Based on characters created by Mickey Spillane
Song Bird is one of Stacy Keach’s later efforts as Mike Hammer. It was made after he’d got out of the Big House, after doing a six month stretch for cocaine possession. But by this time some of the magic had gone. Gone too is the gritty, hard boiled world of Hammer. In it’s place is a nice coat of polish. Somehow I feel that Mike Hammer shouldn’t be well lit and polished. It should be dark and dirty.
Although released as a DVD movie in 2003, this was actually a two part episode of the Mike Hammer: Private Eye series (1997-1998) – not to be confused with Keach’s other series, entitled Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1984-1987). Keach also did a few Hammer tele-movies, but I’ll ignore them for now – they’ll only confuse things.
The show starts of with a musical montage a Jazz Greats, like Satchmo, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Frank (Sinatra – not Stallone), floating through saxophones and neon treble clefs. Over the top, we get the voice over by Mike Hammer (Keach) who reminisces about the old days on 52nd Street – the clubs, the singers, and the scene. He is sitting in a smoky nightclub. Des Long and his Allstars are performing the old standard, ‘You Made Me Love You’. Out front, singing is Lila B (Moira Walley). The crowd loves her performance. After the number she leaves the club by the back entrance and meets her boyfriend Johnny Dive (Frank Stallone). Dive is a mobster and is wanted by the police. When he arrives, he hands Lila a gun and tells her to hide it for him. At that moment, three police cars, with lights-a-flashin’, and sirens-a-wailin’ race around the corner. Johnny pushes Lila into his car and she takes off. The police do not pursue her, as they are after Johnny. They stop and arrest him for possession of narcotics.
Back at the station, Johnny is being interrogated by Captain Skip Gleason (Peter Jason) and the D.A., Barry Lawrence (Kent Williams). For those who never caught any of this series when it was aired, Skip is the replacement for Pat Chambers (the cop who’s a friend to Hammer), and Lawrence is the over officious official who is always trying to revoke Hammer’s P.I. Licence. But here, they’re giving Johnny a hard time. They have a tape of one of Johnny’s deals. He is going down. But they give him an option – he can either go to prison for a long, long time, or he can rat on the local mob boss, Don Vito. Johnny reluctantly decides to turn.
Johnny gets a police ‘wire’ taped to his chest, and goes to the Napoli Restaurant for a meeting with Don Vito. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. The ‘wire’ is discovered and the police have to rush in to the restaurant to rescue Johnny. This doesn’t work out so well either. The mobsters produce guns and a large scale shootout takes place. Despite all the bullets and the high body count, Don Vito manages to escape through on exit, and Johnny out of another. Johnny steals a car from the carpark and disappears.
So now the cops and the mob are after Johnny Dive. The mob think that the best way to get to him, is through Lila, but she cannot be found either. So the next link in the chain is Des Long (Jack Sheldon), the leader of the Jazz ensemble that Lila sings with.
The mob send a hitman to Long’s apartment. Long doesn’t know where Lila is and this doesn’t please the assassin. He is about to shoot Long, when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Mike Hammer, coming to collect Long for his performance later that night. Long yells out that Hammer should come back later with Betsy. Betsy is the name of Hammer’s gun. Hammer realises that something is wrong, and kicks open the door with his gun drawn. Then in slow motion he shoots the Mafia hitman, who flies back and falls out the window. Without knowing why or how, Hammer is now involved and has a case of sorts.
After the shooting, Hammer takes Long to the nightclub to perform. Long and his troupe play a few numbers. Later that evening Lila shows up to join them on stage. She sings one number, and then leaves the nightclub with the piano player. From outside, we hear two shots. Hammer and Long rush outside. A car takes off, and the piano player is lying dead on the ground. And of course, Lila is nowhere to be found. From here on the plot convolution spirals out of control.
Although extended to 80 minutes, Song Bird, while entertaining is not much different to your standard 40/45 minute episode. The padding comes courtesy of the Jazz sequences. As such, the success or failure of the show hangs on these scenes. When Jack Sheldon as Des Long is playing his trumpet, the mood is almost right – the club seems a little too bright, and there isn’t enough cigarette smoke – but hey that’s television. But what almost kills the show for me is Moira Walley as the titular Song Bird. She can hold a note, but not for a second do I believe that she is a goddess-like jazz chanteuse.
Song Bird is only for Mike Hammer completists. If you’re one, then step right up and enjoy this middling Hammer tale. For all others, for a jazz fix try Young Man With A Horn, and those in need of a detective fix should load up L.A. Confidential one more time.