Film Noir Review: I, the Jury (1953)

“I never wanted the world. Just room enough for the two of us.”

Mike Hammer has a strange cinematic history, especially when compared to other classic detectives. He toiled in B-movie adaptations while P.I. ‘s like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were given the A-list treatment. Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is the lone Hammer film that’s considered a masterpiece, but even then, the treatment of the Hammer character and the plot as a whole was radically altered from the novel.

The writer behind Hammer, Mickey Spillane, hated Kiss Me Deadly, and would later try to nullify the film’s impact by starring in his own vehicle, The Girl Hunters (1963). It was a decent translation, but in his later years, Spillane himself admitted that it was lacking in style. In truth, the only film adaptation he spoke highly of was the first one: I, the Jury (1953). Overshadowed by the legacy of the aforementioned films, I, the Jury remains the most authentic Hammer experience ever put on the big screen.

Every thrill in the book… in 3-D.

The authenticity of the film can be traced to its creators. Victor Saville was a producer who saw a cash cow in Spillane’s paperbacks, and felt their blending of sex and violence would be undeniable if properly adapted. Harry Essex was a screenwriter who helped mold the terrain of 1950s film noir, and knew exactly how to pull excitement from predictable story beats. He was also keen on directing, and saw I, the Jury as a chance to showcase his talents.

As someone who was underwhelmed by the film on first viewing (Kiss Me Deadly was my only reference point at the time), I can now say that I, the Jury is the perfect entry into Hammer’s world. It goes to such great lengths to emulate the style of the novel that the character’s narration comes off as though he’s reading the actual pages. Essex proved himself to be an economical storyteller with the screenplays for Kansas City Confidential and The Las Vegas Story (both 1952), but here, he arranges scenes with a surgeon-like precision. It’s as though being forced to pare down the sex and violence found in the novel allowed Essex to expediate an already lean narrative, and the result is a breakneck 87 minutes.

Hammer mourns the loss of his best friend.

The story is really just a premise: Hammer (Biff Elliot) discovers that his old army buddy Jack Williams (Robert Swagner) was killed under mysterious circumstances in his apartment. The bull then proceeds to wreck the china shop that is New York as he tries to locate Williams’ killer and make them pay. Along the way, Hammer runs afoul of a cunning therapist (Peggie Castle) and a crackpot crime boss named Kalecki (Alan Reed).

Elliot was not a versatile actor, as evidenced by his relatively quiet career, but he’s effectively cast here. He does a fine job of capturing Hammer’s blunt-force approach to detection, and his ability to seem at once dense and thoughtful is trickier than it may initially seem. It’s nothing remarkable, especially when compared with the heightened vanity that Ralph Meeker brought to the part in Kiss Me, Deadly, but it’s direct and visceral. Elliot’s choices look even better when compared to the softer, less edgy performances given by Robert Bray in My Gun Is Quick (1957) and Darren McGavin in the TV series Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1957-59).

Hammer tussles with an endless array of heavies.

The supporting cast are made up of reliable character actors, starting with the aforementioned Castle (the self-appointed “girl they loved to kill”) and running down to Preston Foster as Hammer’s steadfast police connection, Pat Chambers. They rattle off the curt Spillane dialogue with glee, while leaning into the two-dimensional aspects of their respective characters. Nobody does this better than Elisha Cook, Jr. as Bobo, a simpleton who manages to win us over despite having ties to a deadly gang. The shot of a slain Cook, dressed as Santa Claus, and laying on a stoop, is arguably the most noirish Christmas image of all time.

The stunning imagery doesn’t stop there. I, the Jury may benefit from taut direction and a colorful cast, but it’s the cinematography by John Alton that truly pushes it into cult classic territory. The film unveils one gorgeous sequence after another, whether it be the pulsing neon conversation in Hammer’s office or the single-light source interrogation conducted by Kalecki’s men. Then there’s the 3-D component, which Alton had to take into account during production. The film was originally made to capitalize on the 3-D craze of the 1950s, and the cinematographer’s deft handling of cigarette butts and various room structures gives the film a subtlety and cleverness that few 3-D releases could match. The fact that it works as both a 3-D and 2-D release is a testament to its overall quality.

Hammer looks on from the slain Bobo.

Then there’s the ending. Hammer navigates his way through a twisted web of lies and murder, and finds himself at the apartment of his therapist squeeze. He figured out her involvement in Williams’ death, and he holds a gun on her from the moment she enters. She proceeds to undress, partially out of practicality and partially out of an attempt to seduce him. The dialogue grows increasingly intense, with the emotions of both characters bubbling closer to the surface. Alton’s camera fixes in on the couple during their final embrace, and then we hear, beneath the frame, the firing of a gun. It’s unclear who was shot, until the therapist drops to the floor. “How could you?” she asks, to which an unflinching Hammer states: “It was easy.”

It’s a breathtaking scene, manifesting all of the sex and death and that makes the Hammer novels so enticing. It’s the best ever distillation of the character and his detached worldview, and for Alton, one of his best ever visual showcases. It would justify the price of admission on its own.

I, the Jury should not be approached as a masterpiece. It’s a cheap film noir that sets out to entertain, and it does precisely that. If you approach the film on these very simple foundations, then you will be endlessly pleased.


You can find all of Danilo’s Film Noir Review articles here.

Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.

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