70’s Decadence

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From Vs. magazine’s Fall-Winter 2014/15 issue, an intriguing homage to all that’s decadent in fashion photography – bad boy Helmut Newton, badder-girl Ellen Von Unwerth, and a nod to the 1978 erotic crime thriller Eyes Of Laura Mars (more about that guilty pleasure weird-fest of a flick at thestilettogumshoe.com later…count on it).

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The photo suite’s introductory copy explains: “In the cult movie Eyes Of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway plays a photographer who can see through the eyes of a killer. Here, our cover girl Uma Thurman – a modern-day Dunaway – embodies the thriller’s title role and pays homage to its seductive 70’s styling and provocative imagery (the movie featured stills by Helmut Newton). Who better to capture this iconic marriage of fashion and film than Newton’s seminal successor, Ellen Von Unwerth?”

Well, I’ve seen Von Unwerth get both saucier and nastier than these, and the staged photo shoots, stills and grisly murders in the 1978 film pushed the limits for the time, presaging a host of disturbing visuals soon to populate countless VHS tapes in the ‘erotic thriller’ craze of the early 80’s. But Von Unwerth and Thurman captured some vintage decadence here, to be sure.

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Flatlands Noir: Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

This week’s announcement that Netflix cancelled Marvel’s Jessica Jones starring Krysten Ritter was bitter news for many loyal fans. But I’m certain we’ll see Ritter in other projects. That is, if she has the time for acting. I mean, it’s not enough to be a successful model turned actor turned cult icon? She has to be a writer too? (And clearly a damn good one.)

Krysten Ritter’s 2017 debut novel Bonfire was an impressive debut, and like many reviewers said, I ‘burned’ through it. Sorry, but that’s not an exaggeration. I really couldn’t put it down.

I’m going to label Bonfire ‘flatlands noir’ — not set among cornfields, pastures or picturesque farm houses, but the small town Midwest, multiple states filled with unknown burgs that have been bypassed by the interstates and left largely jobless when their local lifeblood factories shuttered in the early 2000’s. They’re too far from the city to be a suburb or even ‘exurban’, devolving into a bleak world of main streets lined with empty storefronts, Walmarts and Dollar Stores lurking on the outskirts of town where lonely two lane highways might seem like routes to something better, but only vanish into empty horizons. Author Ritter’s bio tells us she grew up on a farm before being discovered in a shopping mall and packed off to New York to start a successful modeling career. I sense that she adhered to that time-honored writer’s advice to ‘write what you know’ with her debut novel. The book feels authentic throughout with the author offering what may well be firsthand experience of small town life. Krysten Ritter’s Barrens, Indiana setting felt as real to me as countless off-the-highway towns that are sprinkled across the maps of Illinois, Wisconsin or Ohio and that I’ve driven through on business or en route to getaways and vacations.

Krysten Ritter

Flatlands Noir? Well, suffice to say that bad things can happen anywhere, and you don’t need to be in the dark back alleys of New York or the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles to find trouble. Trouble will find you. Even in Barrens, Indiana, which is where Bonfire’s heroine, Abby Williams, finds herself. But Abby’s no stranger to aptly named Barrens. It’s where she grew up, or more correctly, where she fled from, to a new life as an environmental attorney in Chicago, complete with a hipsterville office and a sleek apartment where she can indulge in an array of meaningless one night stands. Investigating an industrial pollution class action suit involving one-industry Barrens’ leading employer, Abby’s met with suspicion by some, hostility by others, and even old friends are hiding secrets about scandals from Abby’s youth. Ritter deftly interweaves multiple story threads dealing with Abby’s strained relationship with her father, dangerous corporate intrigue, a years-old tragedy and even murder. You can enjoy Ritter’s Bonfire as a conventional page-turning mystery or as a harsh look at contemporary small town USA. Either way, I suspect that, like me, you’ll be eager to see another book from Krysten Ritter, and I’m betting she has another in her. Watching the way she took seemingly unrelated plot lines and deftly wove them all together as the novel plowed through to its climax was truly impressive.

Acting? Hell, table that for a bit and get to work on another novel, Krysten, if you’re not already.

We’ll All Be Jones-ing For Some Jessica Jones.

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A lot of people will be furious (or already are) over the news that Netflix just cancelled its remaining Marvel series, including Jessica Jones. Lets be clear: To me, the Jessica Jones character may be one of the comics world’s best-ever non-costumed-superhero female detective/crime fighting characters. The Netflix series has rightly been showered with awards and nominations, and lead actor Krysten Ritter has done a consistently spectacular job of bringing that complex, dark, flawed yet heroic character to life on screen. Disappointed that it’ll be over soon? You bet.

But surprised? Strangely, not at all.

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Even before the media landscape morphed and fragmented into the multi-platform world that it is today (and this evolution continues, till we won’t recognize ‘television’ in a few short years) I learned the hard way not to become too invested in any series. Enjoy them when they’re around, but be prepared for sudden and disappointing cancellations that often have nothing at all to do with a show’s popularity, critical acclaim or ratings. I think ABC cancelling Agent Carter really did it for me. I really loved that show, and was heartbroken when it ended prematurely. Now, I know better.

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In Jessica Jones’ case, Marvel’s owned by Disney, which will be launching its own platform soon. So, of course they’re pulling valuable properties from what will very soon be their competition.

So it’s just not healthy to let yourself become emotionally invested in a television series, or worse, turn into hardcore fanboys and fangirls, blurring the lines between the actors and the characters they play, writing fanfic and starting blogs destined for obsolescence. I’ll bet there are legions of former WB/CW Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel fans still hoping for a renewal with original cast members, even though the Sunnydale teens are all in their 40’s now (just checked, and Charisma ‘Cordelia’ Carpenter is nearing 50).

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So we’ll enjoy the last of Jessica Jones, cross our collective fingers that Disney’s new platform finds space for a continuation, re-start or spinoff, and if so, that Krysten Ritter is available if that happens.

And keep in mind, there are always the comics where it all began.

 

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The Rusty Heller Story

Elizabeth Montgomery The Rusty Heller Story

Everyone probably knows Elizabeth Montgomery (1933 – 1995), daughter of Hollywood golden age actor/director Robert Montgomery, as suburban mom and housewife – and witch – Samantha Stephens in the long-running sixties sitcom Bewitched (1964 – 1972). She got her start on Broadway about ten years earlier, and worked primarily in dramatic roles on many different television series, playing everything from pioneers to jewel thieves. One such early but memorable role is in the second season premier episode of The Untouchables (1959 – 1963), titled “The Rusty Heller Story”, for which she was nominated for an Emmy, the first of nine nominations. Forget the witch’s wiggling nose; Montgomery’s Rusty Heller is a sizzling performance, series star Robert Stack’s favorite episode, this being the only time his no-nonsense Elliot Ness became emotionally involved with a character. Watch The Rusty Heller Story if you can, and you’ll see why even hard as nails Ness fell for her.

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Montgomery plays a wily southern gal transplanted to Prohibition era Chicago, frustrated by her demeaning job as a costumed performer in a nightclub/brothel, very well aware of her sexual allure and eager to put it to work to trade up. With Al Capone in the clink and mobsters jockeying to take over the Chicago mob, Rusty sees an opportunity to use her charms to manipulate first a big time racketeer, then his lawyer and then a mob accountant, while concurrently feeding info to the Feds. And that’s how she meets – and promptly falls hard for the stoic Elliot Ness, who surprisingly falls for her too, ‘bad girl’ or not.

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But the relationship’s doomed, as is Rusty herself, and a climactic gun fight between the mobsters and the Untouchables squad ends with Montgomery’s Rusty Heller catching a slug in the back, then dying in Ness’ arms. It’s pretty powerful stuff for period television, showcasing what a terrific dramatic actor Montgomery really was, though we know her best as an equally good comedienne. Anecdotally, the mob lawyer Montgomery’s Rusty Heller neatly wraps ‘round her little finger is played by actor David White, who’d soon work with her throughout Bewitched’s run, playing advertising agency McMann & Tate’s managing partner and husband Darren Stephens boss, Larry Tate.

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The Untouchables’ “The Rusty Heller Story” is ranked in the top 100 of TV Guide’s Best Series Episodes list. Pretty sure this one’s on YouTube and elsewhere, and well worth watching.

The Untouchables

Fight Like A Girl.

Mike Millar olivier coipel The Magic Order

And I’ll just bet she does, so watch out. Spanish comics writer Mark Millar’s The Magic Order (issue 6), with art by French illustrator Olivier Coipel.

And, More Manhunt.

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See the preceding post…

As mentioned in the prior post, I’m eagerly waiting for (and have already pre-ordered) The Best of Manhunt – A Collection Of The Best Of Manhunt Magazine, a forthcoming book due out this summer. But till then, enjoy a few more cover scene shots culled from here and there, and dig the list of authors the magazine showcased. Impressive!

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Manhunt

The Best of Manhunt

I think it’s great that publishers promote forthcoming titles in advance. But I don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to wait until late July for The Best Of Manhunt. Subtitled: “A Collection Of The Best of Manhunt Magazine”, the book is edited by Jeff Vorzimmer, with a foreword by writer Lawrence Block and an afterword by Barry Malzberg, and collects 39 stories from the pages of mid-1950’s pulp magazine that many rightly regard as one of the very best of mystery/crime fiction magazines.

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The pulp magazine era had mostly died by the time Manhunt magazine debuted in 1952. Mystery and crime fiction migrated to the new and booming paperback market in the postwar era, their garish, spicy covers replaced on the newsstands by countless ‘true crime’ magazines, many of which soon switched to increasingly explicit photo covers and ‘fact-based’ stories full of gruesome and period-sexy photographs.

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But Manhunt magazine continued to offer monthly doses of hard-boiled short stories and serialized novels from the era’s best writers. Just look at the covers of a few issues…they read like a who’s who of postwar mystery/crime fiction masters: James Cain, Harlan Ellison, Bruno Fischer, Fletcher Flora, David Goodis, Brett Haillday, Evan Hunter, Frank Kane, Henry Kane, Richard Prather, Mickey Spillane, Jack Webb and others. In fact, the magazine even did it’s own ‘best of’ as a Perma Books paperback (see image below) with 13 stories from its pages.

The Best From Manhunt

I may get a real kick out of vintage crime fiction, particularly of the postwar hard-boiled variety, and have bought a number of 1930’s-40’s pulp reprints and trade paperback collections. Doing so has taught me that a lot of the content didn’t quite meet the expectations of the cover art, and was, in fact, kind of dreary. I’m acquisitive, but fortunately, no collector, and unwilling to hand over serious cash for seventy-year-old magazines with questionable contents.

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One nearby used bookstore occasionally shelves vintage magazines and had a few copies of Manhunt for sale ($25 to $40 each as I recall) and though I didn’t buy, I was allowed to browse, and can say that Manhunt at least looked a cut above the hurried cut-n-paste hack jobs that many of its ‘true crime’ contemporaries really were. But I know from reading about it at many a blog, site and mystery/crime fiction book that Manhunt was considered the one postwar pulp title that gathered together some of the era’s very best talents.

Oh, I’m pre-ordering this book, you can bet on that, five months to wait or not. Till then, enjoy some retro mayhem from the covers of Manhunt magazine, here and in the following post.

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Comics Couture

The Haute Life Bruce Weber Shalom Harlow Vogue 1995 2

Fashion magazine creative directors, art directors, stylists and the fashion photographers they engage try some pretty outré things and hunt out truly unlikely locations, from jungles to rooftops, back alleys to motel rooms and abandoned factories. But I’m reasonably sure I’ve never seen anything set in a comic book shop. The copy says the image (or the outfit?) is inspired by that first of ‘supermodels’ from the 1950’s, Suzy Parker. Uhm, okay. Shalom Harlow is shot here by Bruce Weber for an editorial called “The Haute Life” for Vogue back in 1995. Nice dress and all, even with the Spiderman brooch. I’ll take the EC Comics reprints on the bottom shelf though.

Try These Lines On For Size.

hard boiled 1996

Hard-Boiled: Great Lines From Classic Noir Films by Peggy Thompson and Seako Usukawa is a handsome 1996 trade pb from Chronicle Books showcasing memorable dialog from countless classic (and not so familiar) films noir and crime melodramas, coupled with gorgeous publicity shots, film stills and posters. The nicely laid out spreads include four to eight quotes side by side with pictures, some of the quotes only short one-liners, some extended exchanges, and all credited for the film sources, character names, release dates and directors. The back cover teases “Now you too can sound like you just stepped off the set of a film noir classic with lines like…”

Well, not so sure about that. In fact, trying out some of these lines in the wrong situation could get a gal in trouble, a guy slapped, and almost anyone tossed in the back of a squad car. It’s enjoyable reading for film noir fans, needless to ay, but they’re also great idea generators for writers, particularly those working in noir-ish and hard-boiled mysteries of their own. Not that I’d ever condone stealing, but cooking up your own juicy dialog feels just a little bit easier after browsing even only a few pages of this terrific book.

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