Review: Mike Hammer: The Complete Series DVD

STUDIO: A&E | DIRECTOR: Boris Sagal, William Witney, others | CAST: Darren McGavin, Bart Burns, Vito Scotti
RELEASE DATE: 9/20/2011 | PRICE: DVD $89.95
BONUSES: none
SPECS: NR | 33 hours | Television mystery | 1:33 fullscreen | Dolby Digital stereo | no subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a Cold War creation — a brutal private eye who went his own way and has little resemblance to the chivalrous “urban knights” created earlier by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The character was wonderfully subverted by Robert Aldrich in the noir-to-end-all-noirs Kiss Me Deadly (1955). But how could Hammer be depicted in the relatively staid medium of 1950s television?

Mike Hammer scene

Darren McGavin gets his point across as Mike Hammer.

This ample 12-DVD collection answers that question with a resounding “very carefully.” The 1958-59 half-hour Mike Hammer series that starred future Night Stalker Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story) dispensed with the sadism and lurid sexual content that typified Spillane’s novels (and made for some very memorable paperback covers), opting instead to dote on the cases that Hammer had to solve.

The producers of the TV series knew what the public expected of the character, however, and so just about every one of the 78 episodes found in this DVD set has at least one two-fisted donnybrook — some executed by stunt men and some where it appears that McGavin did his own stunt work (again, very carefully).

The single strongest carryover from the Spillane novels will fascinate, annoy or amuse 21st century viewers — namely Mike’s egomaniacal flirting with the dames he encounters everywhere he goes. Hammer’s sexist come-ons are a hoot (for those who aren’t offended by such things), and McGavin delivers them with a sense of glee — not exactly a “tongue-in-cheek” performance (as the package proclaims, but with a tone that seems to acknowledge that Bogart and Alan Ladd he ain’t.

The plots are pretty standard stuff — half-mystery and half-police procedural — and are certainly streamlined to be neatly concluded in a mere 25 minutes. As with most vintage and classic TV shows, one of the most enjoyable aspects is seeing stars before they became stars. The guest roster includes a number of future TV leads, including Barbara Bain, Robert Vaughn, Ted Knight, Dick Van Patten, DeForest Kelley, Lorne Greene and most prominently, Angie Dickinson (in two episodes).

The DVD box contains no extras, but at 33 hours long, that can clearly be excused. Mike Hammer may not have the subversive edge of Johnny Staccato or the deep noir shadings of the Naked City TV series, but it will delight hard-boiled mystery fana looking for a “missing” TV series that contains none of the current era’s p.c./CSI/NCIS niceties.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”