Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tonight's Movie: I, the Jury (1953) at the Egyptian Theatre

The second film on tonight's schedule at the World 3-D Film Expo, following INFERNO (1953), was I, THE JURY (1953).

I, THE JURY stars an actor previously unknown to me, Biff Elliot, as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. (As a matter of fact, I discovered that I'd seen Elliot earlier this year in THE ENEMY BELOW.) This was the first time Mike Hammer was played on film; the role would later be played in movies and on TV by Ralph Meeker, Darren McGavin, and Stacy Keach, among others.

Prior to I, THE JURY, an interview with Biff which was recorded at a past screening of the film at the Egyptian was shown; Biff was quite a character. He had a good sense of humor and joked about having once wondered why his life was spared at Anzio; was it actually to make I, THE JURY?! Biff passed away in August 2012; his obituary is posted at the Official Biff Elliot website.

Having no familiarity with Mickey Spillane, I had no idea what to expect, and I was rather baffled during the first minutes of the film, as I tried to get my bearings and figure out what on earth I was watching. I, THE JURY, proved to be one of the most bizarre movies I've seen in a long time, rather like a live-action cartoon, very exaggerated and unrealistic. And I loved it!

Late in the movie I had a funny moment of recognition, suddenly realizing I was watching the character and the types of scenarios that inspired the famous "Girl Hunt Ballet" from THE BAND WAGON (1953). As a matter of fact, THE BAND WAGON opened just one week prior to I, THE JURY. The cartoonishness of I, THE JURY suddenly made a lot more sense; I'd had no idea Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse had so accurately captured the spirit of Spillane.

As I, THE JURY begins, Detective Mike Hammer (Elliot) investigates the murder of a one-armed friend, aided by "gal Friday" Velda (Margaret Sheridan, ONE MINUTE TO ZERO) and friendly cop Pat (Preston Foster).

Along the way Hammer also meets up with a gorgeous shrink (Peggie Castle of LAWMAN) and a most peculiar set of identical twins (Tani and Dran Seitz, later known as Tani Guthrie and Dran Hamilton, who are both about to turn 85).

Women are inexplicably drawn to Hammer and kiss him, stoolies like Bobo (Elisha Cook Jr.) die, and bad guys beat Hammer to a pulp, only to have him emerge from battle triumphant after all. As played by Elliot, Hammer seems rather dense, yet in the end he always manages to figure things out.

Peggie Castle is simply dynamite as Charlotte Manning, especially in her final scene where Charlotte, in a state of panic, tries to seduce the now-much-wiser Hammer. I also really liked Sheridan as the resourceful Velda, and there's no denying that Tani Seitz is mesmerizing as the very strange Esther.

The movie also included fantastic location shooting in L.A.'s Bradbury Building; the audience in the Egyptian applauded the first time it appeared in a shot!

I was interested to note that the movie borrows the Christmastime theming of Chandler's LADY IN THE LAKE (1947), with pretty Christmas cards periodically dividing up the action.

The 3-D was excellent; there weren't too many gimmicks, but at times it certainly made the characters seem hauntingly "real"; there for a moment I almost could have sworn Preston Foster was standing right in front of me. Seeing the actors in 3-D brings home in a strange way that these were real people who happened to stand in front of a camera six decades ago, creating a film which in a way continues to keep them alive, right there in front of us.

The cast also includes Alan Reed, Nestor Paiva, John Qualen, Tom Powers, and Mary Anderson.

I, THE JURY was written and directed by Harry Essex. It was filmed by the great John Alton (REIGN OF TERROR, THE BIG COMBO), with a score by Franz Waxman. Victor Saville produced; Saville directed one of my favorite movies, Rita Hayworth's TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (1945).

The movie was distributed by United Artists. I'd love to own it on DVD!

This was a great evening of discovery for me, well worth the time and trouble to get up to the Egyptian Theatre. I'll be returning on Sunday to see Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell, and Jack Palance in SECOND CHANCE (1953) on the last day of the festival. The final fight in the aerial cable car should be quite interesting seen in 3-D!


Blogger dfordoom said...

Oddly enough the best screen Mike Hammer was Mickey Spillane! Spillane himself played the role in the 1963 movie The Girl Hunters. It was not Spillane's first acting appearance. He played a supporting role in the very underrated 1954 circus murder thriller Ring of Fear. In that film he played Mickey Spillane!

10:09 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Sounds like a lot of fun.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing that info, dfordoom! Very interesting. I've got KISS ME DEADLY here and hope to watch it soon for comparison.

Jacqueline, it was loads of fun! :) I feel very fortunate to have been able to make a couple of visits to the festival.

Best wishes,

9:28 PM  
Blogger Henry R. Kujawa said...

As far as I know, this film only ran in Philly once, at 2 AM. I set my VCR decades ago, then found out they started the film EARLY. Until last year, when I found it on Youtube, I never knew I was only missing 5 MINUTES. Sheesh.

I've seen nearly every "Mike Hammer" ever done, except for Darrin McGavin. I got hooked on Stacy Keach, and Tanya Roberts was my favorite Velda. Some of the others have been interesting. "KISS ME DEADLY" is definitely the best-produced of the 50s films, and feels like a feature-length "OUTER LIMITS" episode. but the characters in that film are NOT Mike, Velda & Pat... but horrible, twisted distortions director Robert Aldrich and his screenwriter concocted because they held Spillane & Hamnmer in contempt.

As for "I, THE JURY"... between missing the opening, and the endless, choppy, disjointed "interviews", this film is one of the most IMPOSSIBLE myustery plots to follow I have ever encountered. yes, it makes Howard Hawks' version of "THE BIG SLEEP" seem simple by comparison. I had to read about the plot of the book on Wikipedia to finally figure out what the hell nwas going on, and that was after I'd seen the film 3 times.

That said... BIFF ELLIOT has become my FAVORITE Mike Hammer! I dearly wish he and Margaret Sheridan (now my favorite Velda!) had done all 3 films in the 50s, and maybe the TV series as well.

Elliot's Mike Hammer is tough, crude, brutal, almost Neanderthalic. Someone once referred to him as "a Dead End Kid all grown up and packing a rod". But, he's honest, loyal, and completely incorruptible. The sort of guy Elliot Ness would have wanted on his special squad. And, most amazing of all... HE-- figured out-- the mystery! I sure as hell didn't! Wow.

I loved all the scenes with Velda. I loved the fight in the Bradbury Building stairway. And the finale is one of THE all-time classics. "BLAM!" "How COULD you?" "It was EASY. GOOD-BYE, baby!" Whoa!!!!!

I need to get a better copy of this film.

By the way, it cracked me up when I found out I'd seen Elliot in one of my favorite "STAR TREK" episodes. It's "Devil In The Dark", where he plays "Schmitter". He's the FIRST one to get killed.

7:36 PM  

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