Sunday, June 23, 2024

I, the Jury (1953)

I, the Jury was the first movie adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel. It’s a movie with a less than stellar reputation and it does have its problems. It also has some very real virtues.

It starts with the murder of a guy named Jack. Jack and Mike Hammer had been buddies in the army. Jack had saved Hammer’s life. Hammer doesn’t forget stuff like that. He’s going to avenge Jack’s murder no matter what the price. This is typical Spillane stuff - giving Hammer a personal stake in a case. Hammer is a dangerous guy anyway but when he has a personal grudge to settle he’s extra dangerous.

Hammer’s pal, Homicide Captain Pat Chambers (Preston Foster) knows this. He’s going to set things up so the killer will go after Mike. That will flush the killer out into the open. Pat doesn’t feel guilty about this. Mike knows the score. Mike wants the killer to come after him.

The only lead is a party. The murderer was probably at that party.

Mike is sure that Jack had stumbled onto something really big. A major racket.

In the course of this case Hammer encounters quite a few women. He knows how dangerous dames can be. Jack’s ex-junkie girlfriend Myrna (Frances Osborne) probably knows something. Maybe the Bellamy twins, Mary and Esther (played by real-life identical twin sisters Tani and Dran Seitz), know something. They’re very very rich and a bit on the decadent side. Mary is a nymphomaniac.

More interesting to Mike is drop-dead gorgeous lady psychoanalyst Charlotte Manning (Peggie Castle). He’s not interested in being psychoanalysed by her but he would be interested in doing other things with her. She’s quite a woman.

There’s a racketeer named Kalecki (Alan Reed) and his young college student friend Hal Kines (Bob Cunningham). There’s a crazy guy named Bobo (Elisha Cook Jr). There’s another racketeer. There’s a girl named Elaine. She’s a dance instructress. There’s the couple running the dance studio. There’s her dad, a country vet who is bitter because his daughter has gone bad. All of these people could be mixed up in whatever racket it was that Jack had uncovered.

The plot twists and turns in ways that are not always satisfactory. We’ll get back to that later. Suffice to say that if you worry too much about the plot your head will start spinning. It doesn’t matter. You can enjoy this movie if you just wallow in the atmosphere and the visuals.

I, the Jury
was shot in 3-D. I have no idea how it looks in 3-D but the flat version on Blu-Ray looks fabulous. As you would expect. The cinematography is by John Alton, possibly the greatest cinematographer of all time. And since it’s done by Alton it looks very very noir.

Biff Elliot’s performance as Mike Hammer produces sharply divided opinions. I like it. He’s very good good at getting across Hammer’s bull in a china shop approach to investigating (basically you just start throwing punches until somebody starts talking) and Hammer’s unsophisticated working-class background. Hammer is the kind of guy who likes hot dogs, drinking beer, ball games and going to the fights. He has a sensitive side but he’s very much a rough diamond.

Peggie Castle plays Dr Armstrong as a very glamorous lady who might or might not be very dangerous. As the Bellamy twins the Seitz twins ooze sex. On the whole the acting is fine.

The big problem here is the Production Code. Spillane revitalised the PI genre by adding a lot more violence, sex, sleaze and general depravity. Adapting his books whilst staying with the rigid guidelines of the Production Code was simply impossible.

And it is a real problem with this movie. Every single element that drives the plot was forbidden by the Code. As a result the plot of the movie makes zero sense. The motivations of the characters make zero sense. At one point there’s a double murder but it comes totally out of left field with no possible motive or reason. All it does is make the movie more confusing. Of course there was a reason for the double murder but the script wasn’t allowed even to offer a hint as to what the motive might be. Elaine’s father is incredibly angry and bitter about what has happened to his daughter, but when we meet the daughter she seems totally respectable and has a totally legitimate respectable job. The script wasn’t even permitted to offer a hint as to why her father thought she was a girl gone wrong.

When we get the final revelation of the nature of the major racket that is behind everything it’s simply ridiculous. We have to believe that Hammer is justified in acting as an avenging angel but the criminal activities are actually pretty innocuous and certainly not evil. We have to believe that Hammer’s desire for vengeance is justified but in fact the chief villain hasn’t really done anything particularly evil. The most unintentionally funny moment is when the cops raid the dance studio. The movie has gone to elaborate lengths to make it crystal clear that this is a totally respectable dance studio and that there is absolutely nothing illegal or immoral going on there. And then we see about thirty cops arrive to raid the place. Are they looking for people doing the tango without a licence?

Of course in the book it all makes sense. The criminal conspiracy is all about drug trafficking and prostitution. But the Production Code Authority would not allow the movie even to acknowledge that such shocking things exist.

You get the impression when watching this film that screenwriter Harry Essex was desperately trying to add subtle hints and suggestions of subtext in order to make sense of everything but that at every step he was thwarted by the Production Code Authority. This is another case of a potentially great movie wrecked by the Production Code.

There is still a lot to enjoy here. Biff Elliot’s interesting take on Hammer, Peggie Castle’s sizzling performance, Alton’s superlative cinematography, great noir atmosphere, are all reasons to watch. The fight scenes are frequent, brutal and extremely well done. I recommend this movie despite its very real flaws.

The Cult Epics Blu-Ray looks great.

I’ve reviewed Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury, the 1947 source novel. I’ve reviewed The Girl Hunters (1963), with Spillane himself playing Mike Hammer. And the surprisingly gritty Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-60) TV series.

1 comment:

  1. Kalecki and Kines seem to be in a very obvious gay "kept man" relationship. They're even referred to as "playmates" at one point. It's strange that this aspect seemed to have escaped the censors more than the more conventionally scandalous plot points.