“The Girl Hunters” (1963)
by A.J. Hakari
Though not often practiced, I can see the logic in casting an author in a filmed adaptation of their work. I’m not talking about Stephen King making cameos in the innumerable (and insufferable) mini-series he inspired but rather a writer taking on the main role, filling the shoes of an iconic character who brought him/her fame and fortune in the first place. This rare opportunity was bestowed upon Mickey Spillane, who was called upon to play his popular tough guy private eye Mike Hammer in 1963’s thriller The Girl Hunters. With his stocky build and intimate understanding of his anti-hero’s inner workings, it’d make sense to give him a shot as one of the fiercest flatfoots in literature…if only his acting weren’t as wrinkled as Hammer’s trusty trenchcoat. As a straight detective noir, The Girl Hunters is nothing to write home about, and its average assemblage of thugs blasting up dark alleyways isn’t exactly helped by Spillane’s sub-par chops as a performer. It’s not enough to ruin the flick, but in the back of your mind, seeing a guy unable to inject a whole lot of passion into the very words he helped write never ceases to bug the hell out of you.
As our story opens, Mike Hammer is in a sorry state. He abandoned the gumshoe racket years ago, having carved out a new home in the bottom of a bottle ever since the disappearance of his beloved secretary/paramour, Velda. But as it turns out, the past ain’t through with Hammer, as the cops haul him out of the latest gutter he’s passed out into and thrust him onto a new case with some old ties. It appears as though an undercover federal agent has beckoned him to his deathbed, claiming that not only is Velda alive but that the assassin who struck him down is coming after her next. Rejuvenated with the possibility of seeing his gal Friday again, Hammer sobers up and hits the streets, searching for any clue to her whereabouts in hopes of spiriting her out of harm’s way. Our man’s investigation takes him from skeezy dive bars to the sprawling mansion of a dead politician’s wife (Shirley Eaton), racing to stay one step ahead of an internationally-feared killer codenamed the Dragon. The closer Hammer gets to finding Velda, the more he discovers just what’s at stake and how determined certain forces are to silence him for good if he kicks over the wrong rocks.
While certain aspects are quick to press the autopilot switch, one department in which The Girl Hunters really puts the pedal to the metal is mood. From the moment you hear the first note of the film’s forlorn jazz score, you’re instantly immersed within its somber atmosphere. Despite the surplus of locations Hammer’s quest takes him to, he can never shake that claustrophobic feeling, what with all the crowded bars he visits and seemingly every alleyway another chance for a hired gun to pop up and pop him off. Director Roy Rowland (Hit the Deck) pulls this off beautifully with the help of tight framing and perfect lighting, using whatever illumination that does pierce the inky black nightscapes as a spotlight shining directly on Hammer. When it comes to visuals, The Girl Hunters couldn’t be in better shape, and yet once it dives into the procedural side of the story, its grasp over one’s attention slowly but surely loosens. The plot isn’t necessarily inept, it’s just nothing we haven’t seen before and executed in a more exciting manner, to boot. It tries shaking up the standard detective thriller grind by introducing elements of espionage and secret government organizations, but at its center, it’s simply another narrative clothesline upon which the picture hangs a succession of thugs for Hammer to rough up and bullets to dodge.
It could also be that The Girl Hunters leans an awful lot on Hammer’s dedication to Velda to provide the meat of the story, and Spillane’s iffy performance makes it a pretty tough sell. As I mentioned earlier, he has the ideal look for Mike Hammer down pat — broad shoulders, square jaw, fearsome glare — yet his dialogue delivery remains equally flat and monotonous from scene to scene. Maybe it wouldn’t stand out so much, were it not for the fact that the actors surrounding him are doing such great jobs themselves, nicely fulfilling various noir archetypes while Spillane looks as if it’s a triumph just to tell someone to buzz off in one go. You could say that he’s playing Hammer as an everyman cutting through the crap while everyone else is acting up the clichés viewers expect out of movies of this type, but that still doesn’t excuse all the scenes where he couldn’t sound less concerned over the potential of the woman whose disappearance drove him to drink being alive after all. But again, we at least have a sturdy ensemble ready to reenact well-worn private eye tropes to the best of their abilities. Eaton fares well as the wild card who’s all too eager to woo Hammer off the trail, Lloyd Nolan is terrific as the G-man wise enough to mostly stay out of the gumshoe’s way, and real-life columnist Hy Gardner plays himself in a fun little cameo as a go-between Hammer turns to when there’s dirt that needs to be dug up.
Because of its unique casting, I’m sure The Girl Hunters will enjoy cult success amongst hard-boiled crime fans, and in all honesty, it’s really not that bad of a flick. But for as fantastic as its look is, it’s the ho-hum nature of the story and Spillane’s overly-grizzled performance that make it almost all for naught. For something that had as much involvement with the guy who created one of the toughest mothers in detective fiction as it did, that The Girl Hunters packs such a meager punch is a bummer.