Filmed in less than three weeks, this is a film noir detective story not to be missed. Based on a novel by Mickey Spillane, the dialogue is snappy and wise-cracking, and always entertaining. It’s the ultimate pulp fiction.
The opening sequence is one of my favorites. Before any credits role, we see bare feet running down a highway at night. Next up we meet Mike Hammer, slamming on his breaks so as not to hit the barefoot woman, saying, “You almost wrecked my car. Well? Get in.” We’re immediately hooked.
From here on in, the movie is fast-paced action with a plot that is not spoon-fed. It’s difficult to review the movie without giving anything away, but the film should be viewed without any previous knowledge and information for the full impact. Shocking murders take place but not in the bloody Quentin Tarantino sense. The scenes will stay with you but not give you nightmares.
Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer to perfection. He’s a sleazy bedroom detective, a tough guy who relishes a bit of violence. After picking up the running feet, he becomes further and further entangled in nefarious and mysterious activities. We follow along with him as he tries to figure things out, and just maybe get a piece of the action. It’s a brutal world and Hammer is not uncomfortable in it.
Cloris Leachman has her film debut as the running feet. Albert Dekker is a perfectly sinister Dr. Soberin. Maxine Cooper is well played as Hammer’s Girl Friday, and look for villains, Jack Lambert and Jack Elam, early in their careers. Paul Stewart, Marian Carr, and Wesley Addy also have notable roles. Percy Helton has a memorable part as Doc Kennedy; you won’t forget his screams. And Gaby Rodgers? You won’t see her anywhere else because she had two movie roles and only a few TV appearances. But you will remember her. And here’s a Gaby piece of trivia: she co-wrote the popular country-western song “Jackson.”
The black and white cinematography of Ernest Lazlo is spot-on, crisp and atmospheric. Aldrich’s direction is taut and he never lets up with the story. Hitchcock had his “MacGuffins”, and much later Tarantino had his Briefcase. In between the two, Aldrich introduces us to his “Great Whatsit.” So step into the world of Mike Hammer as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and stay alive.
“What did they pay you? I’ll top it.”
“You can’t top this: they said they’d let me breathe.”