I, The Jury – Blu-Ray Review

I, The Jury is notable for a couple of things: it was the first adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel, and the first screen portrayal of Spillane’s signature hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer. It was also an early 3D film, made at the height of the 3D craze in the early ’50s—it came out in 1953, the same year as House of Wax. On top of that, it’s a notable entry in the sub-genre of Christmas noir which has a long and rich history including films like Blast of Silence and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

The plot is by-the-numbers Spillane stuff. Mikey’s pal has been killed right before Christmas, and with his macho brute force he will find out who did it. The clues all seem to lead to a femme fatale Charlotte Manning (Peggie Castle). Mikey is played by Biff Elliot (obviously a stage name… the actor’s real name was Leon Shalek), who was plucked from the New York theatre for a go at playing Mike Hammer. He tries his best, but doesn’t have the chops or the machismo to pull it off—and compared to Ralph Meeker’s unbeatable sadistic turn as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, it’s a little pathetic. Biff would later have bit parts in Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo, Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James and a memorable bit part in the original Star Trek series.

Peggie Castle is a little better as the femme fatale, but has little to work with anyway, since Mickey Spillane couldn’t write women to save his life. Occasionally he came up with some fun dialogue, but that’s it. Castle would continue playing the “other woman” parts in mainly B-noirs and westerns, and is probably best remembered today for her stint as the saloon owner Lily Merrill in Lawman. The film’s director, Harry Essex, is probaby better known as the screenwriter of Kansas City Confidential, It Came from Outer SpaceCreature from the Black Lagoon and the 1954 Dragnet feature film, not to be confused with the 1947 film Dragnet, which he also wrote! He also co-wrote The Fat Man with Dashiell Hammett, whose name was taken off the film due to his refusal to cooperate with HUAC and subsequent jail sentence.

However, the two most interesting credits are Victor Saville and the film’s cinematographer John Alton. Saville was a British producer who acquired the rights to the Mike Hammer mysteries. He produced a few, including some for TV, and served as an uncredited executive producer on Kiss Me Deadly. Given that Kiss Me Deadly is a savage critique of Mike Hammer, I suspect he might have wanted his name off… Alton’s cinematography is one of I, The Jury’s better aspects. He gives the film a moody noir look that elevates the poor script, acting and direction. Alton shot noir masterpiece The Big Combo, and worked often with Vincent Minnelli and Anthony Mann.

I, The Jury can’t really escape it’s C, if not D-noir trappings, but as a piece of hard-boiled history there is some fun to be had. Due to its low-budget nature, they couldn’t shoot the Christmas scene on location, so they just shot some Christmas cards instead to evoke the Christmas spirit. It’s a surprisingly effective trick that I’m sure was all Alton’s idea. I would highly suspect the 1982 remake is the superior film—it has a Larry Cohen script, after all!

The release from StudioCanal doesn’t include the 3D version (given that 3D TVs are dead, I don’t blame them), but does include a Q&A with Biff Elliot, who also supplies a commentary track on the film. There is an additional commentary track from crime writer Max Allan Collins, author of the graphic novel Road to Perdition, which served as the basis for the fantastic film of the same name. He also wrote the Quarry book series, which was adapted into an HBO show but cancelled after one season. Collins’s connection to Spillane is that he is his literary executor and has also completed some of the many unfinished Mike Hammer stories that Spillane left behind when he died in 2006. 

★★★

Ian Schultz

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