You don't mess around with Mike Hammer (Biff Elliot). Hammer is searching for the killer of one of his best friends, and he's bent on revenge. He's accosted by three ugly hoods in a bar. The dapper leader sneers at Hammer and asks, "All right, who are you, and why you been nosin' around all --" That's as far as he gets. POW! Right in the kisser. Hammer, who is built like Boulder Dam, or maybe his overcoat is, brawls with the two remaining goons until he's decked with a simple wooden coat hanger.
I grant you, it doesn't seem plausible, but then the whole movie is not much more than a crude assemblage of events that Hammer bulls his way through, insulting people as he goes, scoffing at the women who throw themselves at his feet, and all the time wearing the same unchanging expression, as of a guy who can't act but has suddenly found himself playing the lead in a picture that's sure to make a bundle.
In the 50s, everyone gobbled up Mickey Spillane's pulp fiction. They couldn't wait for the next book or the movie that would be made from it. This was the first, I think. And it's last conversational exchange was known by all. Hammer plugs the murderer in the stomach. "Mike, how could you do this to me?" "It was easy." The movie sucks in almost all respect, except maybe for its use of the Bradley Building in L.A. Over the years, the Bradley Building served as an office for, among others, Edward G. Robinson, Fred MacMurray, Jack Nicholson, and Douglas Spader.
I enjoyed this flick when it was released but I was only a kid, excited by a gruff and inarticulate angry man who could beat everybody else up and kill them if necessary. All brawn and few brains. (That's adolescence in a nutshell.) Now, old and worn, I find it almost intolerable. Elliot cannot act. Peggy Castle can act, although she doesn't have to. The supporting cast overacts outrageously under the incompetent direction, even such usually reliable players as Nestor Paiva.
John Alton was a fine photographer but his images here -- the stark shadows, the glistening pavements, the ominous alleyways -- only serve to mask the emptiness of the movie. Franz Waxman, also a talented craftsman, should be sent to jail for his musical score. What he does to a clarinet is what my mother-in-law used to do to me.
Mike Hammer is a private eye. The noirs were filled with private eyes like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. They were experienced, intelligent, tough, vulnerable, and flawed. They made mistakes. This one is more of a caricature of noir films. Hammer has no weaknesses whatever, nor any thoughts that might interfere with the movement of his fists. Compared to this, "The Maltese Falcon" is a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance.