If you’ve never seen this Robert Aldrich-produced and directed film noir masterpiece, drop what you’re doing (well, unless you’re operating heavy machinery or in the middle of something where dropping anything will cause a major or minor disaster) and go look this one up. You’re guaranteed to say something like “What the…” at least two or three (or a dozen) times while watching this one, trust me. Mike Hammer is supposed to be a hard as nails private eye, but in this flick, he spends about a quarter of the film either getting chased, beaten up, shot at and otherwise maimed by assorted people who want him out of the picture he’s supposed to be starring in.
Deviating quite dramatically from the Mickey Spillane novel, this one’s a blazing hot mix of a downward spiral into a particularly dark hell for private eye Mike Hammer (masterfully played by Ralph Meeker), who has so many brushes with death here that the film ends up having a nasty comic edge thanks to the level of violence on display. No one here escapes unscathed, as everyone either wants Hammer dead or disabled (or both) and the few people on his side tend to drop like flies or come pretty close to it. The film also offers up a big twist at the end that turns it into a sort of wild sci-fi flick, but I won’t spoil that surprise other than to say it’s a big reason the film is so insanely brilliant…
Then again, when your movie starts off with its credits rolling in reverse followed by a lady in a trenchcoat running for her life barefoot down a highway (and yes, that’s Cloris Leachman!), you’re in for a wild ride. KMD doesn’t disappoint at all, getting Hammer to pick up the girl only to have them both get into a little accident thanks to the men chasing her. Fortunately, Hammer survives (the gal doesn’t) and he’s soon hot on the trail to find out who the mystery lady was and why she was killed. This leads to a meeting with the attractive but very off-kilter “roomate” of the deceased named Lily Carver (Gaby Rogers) who’s posing in order to get Hammer to help her recover a mysterious box that a whole lot of other people seem to want for some odd reason.
Hammer’s poor secretary/lover, Velda (Maxine Cooper) gets caught up in all the mess at one point and you end up feeling sorrier for her than Hammer, as at least he can take a punch to the jaw. She’s a tough chick indeed, but the men after Mike aren’t nice guys and Velda ends up in danger and in need of rescue. Of course, Mike is mixed up with Lily (who turns out not to be Lily) and by the time he realizes Velda is in danger, the film is racing to its crazy conclusion. Will he make it to Velda and solve the mystery of what’s in the box? Yeah, you can go read a more in-depth review elsewhere, but I live on SUSPENSE Street, so I’m keeping you on the corner for that bus that’s not coming because it’s on the other block…
In the novel, that box was full of dope, but here… well, you’ll just have to find out, ladies and gents. The film tosses a bunch of clues your way with a scientist, a scene with the box in a locker room (it’s literally too hot to handle!) and some choice dialog, but it’s the clueless nature of most of the characters (including Hammer) that helps propel the film forward at every moment. As a few attempts are made on Hammer’s life, there’s some great action scenes where you can almost feel that punch to the gut or tumble to the hard pavement. As noted, it’s a great thing to see Hammer not an invincible uber-man in this film, as he’s beaten up pretty badly during his case and even gets shot in a surprising scene. At one point when watching this for the fourth or fifth time, this time with a few friends who hadn’t seen it yet, one looked my was and quipped “You know, Hammer needs to call a detective so he can find out who’s trying to kill the hell out of him.” Indeed.
As for that socko finale, it’s a total killer (in more ways than one, folks) that still works and works even better as current prints of the film restore the original ending that packs more of a punch than the cut some saw many years back that was a wee bit too tough to decipher as to what exactly happened to everyone. Then again, according to a few things I’ve read that chop job finale seems to have led to what would later be known as “French New Wave” cinema thanks to budding directors there taking notes and thinking the film’s more nihilistic closing was something truly fantastic to see in a genre that was more or less on its last legs. If you can find it, I’d recommend seeing this on a double feature with 1963’s somewhat wretched but fun The Girl Hunters, which features Spillane himself as Mike Hammer (and yeah, it’s not a great film, but you’ll probably laugh a few times just from the absurdity of it all).