B&W, 1963, 97m.
Directed by Roy Rowland
Starring Mickey Spillane, Shirley Eaton, Scott Peters, Guy Kingsley Poynter, Lloyd Nolan
Scorpion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Image (DVD) US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The history of hardboiled detective fiction translated to the screen has resulted in a long, often strange list of titles, but none are quite like The Girl Hunters. This Kennedy-era noir takes the unique step of casting mega-popular author Mickey Spillane himself as his own hero, Mike Hammer, who had previously graced the screen in Robert Aldrich's subversive Kiss Me Deadly. Apparently Spillane apparently felt he could portray the tough-talking, hard-punching Mike Hammer just as well as anybody else, and in an odd sense he was right. The bitter, strange, and convoluted story wrenches Hammer up from the depths of long alcoholic funk, brought on by the death of his secretary, Velda. Brought in on a new case, he tangles with the lovely and possibly lethal Laura Knapp (Shirley Eaton, about to go on to play the spray-painted Jill Masterson from Goldfinger) and the memorable Art Rickerby (Lloyd Nolan). Sure enough, it turns out there's an insidious plot afoot to spread Communist agents throughout the United States, and it's up to Mike to take no prisoners regardless of the cost.
As brutal and twisted as censors would allow, The Girl Hunters is swaggering fun from start to finish and deserves more of a cult following than it has. Spillane's lack of acting chops makes him a strange and oddly vulnerable Hammer, while the swinging off-kilter atmosphere of sadism and jazz constantly forces the viewer to wonder what kind of psychotic fever dream this might be. By the time Mike decides to constructively use nails on one culprit, prepare to pull your jaw up off the floor. Considering this is from the director of the surreal Dr. Seuss head trip The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the delirious results aren't that surprising.
Apart from rare late night TV screenings, The Girl Hunters was difficult to see until its 2000 home video debut on both DVD and VHS from Image, licensed from Castle Hill, complete with a solid anamorphic transfer (apart from that weird two-tone letterboxing on 4:3 TVs seen at the time in titles like the first pressing of Halloween). That bare-bones edition went out of circulation a few years later, and the film vanished again for several years.
That brings us to 2014 with the Blu-ray and DVD reissue of the film from Scorpion Releasing, which receives the expected bump in quality courtesy of a fresh HD transfer. The inherent softness in some shots is due to the way the film was shot, but most of it is sharp and pristine with excellent, rich blacks. There's also a very informative, fact-packed commentary with mystery writer and Spillane collaborator/expert Max Allan Collins, who runs through Spillane's cultural influence, the history of Mike Hammer and all the film participants, and the tropes of crime TV, film and fiction during the period. The disc also packs in some surprisingly dense video extras including a great 30-minute interview with Spillane himself (conducted by Collins) about being asked to star in the British-Canadian production (where tea time brought each day's shooting to a halt until he brought in tea all day long), competing with the fledgling James Bond franchise, and several colorful anecdotes about cast members and bartenders. Then Eaton appears for a nine-minute interview (shot for a Hammer doc), still sporting that great twinkle in her eyes as she recalls working with writer (as opposed to "novelist!") Spillane as an actor and the madness of shooting this while appearing in the play Come Blow Your Horn at night. The theatrical trailer rounds out this unexpectedly robust edition of a bona fide crime film cult classic.