July 3, 2009

I, THE JURY (1953)




Guys who get into a lot of fights, and win them, have a secret: Don’t hit a man in the jaw, or even on the nose. Hit him in the mouth, and hit him hard. People just have a thing about their teeth. If there’s a character anywhere in crime films that understands this, it’s Mike Hammer.


Hammer polarizes crime film enthusiasts. I’m drawn to the hard boiled elements of film noir so I guess that makes me a supporter. I can understand where others are coming from though: the chauvinism, the sadism, the relative uncouth vibe of Spillane’s writing is troublesome for many — Hammer is as quick to hit a woman as he is to kiss her, just look at the posters. Many prefer Bogart’s Sam Spade or Dick Powell’s Phillip Marlowe: tough guys for sure, but smart ones who’ll think their way out of a jam before they’ll dust knuckles. Hammer, as his name suggests, simply browbeats or bludgeons everyone involved until somebody finally tells him what he needs to know. Bogart’s Spade is practically omniscient, despite the aura of danger that seems to surround him, the impression is that he sees all the angles and stays two steps ahead. Hammer, a Joe who wears his war experience on his sleeve, has a different worldview and a different skill set. He doesn’t see the complexities of a situation and doesn't really care to. What’s left for him to trade in is violence, and since Hammer is a loner he’s always overmatched. You're never quite sure how things will turn out for him, and that’s what makes the character so exciting.


Hammer was a big screen debutante in 1953’s I, The Jury. Biff Elliot didn’t have much of a career in films, though he did work somewhat regularly in television. This role represented his big chance at stardom, and his long-forgotten status is an indication of how it worked out. Elliot just isn’t a very good actor and he lacks any kind of a memorable screen persona — the guy just wasn’t cut out for the lead. Peggie Castle, who is remembered more for her legs than her acting chops dances rings around him. By the final scene you are ready to throw an Oscar at her. It’s practically a shame as you can see that Biff is trying really hard — he gives it everything he has, but the performance is just too one-note to make a lasting impression — all huffing and puffing with a Boston-Irish lilt. It’s somehow ironic that he resembles Ben Affleck.


The film remains of interest however. It’s certainly an oddity in that it was presented in 3-D, though you’d never know to watch it today — the in-your-face shots that signify most 3-D movies are missing, so it’s unclear what the rush of seeing this in the theater would have been. Nevertheless cinematographer John Alton delivers as usual, with a few iconic P.I. shots (not surprising considering that Elliot makes it through almost the entire film without doffing his trench coat and fedora). Alton won an Oscar the previous year for his color work on An American in Paris, but he was capable of extraordinary black and white photography. He shot countless noir pictures, including the ultra-stylized Witness to Murder. Alton succeeds in creating a cohesive film noir vision, impressive considering he was forced to compose many shots just to mask the film’s low budget. For example, there are no wide shots to establish setting. Most of the scenes have Hammer entering or exiting through some door or window, but the camera never pulls back far enough to give the impression of where he actually is. Viewers would be left completely disoriented were it not for conveniently placed signs or plaques that read “Doctor’s Office” or “Police Headquarters.”


Alton really scores with a few shots in the film, and bookends the movie with crackerjack death scenes. The show opens with the murder that gets Hammer revved up. His pal is shot from a towel-wrapped .45 slipped barely-opened door. The guy drops to the floor like a sack of spuds, and the opening titles roll over his crumpled frame, as he struggles vainly towards the camera and his waiting shoulder-rig. It’s only when he begins his death-crawl that we can see he’s missing an arm — his prosthesis resting on the same rickety chair as his gun. Yet the subtlest use of Alton’s camera comes mid-film, as Hammer and Manning exit his office building. As they approach Mike’s car a sedan roars by, bullets peppering the wall around them. Taking their seats they notice a bullet hole in the windshield. As Castle settles into the passenger’s side, the vapor lamps cause the shadow of the bullet hole to come to rest coldly in the middle of her forehead.


The story also requires Mike to shuffle around Manhattan as well as a few rural suburbs. In one of those clever tricks to mask a low budget, still images of Christmas cards divide the scenes, their illustrations featuring a snow covered street or “Greetings From…” text that alerts the audience to Mike’s location. The charm of the cards also works to develop the noir sensibilities of the film — their message of good will and peace offering stark contrast to the atmosphere of impending violence that permeates the film, as does the ironic use of carols in the soundtrack to embellish the murder scenes.


The plot is simple: Jack Williams, Mike’s best buddy and former brother in arms, has been killed, and Hammer has to get to the bottom of it — with or without police assistance. He vows private justice over his pal’s corpse, thus the title: I, The Jury. Considering his vigilante stance, Hammer works surprisingly closely with the police, sharing and receiving information about the case; they in turn give him all the space he needs. Much of the film’s running time is used up following Hammer around greater New York, as he tracks down everyone who attended a party that Williams held just before his death. Hammer can’t be Hammer if there isn’t a girl around, and here it’s Peggie Castle as psychiatrist Charlotte Manning. The stunning Castle doesn’t exactly present a realistic picture of a mental health professional, but in 1953 female psychiatrists were still exotic creatures so audiences had to accept her at face value. Castle is way out of Elliot’s league and there’s no spark between them, which is something of a “happy accident” for the story considering that Charlotte’s play for Hammer is a ruse anyway — this is noir, remember. As Mike leapfrogs from one attendee to the next the bodies begin to pile up, until eventually the last person standing is the one he’s after. Along the way there’s plenty of violence and good Spillane dialog, including the film’s legendary final exchange between Hammer and Manning: “How could you?” “It was easy.”


Make no mistake, this isn’t Kiss Me Deadly. Though in defense of I, The Jury it’s a solidly watchable low-budget film noir with good direction, A-1 cinematography, a decent cast, and a lackluster yet still likable star. But warts and all, it’s also the first screen appearance of a crime fiction archetype as important as Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, and consequently worth seeking out. There is something primitively attractive about the way Spillane’s Mike Hammer approaches the world, and that’s what makes the character so appealing: He acts out all of those tough guy fantasies so common in American men, and in the end he gets the girl. What’s not to like?




I, The Jury (1953)

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Director: Harry Essex
Cinematographer: John Alton
Screenplay: Harry Essex
Starring: Biff Elliot, Peggie Castle. Elisha Cook has an unbilled bit part.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 87 minutes

7 comments:

  1. Great review. I'm gonna add the film to my NetFlix queue.

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  2. Hey Frank, Unfortunately this isn't available on DVD, for that matter neither is the 1983 remake with Armande Assante, though it airs every few months on Fox Movie Channel. I had to really scrounge to get an old copy from overseas. Hopefully some day.....

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  3. Great review. I'd love to see this some day. I read the novel when I was 15, and it had a big impact on me. The Armand Assante version from the '80s was disappointing. Little of the novel made it onto the screen, and it was so ludicrous it bordered on being a spoof, but this one sounds right up my alley.

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  4. I was hooked on the Mike Hammer books from the time I was 12. I agree that all the past films
    & TV Productions have not done justice to Mickey
    Spillane's character. I am hoping some day that
    a studio would take the time to capture the true
    essence of the novels.

    BJR

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  5. Nice!

    If I were King of Hollywood, one of my first projects would be to make the Mike Hammer books into black-and-white movies again, with the right Hammer. Ralph Meeker was an ok Hammer, but in L.A.? I liked Spillane himself in The Girl Hunters, and I like Assante when he's doing crazy like he can. Stacy Keach, no. I think Kevin Dobson came the closest. These days, watching Tom Selleck play a great Jesse Stone makes me want remakes with casting I like.

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  6. Great review, thanks! What's your take on why Spillane's wildly successful novels did so poorly on film? Also, is "I, The Jury" available on DVD or VCR yet?

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    Replies
    1. Hi Dan, I still don't think this has become available yet - I'm not sure what the holdup is. Same goes for 'The Long Wait' with Anthony Quinn. As for the success of the films, I think there are more concrete reasons: most importantly, they all tend to be B pictures, and second, films need a broader audience than books in order to be considered successful — so, with the way Spillane treats women, it's an uphill battle.

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