Film Noir Friday: I, the Jury (1953)

I_the_jury

3mls

Directed by Harry Essex, the 1953 film noir I, the Jury tries to make hay out of Mickey Spillane’s debut novel. The book came out in 1947 and introduced the world to the one and only Mike Hammer, a character who made more than a few appearances on the big screen. His first showing finds the two-fisted private eye making a list and decking it twice.

Like Christmas Holiday from 1944, I, the Jury is kind of a Christmas movie. Notes of the holiday are coursing through Essex’s movie and one gets the sense that cinematographer John Alton wanted to make even more of the contrasting lights, but budgetary concerns keep this yarn in strictly C-grade territory. It was originally released in 3D, for what it’s worth.

Biff Elliot stars as Hammer, a hot-headed private investigator. His war buddy Jack Williams (Robert Swanger), an insurance investigator, is gunned down and that puts Hammer on the warpath. Homicide detective Pat Chambers (Preston Foster) tries to warn the PI about taking matters into his own hands, but he also helps him along the way with some critical clues.

Hammer follows the trail through a series of shady characters, including Williams’ whacked-out fiancé (Frances Osborne), a psychoanalyst named Charlotte (Peggie Castle), a fight promoter with a love of fine art (Alan Reed), and a set of dangerous twins (Tani Guthrie). All the while, Hammer digs deeper into the seedy underbelly and finds that the truth is more complicated than he could ever imagine.

Essex’s film is a wild ride. It’s unafraid of slumming it, with a cast full of reprobates, drug dealers and thugs. There’s plenty of quirky character details, too, like how Guthrie’s Mary Bellamy has a back scratcher shaped like a hand or how a former boxer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) moonlights as a department store Santa Claus and shows up with a critical warning.

There’s also a dance studio run by two New Yorkers pretending at Latin flavour, only the dance studio used to be a speakeasy and has a secret passageway. These sorts of sneaky and sordid moments fill I, the Jury with a real sense of character, painting the rainy city as a permanent den of iniquity. Everyone has an agenda and everyone has a price.

The Spillane novel is even grimier than the Essex film, but this noir still does its job as it sinks the needle into the disreputable vein of the night. Hammer becomes the moral force, even as he crosses lines left and right and pretty much beats the tar out of anyone who looks at him funny. Much of the picture is spent charting his messy fisticuffs, in fact, which brings more than a few doses of holiday cheer.

Biff Elliot makes for a rough and tumble Hammer. He’s a no-frills sort of cat, with women stumbling into his lap and men giving him the old side-eye. He stirs up trouble wherever he goes and somehow still lands on his feet, even if his game isn’t always tight. Sometimes he even flirts using a chicken drumstick, but somehow Elliot’s delivery makes it work as a self-sufficient brute.

Without question, this is a film noir that errs on the hard-boiled side of things. Hammer is not an easy character to like and he solves most of his problems with his fists. He’s not kind to the womenfolk, he’s arrogant, he’s full of it. Even as Elliot tries to find the good old boy down in the gutter, Spillane’s character lives in the muck and knows how to work the streets.

Featuring a restrained feel and a holiday edge, I, the Jury has a few innovations in its back pocket. The opening credits and the closing scuffles pack visual thrills, plus the bevy of ladies makes for a cheerful if hollow dose of lust. There are Christmas cards, too, and one suspects the entire neighbourhood is on Mike Hammer’s naughty list, with more than a lump in coal in mind as comeuppance.

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