Tuesday, 11 June 2013

EAT YOUR HEART OUT QUENTIN TARANTINO: MY MICKEY SPILLANE INTERVIEW

 
NOTE: In the summer of 1999, Mickey Spillane arrived in London to be honoured by the late lamented Crime Scene festival at the NFT. He had just flown in from South Carolina, via Charlotte, that morning, and his BBC handler wanted to make sure I understood I had 45 minutes with Mickey, who was, after all, in his 80s. Then he would rest before taking a taxi to Broadcasting House for another interview. After 45 minutes, Mickey shooed the handler away, and I ran out of tape as we continued talking until, literally, he was being pushed into the taxi cab.Caspar Llewellyn-Smith ran what follows, my short version of the interview, in the Daily Telegraph that Saturday--I later transcribed the whole thing for Crime Time, and maybe I'll post that here sometime too; it's worth it!

I, THE JURY, Mickey Spillane’s 1947 best seller, boasts the most infamous ending in hard-boiled fiction. Mike Hammer knows the woman he loves has murdered his best friend. She is seducing him with a strip tease. She’s also reaching for a gun behind her back. Hammer plugs her in her naked belly with a slug from his .45.


How c-could you?" she gasped
I had only a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
"It was easy," I said.

Eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino. More than 50 years after writing those words, the king of pulp fictions is in London. Spillane's 81 years old, but his handshake could still crush a hoodlum’s trigger finger. He will deliver a Guardian Lecture tonight to keynote a season of crime films at the National Film Theatre, which includes the debut of a Spillane documentary directed by award-winning crime writer Max Allan Collins. "He was savaged by the critics," says Collins, "so Mickey developed this persona, entertainer and pitchman." 

And how. Interviewing Mickey is like saddling a bronco who refuses to be broken, and knows all the cowpunchers’ tricks. Ask about critics and he’ll tell you about interpreting between Salvador Dali and Jimmy Durante, who were both speaking English, more or less. Ask about politics and he’ll tell you about being shot from a circus cannon. There's no slowing down. And he’s still answering the inevitable questions about Mike Hammer’s violence with laughter.

"I tell them, you know why Mike shot that woman in the belly? He missed!"

Nowadays the violence of so-called neo-noir is high fashion, while Spillane’s has become somehow declasse. On its 50th anniversary, I THE JURY went out of print in America for the first time. Mickey’s surprised to learn he’s coming back into print in the UK with Robinson Publishing’s HARDBOILED: A MIKE HAMMER OMNIBUS, released to coincide with his visit. (Note: You can find my essay on the two Hammer omnibuses here).

"Corporate turnovers," he shrugs. "They thought I’m old and passe. I tell them I’m not an author, I’m a writer. I’m a merchandiser. I did Miller Lite commercials for 19 years on TV. The Mike Hammer TV series has been brought back for the fourth time. People know me, they stop me on the street."

In the adverts, Spillane, in trench coat and fedora, played himself as Mike Hammer with enough ironic humour to launch a thousand Tarantinos. "Hey, Mickey, got a Lite?" "Sure thing doll." The series featured many of America’s most famous sportsmen, but he was the star, the one they all looked up to. Spillane, like John Wayne (who gave him a treasured vintage Jaguar as a reward for some script doctoring) was what American men aspired to be. "Things change," he sighs. Well, almost sighs. "The Blue Ribbon’s gone in New York. We have no leaders to admire, all we’ve got is that cocksman in the White House" 

Spillane isn’t crazy about any of the Mike Hammer films either. The first, I THE JURY, was made by Victor Saville in 1953. Its NFT showing will be its first British showing in its original 3D format, and with the 20 minutes of cuts by the censors restored. But Spillane has never seen it all the way through.

"I went once in Brooklyn. Biff Elliott walks on screen and says "I’m Mike Hammer," and a voice in the audience howled ‘DAT’S Mike Hammuh?’ I walked out." He laughs again. "Victor wanted to make an epic, THE SILVER CHALICE, which fell on its face with a deathly thud. So to save money he gets this slob writer, and he rooned it! They have Mike getting knocked out with a wooden coat hanger!"

Ten years later, Spillane was cast as his own hero. Can you imagine Raymond Chandler playing Philip Marlowe? Mickey looks at stills from THE GIRL HUNTERS. "Good grief, did I ever look like that? There’s Shirley Eaton. What a pro; no ego, she just played the character and made me look good." The filming was done in Britain, where he palled around with gangsters like Billy Hills and Jack Spot. "When we needed a .45 for Mike, Billy brought a sack full of guns to the set, with live ammo."

The best-regarded Hammer adaptation is Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY, which ends in nuclear holocaust. Mickey hates it. "They never even READ my book!" Aldrich saw an apocalyptic strain in Hammer, and critics have recently tried to connect that to Spillane’s faith. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, but the critics got it wrong. "It’s not the end of the world we witness," he says, "but parousia, the coming of the peace of God, the end of the system of things as they are. It’s taking in knowledge."

But confounding the critics is his favourite pastime. "It tears them up. I had seven books at once in the top ten best seller list. I said ‘you’re lucky I don’t write three more!'"

He’s written two children’s books. The first, THE DAY THE SEA ROLLED BACK, won the Junior Literary Guild Award. "I keep winning these crazy prizes," he shrugs. "It meant the book sells to libraries." And he’s still writing.

"I’m halfway through a new Mike Hammer novel," he says. "But I used to write fast…now my rear end gets tired. I’m not full of piss and vinegar any more. The vinegar’s all gone." He wrote I, THE JURY in nine days, originally plotting it as a comic book starring "Mike Danger". The book revolutionised the publishing industry.
"I knew it would be a hit. Paperback reprints were huge during the war, and I saw a market for originals. All those soldiers coming back. A little sex wouldn’t hurt, and they’d seen violence. I got a comic distributor to guarantee a paperback reprint, got a $1,000 advance from Dutton for the hardcover." Soon the only books outselling Spillane were the Bible and Dr. Spock. "I’ve gone downhill ever since," he laughs. 

Spillane has a radio interview next. He’s been talking for two hours; I’ve long since run out of tape. Across the room in the Savoy, a business meeting has ground to a halt, eavesdropping on Mickey’s spiel. After he leaves, they ask, "who was that?"
"Mickey Spillane," I tell them.
"Mickey Spillane! How do you interview Mickey Spillane?"
"It was easy," I said.

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