Detectives In The Shadows.

Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows (2020 Johns Hopkins University Press) is subtitled “A Hard-Boiled History”, and some may quibble with that. Lee’s 216-page hardcover (the last 46 pages comprised of appendices and footnotes) is less a ‘history’ of fictional hard-boiled detectives and more a close look at how a shortlist of exemplary private eye characters from literature and broadcast media represent and echo their eras. 

If you’ve been burned in the past by academics’ books, I can relate. Susanna Lee previously authored Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction And The Decline Of Moral Authority, but also Proust’s Swann’s Way and Stendahl’s The Red And The Black among other titles, and those might give anyone the willies if they’re disinterested in a return to high school and college required reading lists. (You say ‘Proust’ and I’m automatically fleeing the other way, one particularly disastrous college term paper still nagging at me to this day.)

But, fear not. Detectives In The Shadows is engaging and readable throughout, and I for one would’ve been happy with another 100 pages to devour. She selects a key hard-boiled detective to represent different periods, starting with Carroll John Daly’s Terry Mack as the start of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre, soon supplanted by that same writer’s more popular Race Williams, both of them Black Mask magazine staples. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade embody the late 1920’s and early Depression years, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe represents the 1930’s-40’s, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer violently echoes the post-WWII Cold War era. Lee dismisses the 1960’s altogether, considering its social upheavals unfriendly to hard-boiled private eyes’ rugged individualism and quasi-vigilanteism. She jumps to the 1970’s with Robert Parker’s Spencer and his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973.  From Parker’s Spencer, Lee switches from fiction to the screen with HBO’s The Wire and True Detective series, and lastly, Netflix’ Jessica Jones. Brief mentions of broadcast television’s The Rockford Files and David Janssen as Harry O may still leave some readers scratching their heads. Wither Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski? Lew Archer and Easy Rawlins? The roster could continue, but again I’ll point out that Susanna Lee didn’t assemble a laundry list of hard-boiled detectives, but instead, aimed to show how the uniquely American literary invention of the lone-wolf hard-boiled P.I. represents evolving periods in modern history. 

Coming from a steady diet of cozies and ready to take a peek at the dark, violent world of hard-boiled detective literature? Then pick another non-fiction book to provide you with an overview, but keep Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows on hand for a later read when you want to delve deeper into what these iconic characters represent.

Ana’s Paloma.

I’m not the world’s biggest James Bond fan, with mixed feelings about the original 1950’s-60’s Ian Fleming novels, favoring the first three Sean Connery films over all others, and with (you can yell at me and throw things now) the first Pierce Brosnan film, Goldeneye, coming in next. But not being the world’s biggest fan doesn’t mean I’m still not on board for all of them…well, except for the Roger Moore films. Sorry, I just cannot get into those. 

Planned for a Spring release, but delayed like everything else in our pandemic world and now headed our way (we’ll see) this November is the 25thNo Time To Die. Ana De Armas strikes some lethal poses as CIA agent Paloma, a “Bond Girl” though not 007’s love interest, or so I’ve read. 

Nancy Guild.

I can’t call Nancy Guild (1925 – 1999) a Noir Princess, but she did star alongside George Montgomery in The Brasher Doubloon, the 1947 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1942 Philip Marlowe novel The High Window (see the preceding post). Guild may not have had the shortest Hollywood career, but close it, and her eight-movie resume’s a peculiar mix of a truly good films and real clunkers like Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man and Francis Covers The Big Town (Francis being Universal’s popular talking mule). Basically, she knocked out one film per year between 1946 and 1953, then simply left tinsel town for wedded life, only occasionally appearing on television in the late 1950’s and doing one final film role in the early 1970’s.

But check out The Brasher Doubloon, a darn good postwar noir and a respectable Chandler adaptation. Nancy Guild (her last name rhymes with ‘wild’) acquits herself well as a sometimes fetching — sometimes frightening secretary to a wealthy woman seeking the return of a valuable collectible coin from her deceased husband’s collection. Some consider The Brasher Doubloon the most ‘gothic’ of the Phillip Marlowe movies, and both of its often overlooked stars, George Montgomery and Nancy Guild, deserve to be seen. 

Mystery, Money & More.

There’s not much reason to be familiar with Racine, Wisconsin. Unless you’re a fan of old-time radio shows, that is, and remember Fibber McGee & Molly’s sponsor, the Johnson Wax company of Racine, Wisconsin (S.C. Johnson today, mega-corporate marketers of Windex, Pledge, Glade, Drano, Saran Wrap, Raid, Ziploc bags, Off and many other branded products probably lurking somewhere around your home). There’s a chance if you attended college anywhere from Chicago to Milwaukee that you might’ve taken a field trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed S.C. Johnson corporate campus for an architecture class. But that aside, Racine has been eclipsed lately by its small city/big town neighbor just a short hop down the road, Kenosha Wisconsin, which has been in the news much more than it would like.

I’ve been to Kenosha and Racine and all points in between Chicago and Milwaukee, that 100 mile+ stretch along lower Lake Michigan’s western shoreline, more or less one continuous metro area straddling two states (even been to that diesel-punk shrine S.C. Johnson campus numerous times on day job chores). But I never expected to see Racine mentioned in the pages of Mystery Scene magazine, much less to learn that one of my wordsmith heroes resided on the north side of that town for a year and half back in the mid-1960’s.

With his writing career briefly stalled, Lawrence Block (a name mentioned often enough here at The Stiletto Gumshoe) found himself relocating from Buffalo, New York to Racine, Wisconsin for a year and half, working a regular day job at Whitman Numismatic Journal (numismatics being coin collecting). The job offer was based in part on one particular 1964 article Block wrote: “Raymond Chandler And The Brasher Doubloon”. That essay (also available in Block’s collection of non-fiction pieces, Hunting Buffalo With Bent Nails, 2019), is reprinted in the latest Fall 2020 issue of Mystery Scene magazine, and it’s an intriguing read for Block fans and Raymond Chandler enthusiasts alike. Whether you know Chandler’s story from his 1942 Philip Marlowe novel The High Window or the 1947 film adaptation (the second, actually) The Brasher Doubloon with George Montgomery and Nancy Guild, do check out Block’s essay. 

This Fall 2020 Mystery Scene issue is full of the usual tasty stuff, including all the new book release ads and reviews, some of which I’ve added to the orders refilling the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable. But there’s more, of course, like Pat H. Broeske’s excellent (but all too short!) “Love On The Run” article, which takes a look at some of the many Hollywood films inspired at least in part by the notorious exploits of the real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, including Joseph Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1957), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) naturally enough, Nicholas Ray’s incredible They Live By Night (1948) and others. They Live By Night is a particular fave of mine and overdue for a fresh viewing soon. It’s odd that such a noir classic is mostly seen in cheesy omnibus disk set editions found in bargain bins. If you haven’t seen this one, perhaps Italian illustrator Averardo Ciriello’s gorgeous film poster art below will send you off to find this incredible piece of doomed, dark romance with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The faces Ciriello painted for that poster are truly haunting.

As for Mystery Scene magazine, go get your own copy of the Fall 2020 Mystery Scene now…

Sixties Spy Style.

The Wilson Lewes Trio had four LP’s, I think, each a compilation of their takes on popular movie theme songs. I don’t know if this kitschy 1966 album with the themes from Dean Martin’s The Silencers and James Coburn’s Our Man Flint was even remotely listenable. But the two well-armed assassins look formidable enough – and suitably swinging sixties-ish – to take on playboy photographer Matt Helm and former Z.O.W.I.E (Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage) spy Derek Flint.

Sweet Temptation.

Some examples of Egyptian photographer, artist and filmmaker Yousseff Nabil’s hand-tinted gelatin prints shown here, much of his work intended to evoke the look of old Egyptian films he saw in his youth. I’ve tried my hand at had tinting B&W prints with oils, the results pretty tragic, and have to marvel not only at his lens work but his deft hand with the subtle and effective coloring. I believe these come from Nabil’s 1997 “Sweet Temptation: Cairo” series. 

Rest In Peace, Dame Enid.

Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg: (7.20.1938 – 9.10.2020), with a long and creative stage, TV and film career dating back to 1959, but best known to many for her fondly remembered run as agent Emma Peel on The Avengers back in 1965 -1968. Rest in peace, Ms. Rigg…

Tula, Felia & Cyd…And The Girl Hunt Ballet.

Doing a double-check of Hollywood movie trivia for some writing-in-progress, I had to pause when I stumbled across “The Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence from Vincente Minelli’s 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. Call me a procrastinator, but I just had to watch it a couple of times. Now, musicals aren’t really my thing. But if you haven’t seen this stunning 12-minute homage to then controversial Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer hard-boiled novels, you’re missing a treat. In the mini-movie-within-a-movie, Fred Astaire’s a dapper but dangerous New York gumshoe and Cyd Charisse may be the most bewitching femme fatale to ever melt a movie screen. For more about “The Girl Hunt Ballet”, follow the link below to a December 2018 post here at The Stiletto Gumshoe.

As for Cyd Charisse, that would be Tula Ellice Finklea from Amarillo, Texas, who first went by Felia Sidrova and later Maria Istomina while dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in her late teens and early twenties (when she married fellow dancer Nico Charisse). She became ‘Cyd’ when talent scouts lured her to Hollywood…though even that would be after a brief stint going by Lily Norwood. A woman of many names, indeed. That Charisse was a dancer (and one of Hollywood’s all-time greats) is doubly amazing considering that she began studying ballet to build up her body during a sickly childhood and a bout with polio. 

If an MGM musical star still needed any more mystery/crime/noir cred after her memorable “The Girl Hunt Ballet” performance, check out Nicholas Ray’s 1958 Party Girl, where Charisse is a cynical Chi-Town showgirl mixed up with gangsters and falling for a crooked mob lawyer. It didn’t do so well here in the U.S. and is rarely listed among better known postwar film noir and crime melodramas, but oddly enough it’s gained some sort of cult following among European crime film fans. As luck would have it, Party Girl airs on Sunday evening 9.6.20 (this post being written days ago).

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2018/12/29/the-girl-hunt-ballet/

Renato Fratini

Born in a small town outside of Rome, Italy in 1932, Renato Fratini studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti de Roma and began his commercial art career in the early 1950’s, originally doing comic strips and spot illustrations for the Guerri Brothers studio. But in 1952 he moved to the competing Favelli Brothers agency, which had a contract with Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, allowing Fratini to work on a number of now iconic European film posters.

He continued doing a lot of film promotion work there and later for other studios throughout the fifties, while also expanding into paperback book cover art. That work led Fratini to London, where he dived into his most productive period, churning out popular film poster, magazine illustration and book cover art assignments in a unique mixed media combining acrylic underpainting layered with inks and gouache. Some bio’s wonder how the artist managed to produce so much work throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, notorious for living it up in the swinging sixties Rome and London party scenes. Sadly, his lifestyle caught up with him, and Renato Fratini passed away at the young age of 41 in 1973. 

Over-Exposed (1956)

Noir? Nope. Kinda-fun vintage sleaze with a dark veneer? You betcha. 

Over-Exposed is a 1956 low-budget Columbia Cleo Moore leer-fest from director Lewis Seiler. If Moore’s collaborations with writer-director-actor Hugo Haas teased and titillated (with more sizzle on the films’ posters and lobby cards than on-screen), this one makes no excuses about being an exploitation flick. And yet, it’s pretty engaging and written/shot/acted much better than it had any need to be.

The film opens with Cleo Moore dragged from a paddy wagon along with a group of fellow clip-joint B-Girls and (we’re to assume) hookers while a crime photographer snaps away. The cops tell her to be on the next bus out of town if she wants to stay out of jail, but she ends up bunking down at the crime photographer’s dumpy home studio. He may be old and a drunk but they become pals and he teaches her some studio basics from both sides of the lens. Gifted with some of his old camera gear, she finally buys that bus ticket and heads for the big city, anxious to become a news photographer, but unprepared for the cut-throat competition. 

She hooks up with a young, handsome reporter played by Richard Crenna (on a break from the last season of his long-running radio/TV role as geeky high-schooler Walter Denton on Our Miss Brooks). He’s smitten right from the start, but Cleo’s not looking for love, she’s looking to make it big in the big bad city. She’s working soon enough, but only as a mob-connected cocktail lounge’s “flash girl” where the fit of her skimpy costume is more important than her camera skills. Ambition gets the best of her, though. “Green becomes me,” she says, and soon enough her camera’s got her tied up with a sleazy columnist, mobsters and blackmail schemes, ultimately kidnapped by the mob.  

Cleo Moore’s not Ida Lupino or Lauren Bacall. Richard Crenna’s not Bogart or Mitchum. And director Seiler (who started out in the silent era) isn’t Fritz Lang or Nicholas Ray, though he did direct Whiplash in 1948. This is pure exploitation drive-in fare, ripe with leering mid-fifties naughtiness (which means it’s kind of tacky). But Moore delivers this time, the story moves along at a decent clip and there’s a nicely crafted shot or two along the way. And by that I don’t mean all the ogling of Cleo Moore prancing around her apartment studio in a black leotard and mesh hose or tussling with lushes in in her “flash girl” costume. Over-Exposed is in rotation on the Movies! Network’s two night’s of sorta and sorta-not noir films, and if you have that channel, I’d give this one a try. 

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