer?!? This would be sort of like the equivalent of Stephen King playing Roland in a "Dark Tower" movie, or (shudder) what's-her-guts playing the lead role in the "Fifty Shades" movie.

    Except whereas those two examples would have undoubtedly been horrific failures, you're telling me this actually WORKED?!? Boy howdy, would I have lost money on that bet. But I have to say, Spillane looks the part; combine that with his knowledge of the character, and he was already at least two-thirds of the way there.

    God damn, I want to see this movie now, and that's before I found out mid-sixties Shirley Eaton is in it.

    Speaking of Bond, I didn't know Hammer was considered to be such a forerunner for 007, but it certainly makes sense. My interest in ol' Mike is rising steadily!

    1. Dino De Laurentiis should totally have made Stephen King play the lead in a Dark Tower movie. And Joe King could have played the story's Salem's-Lot-era Stephen King from Song of Susannah. Man, that would be something. Just picturing it is entertaining me immensely.

      I can't believe how much Mike Hammer has been covered in this blog. I didn't plan it that way, but I'm enjoying exploring it all. I need to take the plunge, now, and actually read some of the books.

    2. p.s. Maybe King SHOULD play Roland in the Dark Tower movies.

    3. Something tells me that that aspect of the story will be omitted from the movies. I'm probably okay with that, to be honest; I like it in the books, but it'd be a tough sell on film.

    4. You're probably right. Adapting Dark Tower isn't like Mike Hammer - they're probably cutting a whole lot of corners (and overtime pay) by just inventing a whole new story (and emphasizing the furry-boobed characters.)