Sunday Night Noir: The Racket (1951)

La gang 3

Director John Cromwell appeared in and directed the hit Bartlett Cormack Broadway play The Racket in 1927 with newcomer Edward G. Robinson, which later made its way to Los Angeles (skipping Chicago, where the story is set, and where it was banned, supposedly on orders from Al Capone himself). There, Hollywood quickly snapped up Cromwell, and over the next two decades he directed a long list of cinema classics and was in the postwar vanguard of directors helming projects in the emerging film noir genre. 1947’s Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott was among those films (that one a personal fave of mine). Cromwell brought Scott along for his final Hollywood film before he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee: A 1951 RKO remake of the 1927 stage play, The Racket. The film may have been co-directed by a team including Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer and others, and stars noir icons Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Lizabeth Scott.

The Racket 2

Robert Ryan’s mob boss has an entire un-named midwestern city in his pocket. All except a determined and incorruptible police captain played by Robert Mitchum, that is. Undermined at every turn by corrupt cops and crooked politicians, Mitchum convinces sultry nightclub chanteuse Lizabeth Scott to testify against her boss, even though both of them know that cooperating means she’ll be as good as dead. With a rigged election looming, mob boss Robert Ryan will stop at nothing to take down Mitchum, who neatly turns the tables on the violent gangster, the corrupt cops and the crooked politicians.

the racket 3The Racket is dark, violent and an under-appreciated treat, with three film noir titans working together on screen. And who’d miss a chance to watch the Queen of Film Noir, Lizabeth Scott? Did I say watch her? Heck, just listening to that smoky voice of hers is enough of a treat.

Lobby CardsReviews were mixed and I have no idea if The Racket was a financial success. But I couldn’t care less if this one ranks high with the scholarly film studies crowd or not. For me, the films made in the few years right at the end of the 1940’s through the very early 1950’s best capture the iconic film noir look and feel, whether well-funded and with major stars, or made on shoestring budgets. The Racket is brimming with enormous, bulbous looking cars. The fellows all sport those tent-sized overcoats, voluminous suits, stubby ties and wide-brimmed fedoras. The women are at their most sultry, in long-but-snug skirts, chunky heels, seamed hose, and hats-hats-hats on everyone, men and women alike. To say nothing of one chain-smoked cigarette after another…did they even have to bother with fog machines back then?

Indulge me for including some foreign posters for “La Gang”, which I assume was The Racket in France. Sometimes those European theater posters just look better than the tamer Hollywood versions.

La Gang

I may have lost TCM, and especially Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley, but MOVIES!’ “Noir To Die For!” and “Sunday Night Noir” may just keep this particular noir junkie from getting the shakes or going into total withdrawal, all the more essential during our sheltering-in. A word or two about some other noirs both good and bad to be found on MOVIES! will follow in subsequent posts.

I Really Need TCM…Like Now.

Thursday Noir To Die ForIt’s no Turner Classic Movies. Not even Retroplex. And it’s certainly not Eddie Muller expertly hosting TCM’s Noir Alley (I’m kinda tearing up just thinking about that).

But when my cable provider rudely deleted TCM (and Retroplex and a lot of other channels) I had to learn to embrace MOVIES! for the occasional film noir, good old-fashioned B-movie crime melodramas and some random classics (along with a lot of other stuff I couldn’t care less about). Commercials? Yes, but not enough to drive me batty. And I wouldn’t complain if MOVIES! spent a few dollars to increase their “noir” library to more than the dozen or a dozen-and-a-half films they keep rotating…their tag is “Reel Variety”, after all. But “Noir To Die For!” on Thursday evenings and “Sunday Night Noir” (on…well, Sundays, obviously) is better than 24/7 syndicated reruns, bad 80’s action flicks and the wall-to-wall pandemic programming everywhere else.

Serves me right for being entranced with size and choosing the enormous TV instead of the Smart-TV. But it is a heck of a good picture…

Sunday Night Noir

Name Your Poison.

Robert Stanley

“Name Your Poison,” the intro to the 1955 anthology Dangerous Dames instructs the reader. “Or maybe you don’t care for poison. Maybe you’d rather be shot full of holes, or tossed over a high balcony, or ripped apart by dogs…there are twelve dames in this book, and they supply a lot more in the way of sex, savagery and surprises than a man usually bargains for.”

It’s pretty rare for to find a vintage paperback (or retro pulp magazine or even many Golden Age comics) with a credit for the cover artist inside, but “Cover Painting By Robert Stanley” is right there at the bottom of the copyright page of Dangerous Dames, edited by Brett Halliday (David Dresser), though the cover says “Selected by Mike Shayne”. (Non-nod, wink-wink).

In the anthology’s foreword, Halliday shares a pretend conversation he had with his own fictional hard-boiled hero, private-eye Mike Shayne, about choosing the dozen stories for this book, which date from 1936 through 1955 and include work from Bruno Fischer, Anthony Boucher, Harold Q. Masur and Day Keene (Gunard Hjertstedt 1904 – 1969). Keene’s “A Better Mantrap” from 1947 opens the anthology, and aside from a few period anachronisms, you’d think it was a newly written domestic noir. When a wife’s had it with years of subtle and not so subtle abuse from a boorish husband, there are all kinds of ways to get rid of him. It’s a treat, and if it’s any indication of the quality of the tales in Dangerous Dames, one of the first books to begin replenishing my previously empty to-be-read spot on the writing lair’s endtable, then my shelter-at-home reading drought is over.

Dangerous Dames

Arseniy’s Toying With Me…

Arseniy Semyonov

Consider it a story prompt: This photo by Arseniy Semyonov could spark at least a dozen different tales, each scenario deliciously dark and probably deadly.

A private eye’s just been handed that photo by his secretary? Or a meeting with a classic femme fatale of a client has just wrapped up, the gumshoe assigned to hunt for her (most likely dead) lover? Heck, that fellow could be a pulp scribe holed up in a grungy motel room to complete his hard-boiled masterpiece, the silhouette of a curvy vision in the doorway no more than a figment of his liquor and cigarette fueled imagination.

Damn, I love/hate when pictures set me off like this…

Dangerous Dames Are Heading My Way.

Dangerous Dames Ordered

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is usually stacked high, but I’d been whittling it down the past week or two, and got caught empty-handed just as we were all directed to burrow into our shelters. No libraries. No local indies or Barnes & Noble, no Half Price Books, no comix shops…nothin’.

So, I spent some weekend time burning through my credit limit for items from multiple sites from small press publishers to Amazon, for curbside bookstore pickup and elsewhere. First up: Some nifty noir-ish and pulpy anthologies spotted at The New Thrilling Detective Web Site with handy links to Amazon for these (presumably) used OOP gems.

“Twelve Lively Ladies…Twelve Deadly Dolls!” it says up above on the cover of 1955’s Dangerous Dames.  Okay, I’m in, even if it’s a pretty fair assumption that ‘Mike Shayne’ had no hand in the selection process. I’d have probably gone for The Dark End Of The Street based on the cover alone, and I’m kinda miffed that I missed that one before. “New Stories Of Sex And Crime” sounds like a nice mix of the noir and the naughty, and who couldn’t use that when we’re all so social-distanced?

Dark At The End Of The Street Ordered

I know I’ve seen Otto Penzler’s Murder For Love but don’t know why it’s not in my bookcases.

Murder For Love Ordered

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins may seem like a puzzling duo to some, but thank goodness the scribe from Iowa befriended everyone’s hard-boiled hero while Spillane was still among us. I definitely did not know about this particular anthology, and very much want to see how those two managed to narrow things down to only twelve “hard-boiled, hard-hitting women writers”.

Vengeance Is Hers

Last up, an oldie from the Martin Greenberg anthology factory, which put out some terrific as well as some been-there-done-that anthologies in its heyday. But then, who knows how long the great sheltering may last…apparently past Easter Sunday, contrary to some hare-brained podium bluster. I’m betting I’ll find something I like in a book titled Tough Guys And Dangerous Dames.

Touch Guys And Dangerous Dames Ordered

I tried for Dolls Are Murder, a 1957 pocketbook from The Mystery Writers Of America, but someone else got there first and it was no longer available.

More books are en route from elsewhere and via pickup, and the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable shouldn’t look quite so forlorn pretty soon.

Thrilled About Thrilling Detective.

Thrilling Detective - Anthos

I’ve visited Kevin Burton Smith’s excellent Thrilling Detective site in the past, but was kinda giddy to see it migrate to WordPress as “The New Thrilling Detective Web Site” so I could more easily follow along. And doing so paid off nicely this weekend when I was jotting down lists of books to order – for curbside pickup at the local indie, direct from the publisher, from Bud Plant, and from the behemoth in Seattle. The Thrilling Detective site ran two posts sharing long lists of mystery/crime fiction anthologies with links for most (or all?) right to Amazon, many being OOP titles.  I tried for six, but got a bounce-back on one later, it being no longer available. But five’s a start, and my to-be-read endtable is woefully empty, having foolishly not stocked up before the great sheltering commenced. The Amazon items may take longer than usual to arrive, but the others look like they’re speeding my way now, and the indie pickup books should be in hand tomorrow and are desperately needed.

If you find things that interest you here at The Stiletto Gumshoe’s lair, then you’re going to find many more and much better items of interest at The Thrilling Detective site. The link’s right below…use it now. And more about the gems I nabbed via Smith’s site will follow in another post…

https://thrillingdetective.wordpress.com/

Do No Harm.

Do No harm

My book cases’ Collins (and I don’t mean Wilkie) section takes up most of a long shelf, and that’s only the Max Allan Collins solo titles (his co-authored completions of Mickey Spillane novels being in the even bigger Mickey Spillane section). Collins shares some shelf space with Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peter series, which I consider a pretty honorable place to reside. From Michael O’Sullivan and The Road books to Ms. Tree, Maggie Starr in the 1950’s NYC comics scene series to the new Galena, IL police chief Krista Larsen series, it’s a long and continually growing row. There’s even an ancient Mallory hardcover from 1984, Kill Your Darlings (a used bookstore find, that one). I’ll admit to coming up a little shy on his Nolan and Quarry novels. Still, call me a fan.

But the longest portion of that long bookshelf is taken up by Collins’ Nathan Heller books, among my favorite mystery/crime fiction series, right up there with Estleman’s Amos Walker and Spillane’s Mike Hammer himself. There are hardcovers, trade pb’s and pocketbooks from Tor Forge, iBooks, Harper Torch, Signet, Dutton, Thomas Mercer and more…you have to stay on top of things if you want to catch the Hellers, and I do try to be diligent about it.

Advance PR noted that 2020’s Do No Harm would thrust Chicago P.I. Nathan Heller and his A-1 Detective Agency in the middle of a sensational 1950’s murder case: The Sam Sheppard affair. Heller has found himself in the midst of Los Angeles’ Black Dahlia murder, the Lindbergh kidnapping and Marilyn Monroe’s death among other high-profile cases. I’ll admit to enjoying Nathan Heller most when tangling with the mob in his Chi-Town home-town, his early career the most interesting. Frankly, I knew little about the real-life Sheppard murder other than it being ‘sorta-kinda’ the inspiration for the popular 1960’s TV series The Fugitive.

Newspapers

Dr. Sam Sheppard was a successful suburban Cleveland physician and apparently a bit of a philanderer. Late at night after an Independence Day get-together with neighbors, Marilyn Sheppard was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered right in the family’s lakefront home’s upstairs bedroom, while their son slept just down the hall and Sheppard himself snoozed away on a downstairs sofa. Law enforcement bungled the investigation and the local press more or less convicted him long before charges were filed or his trial commenced. Sheppard was found guilty and sent away for life. Many, however, felt he was railroaded.

Collins’ Nathan Heller novel includes a large cast of characters both real and imagined/composited, including Elliott Ness (who moved to Cleveland after his notorious ‘Untouchables’ escapades in Chicago), Perry Mason creator Earle Stanley Gardner and celebrity defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. Collins’ and long-time associate George Hagenauer’s thorough research is evident throughout, the book reading at times like a true crime book and at others like a rousing Nate Heller noir novel. Sheppard was ultimately retried and exonerated, though he earned no brownie points for his antics during his post-prison life, and while Collins seems convinced of the doctor’s innocence, Do No Harm doesn’t whitewash the man. The author concedes that he changed his own mind several times about who really murdered Marilyn Sheppard during the wee hours of July 4th, 1954.

If my work schedule was a little less overwhelming, I’m sure I’d have plowed through this book in a couple days. As it was, I was forced to read a chapter or two at a time over several days, but always anxious to get right back to it. Nate Heller books are just like that. Do No Harm was actually the very last new book added to the normally overflowing to-be-read heap on the writing lair’s endtable. That pile will grow again and soon enough, though it’ll take a little more doing than usual to rebuild the stack to normal size. And it’ll take some patience to wait for another Max Allan Collins Nathan Heller novel.

The Gun In The Lingerie Drawer.

Edmund OBrien

Still working through my overstuffed folder of unread Crime Reads articles and essays…

Poll some fiction writers and I’ll wager they’ll all agree that sex may be the most challenging thing to write about. Oh, choreographing action and violence is tough, no question. But sex? Many writers’ fingers freeze over the keyboard when their plot demands a sex scene.

We routinely sit through shocking and even grisly TV and movie violence without flinching, even though our boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, parents, siblings or friends are right beside us. But let the clothes come off and the more-than-smooching commence, and suddenly we’re squirming in our seats. Doubly so here in the U.S., where violence as entertainment has long been tolerated and even encouraged, while sex has been sanitized, compartmentalized, crudely packaged in exclusively male-gaze slide-shows and for decades, hidden altogether.

Crime Reads - Sex-Violence

Novelist Amanda Robson’s June, 2018 essay at Crime Reads, “Why Is Sex So Much Harder To Write Than Violence?” (link below) points out that while most people do have sex, most do not experience violence (at least, not the sort that fills mysteries, crime fiction and thrillers). Sex, while personal and intimate, is something most writers, readers and viewers can relate to on a first-hand basis. Violence, less likely so.

Have I experienced violence? Not really. I’ve been in car accidents. I’ve wrestled, been hit and thrown a punch. Who hasn’t, at least as a kid? I’ve cleaned a fish, so I guess I’ve plunged a knife into a living creature. I’ve shot a firearm, but only at targets, and I’ll be fine with never touching a gun again. But I’ve never even seen someone get stabbed or shot, much less been wounded myself. Whatever I write is entirely made up, cherry-picked from and authenticated by our collective TV/Comics/Movies/Novels archive and its vocabulary.

Helen Diaz Prophoto Nut 2

As for sex? Hmmmm…none of your business. Whether it’s straight/gay/other, vanilla or weirdsville, time to gleefully don the frillies and lay out the sashes and toys, or once-a-week obligatory marital bed dreariness, writers might understandably assume (or fear) that readers will identify the writer with the sex scene. Amanda Robson writes, “Most novelists write from the power of their imagination. However, when a novelist writes about sex, people imagine they are writing from their personal experience.  Or, at least, from their sexual fantasies. Because my debut novel Obsession contained a few raunchy scenes, I have been subjected to a barrage of comments – some funny, some lewd, some insulting – including an increase in men hitting on me at parties.” But she goes on to wonder why, as a crime novelist, no one assumed she had a lethal weapon in her pocket.

I’m as guilty as the next wordsmith. Sure, I’ve revised and rewritten chases, gunplay and fight scenes, struggling to get the action onto the page while still maintaining the proper pace and level of excitement. But sex? Good Lord, I revise and rewrite and prune and tweak till my computer’s ready to melt, and not because the scene’s so sizzling hot, only because I keep changing things. First it seems too pervy, then it sounds too flowery, then too specific, then too vague, then too clinical, and then…well, on and on and on. Compound this with writers’ discomfort when trying to adopt a character’s persona: A woman writing from a man’s POV or vice-versa. Writing gay, lesbian or trans, desperate to make the text ring true, but once done, wondering if readers will start to make assumptions. We shouldn’t care. But we’re uptight, fragile, human and we just do. Yet, I’ve never wasted a second worrying that readers will think I can handle a .45 automatic or know what it feels like when a bullet grazes my shoulder and the blood starts to flow.

ilya rashap

Amanda Robson doesn’t provide solutions for writers so much as analyze the situation. I’ll suggest there are no solutions. We’ll continue to peek at the author’s photo on the rear dustjacket flap and imagine them having the raucous orgies meticulously described in Chapter Six, but won’t for a moment presume they personally pack a pistol, blade or brass knuckles. And writers will continue to agonize over one page of eroticism even while they merrily plow through chapter after chapter of crime scenes, gunshots, explosions and fist-fights.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, follow the link and read for yourself what Amanda Robson had to say about all this.

Photos: Edmond O’Brien, Helen Diaz/ProPhotonut, Ilya Rashap

https://crimereads.com/why-is-sex-so-much-harder-to-write-than-violence/

 

Stuck At Home? Then Go To Noir City.

Noir City 1It’s not like I didn’t see it coming: Shelter-at-home, non-essential businesses closed temporarily, etc. It’s just that the day job was in its normal busy time of year, well underway prior to the shutdowns and continuing during the transition to work-at-home. I may have been prepared with groceries in the fridge and a full tank of gas (should I just skip the thing about the cigarette carton stash?), but I hadn’t been to the library, hadn’t been in a bookstore and hadn’t even done a quick online order of any books – new or old – in the days leading up to the sudden switch to hermit status. The to-be-read stack on the writing lair’s endtable had whittled down some. It’s not like I don’t have shelves of beloved treasures that could do with a re-read, but still…

So, it was a double delight to see the new Spring 20202 Noir City e-magazine Number 28 appear in my in-box.

Noir City 3

Now I’m not kidding about being busy with the day job. Even routine tasks seem to take twice as long as they do in-office, where simple face-to-face questions and approvals take no more than a moment, but now require email barrages. No complaints, mind you. When the news is filled with startling stats like 1 in 10 Americans filing for Unemployment last week and even 1 in 4 laid-off, furloughed or weathering hours cutbacks, I’m thrilled to be working. But with time at a premium, I haven’t read a single word of this new Noir City issue yet. Still, a quick scroll through the pages (drooling the entire time) assured me this is another terrific issue from Vince Keenan and Steve Kronenberg, and as always, a visual treat from Art Director Michael Kronenberg.

Noir City 2

Craving some dark delights in the midst of endless dismal news? Get thee to the Film Noir Foundation’s site (link below) to find out more, become a contributor and to get your mitts on the Noir City e-magazine. Just try to visit there and not end up wanting something: Back issues, festival posters, whatever. Hey, if we can’t spend money in stores right now, we can unload a few bucks on something of real value for noir culture enthusiasts…and I know there are more than a few of you reading this.

http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/home.html

http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/aboutnoircity.html

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