"The Girl Hunters" opened in San Francisco the same week in 1963 as "Dr. No". Mickey Spillane's film got all the major publicity. However, the first outing of Sean Connery as James Bond altered action film history. Thereafter Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking proles got muscled aside for dinner-jacketed U-speakers who knew that red wine didn't go with fish.
I saw "The Girl Hunters" three times that summer. I admit that I love it dearly. I have whistled the propulsive soundtrack themes for 45 years, conjuring up the film's attitude as I set my shoulders determinedly and prowl the urban landscape with a warily appraising squint.
I read the book twice that year. The second time I imagined Spillane's own curbstone-edged voice doing the first-person narration. It fit. My God, it fit. As an actor he didn't have the line-reading skills of a pro, but he had authenticity and a distinctive charm.
Robert Aldrich's Spillane adaptation "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) has stature as a late-noir post-modernist metafictional commentary on the detective genre. Prophetically, Aldrich filmed it before most of those adjectives had meaning. However, only "The Girl Hunters" accurately conveys the feel of Mickey Spillane's fiction.
Aldrich and actor Ralph Meeker present a private eye opportunist seen from the outside--brutal, energetic, eyes on the main chance, cunning rather than bright. He's too large for his suit, a hustler busting out of his own clothes and the place he has in the world. A sly comment on slick, 1950's grassroots capitalist greed.
"The Girl Hunters" and star Spillane give you Mike Hammer the way he sees himself--reasonable, but dedicated; taking care of business the way he needs to in an uneasy environment. A solid citizen, good to friends, but "someone terrible", a civic benefactor with a .45 under his coat and the will to use it.
The only major difference I recall between book and screenplay comes when Hammer enters the tough waterfront bar where he's not welcome. The novel has a routine fight at the door. The movie shows Mike out-menace the ice pick- wielding bouncer while displaying his trademark homicidal grin, "the one with all the teeth."
Interestingly, Lloyd Nolan, the white-haired Fed in the film, portrayed Brett Halliday's detective Mike Shayne in seven movies for 20th Century-Fox in the 1940's. You might check out the DVD package. Its features discuss Halliday's books, solid mass market hardboiled mysteries.
Spillane took this type of urban adventurer and invigorated him with the Old Testament rigidity of Stonewall Jackson, Jack Dempsey's love of hands-on violence, and the populist wrath of a John Brown. His far more gutsy, hugely selling novels wove working class attitudes into fiercely climaxing revenge fantasies. The on-screen fight in "The Girl Hunters" between Hammer and the Dragon had no equal for pitiless savagery in 1963.
In 1923 Carroll John Daly put the first hardboiled wise-cracking private detective into pulp magazine print. He represents a different stream from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Daly's action tales have roots in rough-and-ready American culture. The big-talking river raftsmen in HUCKLEBERRY FINN and the folk yarns of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill display the same out-sized swagger as Daly's private eye Race Williams.
Williams admitted that he could walk into a room filled with clues and not find a single one. His style of detecting was to fling open the door and start shooting, then sort things out as they flew. Spillane read and admired Daly, writing him a revealing fan letter after achieving success.
Spillane gave the Race Williams bumptious folk hero contemporary visceral impact. He described his work as "the chewing gum of American literature". However, his books do more than exercise eye muscles.
America's classic paranoid rant remains the same for rich and poor, Left and Right: Somewhere, somehow, someone is doing me dirt and I won't stand for it any longer! From 1947 to 1952 Mike Hammer shot men and women, kicked the guilty as well as the innocent, and broke teeth other than his own exorcising that rage. He came back after a decade in THE GIRL HUNTERS novel, which focuses our smoldering abstract anger on a world-girdling spy ring at the service of the international Communist conspiracy.
Thank God it can be thrown into disarray by a lone American woman loose in the Soviet Union. (To learn what happens to Velda, the invisible Maguffin, read the book's direct sequel THE SNAKE.) Thank Him again that we have a howitzer-packing rogue private eye who can shrug off seven years of drunken debilitation (and repeated merciless beatings from a former best friend) to get ugly with foreign assassins nestled in our midst.
Philosopher Ayn Rand named Spillane in her Objectivist newsletter as her favorite author. Why? His stories did not deal in moral grey areas. Bad was black, good was white. She liked that. Yet the truth of Spillane's fiction has more twists.
Mike Hammer himself knows that he's a kill-crazy psycho. If you read nothing else of Mickey Spillane's, you might take time for the first chapter of ONE LONELY NIGHT. Hammer spends the rest of that book brooding over why a woman he has just saved from a gunman jumps to her death in an icy river after taking one searching look at the expression on his face.
He comes to the soul-soothing epiphany that he's a killer designed by nature to kill killers. That's his destiny. He's a walking American revenge machine, a wish-fulfillment figure from the unquiet depths of our national psyche.
"The Girl Hunters" presents this raw-hewn character straight, without any intermediary meddling. However you may like the approaches taken by Ralph Meeker or Armando Assante or Stacey Keach, the movie's credits have it right--Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer. The Hammer on the page is a foot taller than Spillane on screen; otherwise they're identical.