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July 25, 2006

On July 17, 2006, Mickey Spillane passed away at age 88. Now, I’m guessing that a lot of this column’s readers are too young to remember what a phenomenon Spillane was in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, but let’s just say he was, for many years, the most recognized fiction author in the world (think Stephen King today).

His Mike Hammer detective novels sold in the millions, he was a frequent guest on TV talk shows, and the star of a hugely successful, 18-year beer commercial campaign. The Mike Hammer character appeared in numerous motion pictures and TV series beginning in the mid-Fifties and continuing up until the late Nineties. He even portrayed his most famous character in a feature film, something no other popular author can claim – and he did a good job, too.

Spillane was something of a personal idol to me. I first encountered his novels in high school, and quickly became a fan not only of his books, but of many of his imitators, too. His approach to storytelling – raw and vital – had a huge impact on me and my writing, and I was fortunate enough to collaborate with him on a comic book project a decade ago called Mickey Spillane’s Mike Danger.

Ironically, I’ve been working on this column for a couple of months now, ever since receiving the DVDs of MIKE HAMMER, PRIVATE EYE and MAX ALLAN COLLINS’ SHADES OF NOIR in the same week. Little did I know that it would end up as a posthumous tribute to one of the most unique entertainment personalities of the last fifty years.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Mickey Spillane: author, movie star and the creator of Mike Hammer, private eye…

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Spillane’s first big-screen appearance was in the 1954, John Wayne-produced circus thriller, RING OF FEAR, directed by James Edward Grant.

In the film, Spillane plays himself, who, with the help of a Mike Hammer-ish sidekick played by Jack Stang (Spillane’s personal choice for Hammer), investigates mysterious going-ons and deadly “accidents” at the famous Clyde Beatty Circus. The somewhat routine story is enlivened by the novelty of celebrities Spillane and Beatty playing themselves, and an effective climax with Spillane facing down the murderous, psychotic saboteur. The movie also has a great, jazzy score.

Paramount has recently released RING OF FEAR in its first legitimate home video edition, on a bare-bones DVD. The disc features a very nice 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, clear, sharp stereo, and that’s it.

It’s not a great movie, but it has its moments, and it’s a unique pop culture curio. Recommended only for Spillane completists (like me).

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The character of Mike Hammer had already been the subject of three feature films by 1963 (including 1955’s classic KISS ME DEADLY, directed by Robert Aldrich), but Spillane had never been satisfied with his famous shamus’ portrayal. In THE GIRL HUNTERS, directed by Roy Rowland, Spillane decided to take on the Hammer role himself and show Hollywood how it should be done.

Based on the first Mike Hammer book in seven years, THE GIRL HUNTERS begins with Mike Hammer lying drunk in an alley and his beloved secretary, Velda, presumed dead. But when Hammer discovers from a dying FBI agent that his girl Friday is not only still alive, but the target of a Communist assassin code named The Dragon, he pulls himself out of the gutter, slaps on the trenchcoat and porkpie hat, and dusts off his .45, ready to play St. George.

Plagued by a repetitive, annoying musical score and a somewhat over-talky script, THE GIRL HUNTERS is still a decent private eye movie, packed with Cold War paranoia and a powerful last act. Spillane is surprisingly good as Hammer, handling his dialogue – and his love scenes – with natural confidence. Shirley Eaton (GOLDFINGER, THE GIRL FROM RIO) is an effective femme fatale who looks great in a bikini, and veteran character actor Lloyd Nolan (who’d played P.I. Michael Shayne in a series of 40’s films) is great as Hammer’s FBI ally.

Image Entertainment’s DVD came out early in the DVD era, and is a bare-bones affair that at least presents the movie in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

I like it.

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Award-winning mystery writer Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition and dozens of other novels), has always been a vocal defender of Spillane and has made no bones about Spillane’s influence on his own work. For a decade now, Collins has been supplementing his mystery writing career by directing a number of low-budget independent films, movies that have recently been collected by Troma Entertainment under their new Neo Noir label in the MAX ALLAN COLLINS’ BLACK BOX collection.

BLACK BOX contains a new, two-disc special edition of Collins’ first two suspense films, MOMMY (1995) and MOMMY 2: MOMMY’S DAY (1997), his multi-angle thriller, REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET (2000), and his crime anthology film, SHADES OF NOIR (2006).

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MOMMY stars Patty McCormack (Oscar winner for her performance as the bad little girl in THE BAD SEED) as a murderous mother who has only her daughter’s (Rachel Lemieux) best interests at heart, even if she has to kill to ensure them. In the sequel, MOMMY’S DAY, she receives a stay of execution for her previous crimes, and continues to look after her little girl – but is she still killing?

Both movies were shot on digital video and look like it, but the scripts – as one might expect – are very good and suspenseful, and Collins has top loaded the films with experienced actors. McCormack is excellent as the over-protective mama, and supporting roles are filled out with familiar faces like Majel Barret (STAR TREK), Brinke Stevens (TEENAGE EXORCIST), Jason Miller (THE EXORCIST), Gary Sandy (WKRP), and Mickey Spillane himself as Mommy’s bemused lawyer.

The new, two-disc set includes the same slightly-letterboxed transfers as the original Troma releases, and are packed with bonus features, many of which are new to this edition. There’s old and new commentary tracks by Collins, cast and crew, an on-screen interview with McCormack, bloopers, the “Making of Mommy” featurette, vintage media coverage, an audio recording of the original “Mommy” short story, and more cool stuff I’m surely forgetting.

Currently, this 2-disc special edition is only available in the BLACK BOX collection.

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You know that “Angle” button on your DVD remote? Bet you haven’t used it much. But if you get your hands on Collins’ REAL TIME: SIEGE AT LUCAS STREET MARKET, you’ll probably give it a real workout.

The story of REAL TIME is simplicity itself: two armed robbers hold up a convenience store, and before long they have a rapidly-escalating hostage situation on their hands. But the genius of the film is not only that it plays out in – get this -– “real time,” but that it is presented as if you’re watching the events unfold on the store’s multiple security cameras. Using that aforementioned “Angle” button, you can choose which camera angle you want to use to watch events unfold, and depending on your vantage point, you may see things you’d miss from another.

Well acted and tensely paced, Collins’ REAL TIME is a “real” achievement, and definitely deserves more notice for being one of the only direct-to-DVD films that actually takes full advantage of the format.

The movie is presented on the Troma DVD in multiple aspect ratios, depending on the scene and angle you use to view it. In all cases, the digital video is sharp and clear. The disc includes three commentary tracks with the filmmakers ands tars, audition tapes, deleted scenes, alternate takes, two trailers, a Ms Tree comic book story, an audio presentation of the short story the film is based on, and cast and crew biograpies.

Highly recommended. REAL TIME is also available separately.

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The final disc in the set is SHADES OF NOIR, an anthology of short films directed (well, except for one) by the famed mystery author.

The disc starts of with the short, ELIOT NESS: AN UNTOUCHABLE LIFE, which stars Michael Cornelison as Ness, in what is essentially a monologue relating an anecdote from Ness’ life. It’s cute and well made, but too brief. Apparently, this was demonstration film used to raise financing for a feature-length version.

The second film, A MATTER OF PRINCIPAL, is an excellent adaptation of one of Collins’ “Quarry” short stories about a retired hitman getting caught up in a kidnapping scheme. It’s directed by a young filmmaker named Jeffrey Goodman, and it’s very good, with a strong performance by William Makozak as Quarry.

THREE WOMEN is based on a story by Collins’ wife, Barb, and it’s a simple, one-set, one act piece with some decent acting, but no real meat. The story, such as it is, consists of three women being questioned by police in an interrogation room about a murder that all three claim to have committed.

The real heart of the anthology, however, is Collins’ excellent biographical documentary, MIKE HAMMER’S MICKEY SPILLANE. It’s a very well written and professional looking documentary, with on-screen interviews with Spillane himself, as well as actor Stacy Keach, producer Jay Bernstein and many well-known and respected mystery writers. There are also rare clips from the various film and TV adaptations of Mickey’s work, and even a couple of Mickey’s great Lite Beer commercials. It covers Spillane’s life and career in considerable detail and examines the effect his work has had on both pop culture and the mystery genre.

The disc also includes as a Bonus Feature the “lost” MIKE HAMMER pilot from 1954, starring Brian Keith and directed by Blake Edwards. What a find! Keith is excellently cast as Hammer (and even resembles Spillane, somewhat). The direction and writing is on a par with Edwards’ own later PETER GUNN work, and is remarkably violent. This is the real gem of the disc, along with the Spillane documentary and the “Quarry” film.

Other bonus features include a trailer for the 1953 version of I, THE JURY, a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of A MATTER OF PRINCIPAL, and an audio presentation of a rare Mike Hammer LP narrated by Spillane called “Tonight My Love.”

SHADES OF NOIR is only available as part of the BLACK BOX collection.

MAX ALLAN COLLINS’ BLACK BOX is a great DVD set, with hours of independently produced mystery and suspense. Highly recommended.

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Sony has recently released a MICKEY SPILLANE’S MIKE HAMMER DOUBLE FEATURE of the first two Mike Hammer movies starring Stacy Keach from the Eighties – MURDER ME, MURDER YOU (1983) and MORE THAN MURDER (1984).

MURDER ME, MURDER YOU was Keach’s first Hammer telefilm, and it’s pretty decent, with a twisty plot revolving around a dead international courier, a briefcase of money and Hammer’s illegitimate 20-year-old daughter. The cast is quite good for a TV movie of the era, and the direction is solid. Personally, I very much enjoy Stacy Keach as an actor, and as Mike Hammer in particular. His affection for the role comes through clearly, and he’s always perfectly in character. It may not be quite the Hammer of the books, but I’ve always separated the TV version from the book version anyway (kinda like James Bond books/movies), and appreciate them both. Tanya Roberts plays Hammer’s secretary Velda in this movie, and I think she’s the actress who most resembles my vision of the character from the books. She even carries a gun and saves Mike’s ass in one scene.

The sequel, MORE THAN MURDER, is better than the first film, and it’s the one that really laid the groundwork for the three(!) Keach/Hammer TV series that followed. The plot is almost too convoluted, but boils down to someone shooting Hammer’s cop pal Pat Chambers (Don Stroud) in the back and framing him with a kilo of cocaine. Hammer sets out to clear his buddy’s name and find out who shot him.

A lot of the series’ gimmicks first appear here: the “mystery woman” that Hammer keeps catching glimpses of, the “I’ll make a note,” comeback, etc. Lindsey Bloom plays Velda here (as she did in the two 80s series) and while she’s a lovely lady, she’s just a little too “nice” for the role. Keach really defines his portrayal of the character in this one.

Sony surprised me, and presented these films on two single-sided, double-layered discs, each packaged in its own slimcase. I thought for sure they’d issue ‘em as a single “flipper” disc. Glad I was wrong.

No frills, no extras, just clear, clean full-frame 1:33.1 transfers and Dolby stereo sound. I hope this set sells well and Sony ends up releasing the subsequent 80s TV shows.

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But, while I’m waiting for those, the syndicated 90’s revival series, MIKE HAMMER, PRIVATE EYE (1997-98) is available on DVD. This show had Keach reprising the role, this time with a new, younger Velda (the gorgeous Shannon Whirry) and a young, pretty-boy assistant (Shane Conrad, son of veteran TV tough-guy Robert Conrad).

While the show was shot on the cheap – and looked it – I still liked the episodes I saw when it originally aired in syndication, and found I enjoyed watching the rest of them on DVD.

Like the two 80’s series and TV movies, this syndicated series mines a lot of humor out of playing Hammer as a 40’s-50’s kind of guy a bit out of step with the modern era. This series deals with Internet crimes and similar 90s plots, but, oddly, Hammer’s a bit rougher and more violent here than in the previous series. I’m guessing that’s because it was syndicated, and didn’t have to deal with network censors. The writing’s not too bad, either – not great, mind you, but most of the stories are tough and fairly clever.

The hardest thing to get past is the cheap-looking sets, bland photography, and the palm trees that show up in many exterior scenes, even though the show is still supposed to be set in New York City. Sure, they did a bunch of insert shots of Keach wandering around Manhattan, but unlike the 80s shows, this one never quite manages to hide the fact that it was shot in Ventura, CA.

Tango has released the entire, single season series on four double-sided discs. The full frame transfers are generally pretty solid, although the last disc has a couple extra episodes crammed on it and this leads to some obvious compression problems; a few episodes show some distracting pixelation. The set comes in an attractively designed box, and includes a single bonus feature: a short but entertaining on-screen interview with star Keach.

It’s not the best Mike Hammer series, but it’s the only one available. If you’re a fan, you’ll want to pick it up.

Thanks for joining me in this tribute to one of my favorite authors and personal heroes. Go buy or rent one of these discs. Better yet, go buy one of his books. Chances are you’ll thank me later.

Next week, I’ll have a jumbo-sized TV box set round-up for you guys, but before I wrap up this column, I’d like to remind you about the Special Contest going on over at the official DVD Late Show website. Courtesy of Buena Vista Home Video, I have five copies each of the latest instant exploitation classics from Executive Producer and drive-in demigod Roger Corman – ASPHALT WARS and SCORPIUS GIGANTUS, starring Jeff Fahey – to give away free to a handful of lucky DVD Late Show readers!

Go to the DVD Late Show site for contest details. Note: this is not a Quick-Stop sponsored contest. It’s strictly between you, Disney, and me baby! Another reminder: every review I’ve written for this column is archived at www.dvdlateshow.com, now searchable both by publication date and by title. There’s bonus reviews by pals of mine, and a couple of other features, too.

Comments about this column or DVD-related questions? Feel free to contact me at dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com.

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