Judge Victor Valdivia is a cynical, hardboiled detective. In fact, he doesn't even trust himself.
Our review of Mike Hammer, Private Eye: The Complete Series, published August 17th, 2005, is also available.
In these concrete canyons, everyone's got a story.
Writer Mickey Spillane created Mike Hammer as the quintessential hardboiled private eye, but even within those parameters, it's hard to overstate just how remarkable Hammer was as a character. He was the most hardboiled of hardboiled detectives, and even by tough guy standards, his aggression, violence, and misanthropy made him easily as hated as he was loved. With all that, you might expect that Mike Hammer would make for a great character to adapt to television and film. Sadly, as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer: The Complete Series demonstrates, you would be wrong.
Facts of the Case
Mike Hammer (Darren McGavin, A Christmas Story) is a tough-talking, hard-fighting, pistol-packing private detective in New York City. He takes on the toughest cases, the meanest mugs, and the flashiest dames in the city, all while finding time to recap every experience in detail. This set compiles all seventy-eight episodes on twelve discs.
Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer remains one of the most enduring and influential characters in popular culture. Even by hardboiled detective standards, Mike Hammer was the most violent, most aggressive, most cynical detective in pop culture at the time. He was smart and resourceful, but he was also excessively brutal and his misanthropy was frequently accused of crossing the line into outright racism and misogyny. Ever since Spillane published his first Mike Hammer novel I, the Jury in 1947, Hammer has remained hugely controversial. Even Spillane's fans can find parts of his books difficult to defend, although their ferocious energy is undeniable.
All of which, however, serves to obscure a crucial point: what makes Mike Hammer such an enduring character is due almost entirely to Spillane's writing. Spillane's prose, so lurid and pulpy that it may as well be published on grubby newsprint, translates poorly to other mediums. It's why none of the countless film and TV adaptations of Spillane's novels have ever really captured the appeal of Mike Hammer. Without Spillane's unvarnished writing, all that remains are his plots and characterization, and those are easily the least interesting parts of his work.
Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer continues this losing streak. The problem isn't Darren McGavin; he makes a solid choice for the title character, with his gruff voice and cut-the-crap manner. The problem is that the mysteries Hammer is given to solve are pretty duff stuff, even for the era. Cheating spouses, missing relatives, ex-cons who may or may not be going straight—these are your generic detective show plots. There are no recurring storylines or even returning characters. Every episode consists of Hammer getting a case, getting into a minor fistfight or two, solving the case, and romancing a dame. The only significant additions are the bits of narration that Hammer recites to fill in details on each case, but these are not as interesting as they could be, because they're dull recitations of facts rather than hardboiled riffs on detective work.
If anything, what this series makes clear is that adapting Spillane's work to television, especially 1950s television, was an ill-considered idea. This is by far the most neutered version of Mike Hammer ever depicted, with none of the purple language, violent misanthropy, or two-fisted savagery present in the books. The worst that can be said about Mike Hammer here is that he's a little cranky at times, and how is that suitable for a hardboiled detective? Without Spillane's writing and his venom, Mike Hammer becomes a decent but not particularly noteworthy detective series of the era.
The episode titled "Dead Men Don't Dream" typifies the show's watered-down approach. It centers on Hammer trying to find out who murdered his boyhood friend, a shopkeeper in his old neighborhood. The idea, apparently, is to humanize Hammer by showing him taking a case for free purely for noble reasons. It's an adequate episode, with a couple of fistfights and some decent detective work, but the story is pretty hackneyed and the "twists" are so obvious that any reasonable viewer will be able to see them coming from miles away. Maybe Fifties audiences were much less sophisticated (although that's debatable), but by today's standards it just seems rather tame. It's certainly a far cry from Hammer at his violent, cynical worst and it makes this series rather pointless.
A&E has done a pretty good job with this DVD set. There's an onscreen disclaimer warning viewers that the video quality may not be great, but for the most part the episodes look surprisingly good for their age. There's some damage here and there, but these are generally pretty good. The stereo mix is also well-done, easily audible, and well-balanced. There are no extras at all.
Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer is not a terrible show; in terms of old detective shows, it's an agreeable time-filler. The problem is that it doesn't capture much of what made Mike Hammer such a remarkable character. It's so mild and formulaic that it could be about any private detective in NYC, which means it may as well not be about Mike Hammer at all. If you're a detective series completist, you might want to check out a disc or two, but if you really want to appreciate Mike Hammer, start with Spillane's novels, especially his first one. That makes a better (and cheaper) introduction to Mike Hammer than this set.
Guilty of not capturing what makes Mike Hammer such a significant
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