Film Noir

Film criticism for movie fans who want to think again about their cine thrills.

GANGSTERS AND HARD CASES

38 MIKE HAMMER

Kiss Me Deadly, 1955, USA, Director Robert Aldrich

Do I mind you smoking?  You’re kidding me.  Of course I’ll have a cigarette with you.  Believe me, in my time I’ve had a lot more to worry about than Mike Hammer.  Me, I would describe the man as direct.  Mike didn’t make concessions to no one.  First, he wanted to know what was in it for him, and, second, he was rude to anyone that tried to mess him around.  There are plenty of people who just don’t get the idea or have their own messages.  When that happened Mike could be handy with his fists, and I’d be lying if I said throwing his weight about didn’t appeal to him.  Mike and me were different but we liked one another.   He was a good man to have on your side even if we clashed about what was the right thing to do.  

Mike Hammer had this idea he could take the law into his own hands.  I told him the police department couldn’t and didn’t tolerate that kind of thing and we wouldn’t, even if he could scrape the dollars for a Batman cape.   Mike hadn’t even heard of Batman.  He was offended by me mentioning comic books.  More than once Velda claimed his taste was more sophisticated than his manner although I never saw Mike Hammer read a book.  He liked good music, though.  I remember that.  He had this reel to reel tape recorder on the wall but that wasn’t for music.  He used it for telephone messages, the first time I’d ever seen anything like that.

‘Pat,’ he used to say, ‘how the hell did you get to Lieutenant?’  I said the same thing to him every time.  ‘I do my job and listen to what I’m told.’  It made no difference.  Mike always wondered if I might be sucking up to the guys that ran the department.  Most of the time, though, Mike Hammer gave me the benefit of the doubt.  And when he took the law into his own hands I bawled him out but I always covered for the brute or I did as much as I could.  He took more knocks than he should have but that was because of the way he operated.  Mike was no Sherlock Holmes.  He liked to push people around and get his information that way.  And he did it because he could which meant he often pushed around people that already had enough problems.  Sometimes, though, he looked out for them.   He had a soft spot for this Greek mechanic that fixed the cars, not that it did the Greek guy any good.  Mike liked to drive fast convertibles but he had no idea what was under the hood.  My boss said something about how Mike Hammer was too interested in machines that had power he did not understand.  If only Mike had stayed away from fast cars and that cursed box that blew up all of Malibu beach.  

Mike Hammer may have been small-time but he won most of his battles.  Of course like everyone else in his line he had to do his share of divorce work.  The guys in the Crime Commission gave Mike a hard time over how he earned his living but a guy has to eat.  And the same went for Velda.  She led the husbands on because Mike asked her to and because the two timers were there to be led.  Did she sleep with the guys to get the grounds the wives needed for divorce?  I don’t think Mike would have let Velda do that.  He had a thing about the lady even if most of the time he kept her at a distance.   Mike Hammer didn’t like to mix business with pleasure although after he had been put into hospital for three days he did weaken and let Velda get close.  Looking back, in view of what happened, I’m glad he did.  Mike and Velda were entitled to a little comfort before they died.  I wonder if Velda would have led the husbands so far if Mike had paid her more attention.

Of all the guys to get cancer I thought Mike would have been the last in the queue. Losing out to cancer was not in the script for two fisted Mike Hammer.  Do I think it had something to do with the explosion on Malibu beach?  You’re kidding me.  First, both Mike and Velda died of high grade leukaemia, second, the whole of Malibu beach and a lot more besides was turned to cinder.  How the fire department even got Mike and Velda out of the ocean is beyond me.  It must have been all hands to the pump or in this case pumps.  

I know the rumours, how Mike Hammer and Velda are supposed to be up there in New York doing their best to clean up the city and avenge the victims they find.  Let’s try to talk sensibly.  First, I like the stories as much as anyone.  Second, Mike is as old as me and I’ve been retired for a decade.  Even if he was alive he wouldn’t be walking the streets and fighting criminals, more likely making coffee for Velda.  Third, Mike and Velda went to New York for hospital treatment.  That was the only reason.  The doctors back East said the same as out here, high grade leukaemia.  Fourth, not only has no one been allowed on Malibu beach since it happened, the highway past Malibu is still blocked off.  What was in that box may not have quite blown up the world but we are talking about serious radiation. There is more chance of JFK being alive than Mike Hammer.

Mike and me would have the odd beer together.  I was a cop that went by the rules.  Mike had his own code.  A beer helped us forget our arguments.  There was this jazz joint in Bunker Hill he liked, and, you know something, the folk in that place liked him.  The club had this lady singer.  She sang this tune that Mike liked, something about rather having the blues than what you’ve got.  There was plenty of work in Los Angeles in the fifties and plenty of clubs and bars.  People had money to spend but they had plenty to worry about as well.  There were unwashed beatniks, and kids were going to hell.  We had all this stuff with the Russians and nuclear bombs.  On the TV we had to watch programmes about how to build bunkers for the nuclear fallout.  And for those who didn’t want to think about such things one of our neighbourhoods was called Bunker Hill except all the mansions up there were being used as flop houses. 

California has plenty of beaches and plenty of sunshine but we had enough sad cases renting rooms out in Bunker Hill for cops like me to wonder about our supposed good times.  I’ve worked in the LAPD all my life, and that’s the difference between Mike and me but what we had in common was what we saw.  And that was the crooks for whom good times would never be enough and the losers living lives as lonely as the dollars in their pockets.   See that everyday and you wonder if the old blues might just be better than what you’ve got.

I wonder if all that had something to do with why Mike couldn’t let go of the business with Christina Bailey.  In the beginning Mike thought there was money in it for him but when I told him that the government was involved he still continued poking his nose around which surprised me.  The whole business was weird.  Mike takes a phone call from a science fiction journalist that has disappeared, and I’m told to bring Mike into line because there is a missing box that is a serious leftover from the Manhattan Project.  But women make a difference to everything.  Picking up a woman wearing nothing but a trench coat is something you don’t forget, especially when it happens in the middle of the highway late at night.  Mike couldn’t abide anyone that killed a woman, especially if the man got away with it.  Hearing Christina Bailey tortured the way he did would have affected Mike.  And he was frantic when Velda disappeared. 

 It’s true.  He did hand over to me the key to the locker where he found the box.  Mike was like me.  First, we are Americans, and second, we don’t like commies.  The Russians have a nuclear bomb, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have ten is the way I see it.  Let’s keep the world safe.  Mike wouldn’t have crossed the government and his country.   The bad news for Mike was that the bad guys got to the box before we could.  Who were the bad guys and how did they get hold of the box in the first place?  Plenty of important people have been curious.  We’ll never know.  The head guy was rumoured to have been a doctor.  A guy in a bar said something odd to me the other day.  Imagine, he said, one of these days we’ll blow up the planet in a nuclear war.  No one will be left, and no one will know who is to blame because everyone will be dead.  I’ve thought a lot about what he said.  We couldn’t point a finger at who caused what happened at Malibu, so a whole apocalypse would leave no trace.  It doesn’t seem right that afterwards no one will be able to say who caused the end of the world.  I just hope that I’m not around.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here. 

GANGSTERS AND HARD CASES

37 MAL GRAINGER

711 Ocean Drive, 1950, USA, Director Joseph M Newman

Mal always had a plan.  He even had a plan for little old me, Gail Mason.   The first time Mal looked at me something registered in his eyes.   No doubt desire was in there but you could see right from the beginning, even before Mal held you in his arms, that he was making a plan, calculating the next steps.  That was why Mal Grainger liked money so much, why he took it so seriously.  Money gave his brain something to count.  Trudy Maxwell was the accountant that Mal used to help him run his wire service.  I liked Trudy and for a while I felt bad about her because I thought Mal had thrown Trudy over for me.  But then I met Trudy and realised she was the one that had said farewell to Mal.   But for a while Mal played around with Trudy, and she will tell you the same as me.  The first time he looked into her eyes she knew he had a plan and it made her curious.  Some men are like that, somehow you believe what is behind their eyes.  Mal didn’t have the prettiest eyes.  He wasn’t what I would call handsome.  You know what I was thinking when we were trying to escape from the police across the Boulder Dam?  Why am I doing all this with a guy that I know will go fat and isn’t even handsome?  The truth is that Mal Grainger had eyes that made promises.

Darling, there is not a man I’ve known that at some point I wished I hadn’t met.   If I’d been different, had a less affluent family, perhaps I’d have met some decent man with not that much money in his pocket but a heart of gold.  But I grew up surrounded by money and the men responsible for that money.  The only advice I had came from wives that had rich husbands.  In that world you don’t have as many options as people think.  Lieutenant, you need to interrupt more.  I’m beginning to sound as if I feel sorry for myself.  

Maybe that was why I indulged Mal.  Alright, why I found him attractive.   He looked like someone whose eyes couldn’t lie.   And the truth is that most of the time his eyes didn’t although Mal did string me along for a while after he had Larry killed.  Larry was my husband, and, if I was not sitting here facing two detectives because of that plan Mal had, I would say Larry was the biggest mistake in my life.  I did lose some enthusiasm for Mal after Larry was killed but Larry had raised his fists to me.   I know that seeing me bruised and lying in a hospital bed had upset Mal although I was also aware that Mal was sore about the money the syndicate was skimming off the wire service that he operated.  And by then we needed one another.  I told myself that if we could get away from Los Angeles and Vegas it would be different.  The problem was that Mal came up with a plan to take back some of the money the syndicate had robbed from his wire service.  The truth is Mal Grainger died because he had one plan too many although we must not forget the contribution of our fine trigger happy policemen.  

We already had two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and that was enough for any pair of sweethearts to start a new life, even if one of those sweethearts had my background.  I told Mal that in Guatemala, which was where Mal decided we should live, we could live on that kind of money forever.  Chippie, who was this sweet little man who brought Mal into the wire service, said the same.  Mal thought differently.  What happened to Chippie.  The syndicate is what happened to Chippie.  No one sees Chippie around anymore because he isn’t around.  I’m afraid, darling, it’s as simple as that.

The syndicate is what happened to us all.  Carl Stephans was as smooth and as sinister as the men I knew back home.  No, dear, his name is not Carl Stephens.  It’s Stephans.  His parents were South African but Carl sounded more English than anything.  He claimed he was connected to really important people back in South Africa which was probably why he sounded so English.  Charming or not, Carl Stephans had people killed.  I can’t say I heard him say murder this man or that man.  I do know certain people disappeared.  Perhaps I could identify some faces from your files.  I’ve always been good with faces.  Not so good with eyes but good with faces. 

I’m afraid, dear, that I don’t know much but I do know that Stephans took over the business that Mal ran.  Carl already had a business that stretched from back east to Kansas but he wanted to run a coast to coast wire service.  Lieutenant, none of these men can be criticised for a lack of ambition.  Indeed, Carl Stephans had a really big plan.  That’s the problem with men.  Too many men have plans but, darling, I wouldn’t like a man without one.  

Not all the syndicate men had the best table manners but I am glad to say that, whatever faults Larry had, he didn’t embarrass you at the dinner table.  Larry did struggle with sentences which was why he could be dull company.  Carl Stephans was different.   He had an opinion about everything and he was charming.  I’m sorry, darling.  Is this boring you?  I am cooperating.  Of course I’ve realised I aided and abetted a murderer but I didn’t know that at the time.  I’m truly sorry Mal set up the trick with the phones to deceive you, Lieutenant.  I didn’t know his plan was to convince you that he wasn’t here in LA and he was making his call from Palm Springs. And I had no idea that Mal had committed a murder.  I just assumed he was in trouble over the wire service.  He was the man in my life, and I helped him.  I didn’t even know what I was doing.  I put two telephones next to an amplifier.  It was all too technical for me, dear.   No, I haven’t been talking to my lawyer.  I am cooperating.  Being cooperative is in my nature. 

You mean in the sense that sweet Trudy worked, perform tasks and have a boss that pays you a salary?  No, women from families like mine don’t do that kind of thing.  I collect rich men and drink more than I should.  No, I’m not proud of myself.  Men or money, I’m not sure who or which makes the biggest promises or tells the biggest lies.  I never told lies to Mal and I doubt Trudy did either.  Mal was lucky that way because there are plenty of men and women out there telling lies to each other every day.  Mal was unlucky because he believed money could solve all your troubles.  Chippie knew Mal when he worked for the telephone company.   Chippie said Mal was likeable back then.  Mal used to give some of his money to the guys who had families to raise.  Not much but something.   Chippie said that Mal never took a full wage packet home.  When I heard the story I thought how sweet.  But even back then Mal thought the solution to everything was money.   Once the wire service was making huge profits Mal became mean with his money.  Trudy warned him but Mal had to raise the price of his wire service.  Some of the bookmakers that used his wire service went bankrupt but that was of no concern to Mal.  That was the point when I should have walked away from Mal but I didn’t.  There was an exception, this deaf and dumb guy that once fixed one of his cars.  Mal lent him a couple of thousand so that the deaf and dumb guy could set up a business and work with honest people for a change.  I heard the deaf and dumb guy went back home to north of Sacramento somewhere and he set up a garage in the mountains. 

To be honest what happens with the wire service baffles me.  Of course, darling, I know how it operates.  The company running the wire service owns the equipment that delivers the results to the bookmakers and sends it over the wire quick enough to stop punters that know the winners putting bets on before the bookies have received the result.  But even though Mal explained it all to me, stuff about transmitters, telephones and the rest, I still don’t know what equipment they used and how it works.  But what baffled me more was how people like Mal and Carl Stephans made so much money from just running a wire service.   There are that many bookmakers in California?  I didn’t know that.  Carl, of course, had the coast to coast operation.  He was really rich.  Mal said that the wire service was legitimate, that there was nothing illegal about passing information on from the racetracks.  It doesn’t seem right, something legal being run by gangsters.  Yes, of course, there is the money.  It explains so much, doesn’t it, darling?  But if the wire service is an honest business, why haven’t honest businessmen come along and provided an alternative wire service?  Lieutenant, I understand people like Carl Stephans know how to intimidate competitors but there are ruthless men running rich and powerful companies in this country.   I suppose you’re right.  These people do talk to one another and they will concoct their plans.  Meanwhile the poor scrimp and scheme.  And call me stupid but if people can bet at the race tracks why not let them bet with a bookmaker?  What’s the difference?  No, I don’t suppose that will ever happen.   Ah, my lawyer has arrived.  Thank you, Lieutenant, thank you for opening the door.  A lady likes a courteous man.   Who are those two old people waiting by the desk?  They haven’t done anything wrong, I hope.  They are the parents of Mal.   Oh dear, I didn’t expect that they would look so poor.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here.