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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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

Lichtspiele

Alexi Lubomirski

No one’s advocating smoking, so don’t comment with nasty remarks. Lets face it, traditional film noir or even cliched ‘noir culture’ is more or less a smoke-fest, and whatever the health hazards and general evil-ness of the addiction, smoking does make for some stunning images.

Here, Alexi Lubomirski shoots model Constance Jablonski for Vogue Germany back in 2013 for an editorial called “Lichtspiele”, a series of striking images reminiscent of 1930’s film studio backstage and glamour shots.

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More About Gina Higgins’ American Noir…

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(See preceding post)

An admitted fan of what I choose to call ‘noir culture’, I’ve long been enamored with not only the classics of American film noir cinema, but noir-ish themes in everything from crime fiction novels to postwar paperback cover illustrations, neo-noir comics to noir-ish narrative style fashion photography. I suspect that in this, California artist Gina Higgins and I may share some interests (or in her case, influences). But take note: There’s more evidence of Hitchcock and David Lynch at work here than Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer.

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Yes, the work is inspired by, evokes or perhaps even celebrates the iconography, cultural cues and tropes of traditional Film Noir, but seems more rooted in the look and feel of hepcat Rat-Pack era nightlife with all of its undercurrent of danger and dark sensuality. The over-used and often mis-appropriated symbols of so-called noir culture (or lets call them what they sometimes are: Clichés) are missing here. Her paintings are remarkably free of fat-fendered cars, wide-brimmed fedoras, snub-nose revolvers and revealing glimpses of stocking tops, the go-to memes many artists and photographers reach for when they want to telegraph something vaguely ‘noir’. This is the American Noir of 77 Sunset Strip, Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddel, pre-Camelot nightspots where dark romance might be found, and garish neon lights may only illuminate lusts unleashed, or unfulfilled.

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Check out more of Gina Higgins’ work at americannoirpaintings.com, where you’ll also find Giclee prints of her paintings and a handsome looking artist’s monograph book. I already ordered mine, though I’m guessing it’s a POD book, so I won’t receive it till late this month.

“American Noir”…Gina Higgins work really is precisely that.

G Higgins Artist Book

American Noir Paintings Dot Com

https://americannoirpaintings.com

Gina Higgins’ American Noir

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“American Noir”, the ongoing series of stunning large format paintings by California artist Gina Higgins, is aptly named. That they’re noir is apparent. But the way they evoke a time, place and ‘feeling’ of a sensual and dark slice of America may be their real power and beauty.

Can you tell I’ve become hooked?

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Gina Higgins may have been born in New Orleans, but she grew up in Los Angeles off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills. That Los Angeles-Hollywood vibe seems to permeate her work – from film culture to Sunset Boulevard to retro L.A. nightlife. Still a teenager, she took a break from her college education to study and draw abroad in France and Italy (basically like winning the lottery for an art student) then returned to complete her degree, graduating from the University of Southern California Roski School Of Fine Art.

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Early Higgins illustrations became sought after work for clients like Liz Claiborne, Etienne Aigner, MGM, CBS and others, and then in 2009 Higgins began her signature series of large format paintings (acrylics on canvas, if I’ve read the notes right on various sites) that became “American Noir’. Clearly a masterful figurative painter, Higgins doesn’t seem to be content with straightforward representational realism. Her figures and faces are personalized, stylized and manipulated with a skilled hand till they’re kind of one – almost organically – with her semi-surreal settings and backgrounds. I’ve never seen a Gina Higgins painting in the flesh, but something tells me it would make me want to cry.

See next post…

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Mister Cool

Ezekiel Easy Rawlins

Mister Cool: I mean, he just is. And never more so than in this film that was a gem to many critics but a flop at the box office for some reason. Denzel Washington strikes a pose as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins from the 1995 film adaptation of Walter Mosley’s first published novel Devil In A Blue Dress (1990).

Decoy: Retro TV’s First Woman With A Badge?

Decoy

Before Charlie’s Angels in 1976 – 1981, before Angie Dickinson played Sergeant Pepper Anderson in Police Woman from 1974 to 1978, even before Anne Francis reinvented Honey West in one 1965-1966 season that became a bit of a cult favorite, there was New York Police Officer Casey Jones, memorably played by Beverly Garland in the 1957-1958 season’s Decoy.

Now only a retro TV and pop culture forgotten footnote, Decoy was actually a groundbreaking series. Inspired in part by the successful Jack Webb series Dragnet, Decoy was the first TV show to film on location in New York City, the first show to feature a police woman as its main character and, in fact, the first full-season dramatic series to feature a female protagonist at all.

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As with Dragnet, Garland provides voice-over narration to introduce the episodes, bridge scenes, and sometime break the ‘fourth wall’ to offer a summation at the episode’s end. Little is revealed about Officer Casey Jones’ personal life. She has no regular partner, and normally works out of different precincts, assigned to handle a wide variety of cases and crimes, sometimes in uniform, more often undercover. There’s a wonderfully gritty urban edge in almost every episode, making the most of the locations, with only selected scenes shot on interior sets built in New York’s 26th Street Armory. Tight budgets and fast-paced six-day per week schedules demanded on-the-fly filming with few amenities: No plush stars’ trailers, the actors changing in apparel store dressing rooms, using restaurant restrooms and wearing thermals under their costumes during winter time shoots (though Garland usually had to forego even a sweater because it made her uniform look too bulky). Beverly Garland often did her own stunts and fight scenes. Known primarily as a B-Movie actress at this point, though actually one of Hollywood’s more reliable TV actors, Garland does a magnificent job in diverse roles and situations, sometimes playing a no-nonsense uniformed cop or more often going undercover as everything from a thief to a junkie, a nightclub singer to an asylum inmate. Officer Casey Jones is consistently capable, smart, aggressive but compassionate, a good shot and handy in tussle, and best of all, seems to command the full respect of her fellow officers and superiors. Garland gets down and dirty for some undercover roles, and glams it up in others, in what must have been one hell of a part for an actor to play.

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I know there are some episodes on YouTube, and I’ve seen public domain DVD sets with a few episodes each in used bookstore bargain bins, but I can’t vouch for the picture or audio quality on those. Once I read about this series, I bit the bullet and bought the Film Chest Media Group Complete Series DVD Set, and the quality is really top notch, the visuals darn near as striking as a period film noir, just as the scripts pulled no punches on some pretty edgy stuff for the time.

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Sadly, the series only lasted one season. Right from the start, the networks and potential sponsors were uneasy about a dramatic series with a female lead, and a cop show at that. Westinghouse was the primary sponsor, but when the series failed to deliver the hoped for viewership, it was cancelled, though it continued in syndication for the next seven years.

If you get a chance to see some episodes of Decoy, I think you’ll agree that it’s a surprisingly mature and well-made show for its time, and Beverly Garland did some memorable work when roles like this simply didn’t exist. Do look for it.

Noir City Daydreaming: On The Road

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Maybe your daydream is striking it rich with a Lotto ticket. Maybe it’s just being able to turn on a cable news show without wondering if the world’s gone completely mad.

Mine? Sounds silly, but I think mine would be to do a noir film fest version of ‘Deadheading’. You know, ‘Deadheads’: The caravans of post-hippies that travelled from one Grateful Dead concert to another, long after real hippies became grandparents out in the suburbs. But no tie-dye and bellbottoms for me, because I’d be travelling from city to city to take in each of the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Film Festivals. Start at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago, then the Balboa Theater in San Francisco, The Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, the Redford Theatre in Detroit, then all the way back to the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and on and on…

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But it’d have to be done right.

I’d start at one of those specialty auto rental agencies that supply vehicles for film and TV productions, wanting something postwar but pre-tailfins, and absolutely enormous with big fat fenders. Maybe for one of the cross-country treks I might swap the wheels for a train, Union Station in Chicago to Union Station in Los Angeles (think how many flicks we’ve watched with scenes shot there). It’d only be Amtrak, of course, not the Santa Fe Super Chief, but still. Advance research online could take care of lodging, pinpointing some aging hotels that haven’t turned into crack dens or SRO’s yet, and then locate piano bars and all-nite diners (I said it’s a daydream, didn’t I?) Imagine: Getting all duked up, hit the festival to see some genre classics, restorations and little-known’s on the big screen instead of a TV, or worse, a laptop. Cocktails after, like a Rob Roy or Ramos Gin Fizz at a jazz lounge where the music’s as smoky as the atmosphere (smoking would not only be legal, but insisted on in this mythical trip, though of course, not a health hazard), followed by a wee hours bite in a period-perfect greasy spoon before turning in. Then up at noon the next day, pack up the land cruiser and hit the highway for the next burg.

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Daydream with me here, noir fans. Now I’m no Cosplay fan, but proper attire would be essential. For the fellows? Suits: mandatory, along with those ridiculously short, stubby ties so popular in the late forties. A full brimmed fedora on top, and depending on the weather, one of those huge topcoats a person can almost get lost in. Bonus points for a monogrammed white handkerchief always at the ready, a plain silver Zippo lighter, and a billfold (not a wallet, a billfold) with actual paper money inside, even if you normally pay with your phone or a swipe of a chip card.

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For the gals: Pleated slacks may be fine for the long city-to-city drives, but it’s strictly padded shoulder dresses for the theatres and after, hats encouraged if you can figure out where to buy one, wide brims and netting a plus. Sorry, but bare-legged is out, hose a must, and be sure to tote around a clutch whether you need it or not, though there’d be no point in packing a lighter because you’d just dangle your cigarette between the very tips of your red-nailed fingers (that match your red lipstick) till someone lit you up.

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Obviously, it’s never gonna happen. Even if there was some way to take off work for days and weeks at a time, I suspect there’d be a few calls from the credit card companies, somewhere between the train tickets and the reservations at the seedy hotels. And really, just where do you even buy monogrammed white handkerchiefs or fancy hats with netting today? I said it was a daydream, albeit ‘Noir Daydreaming’. But these utterly gorgeous Film Noir Foundation Noir City Film Festival posters sure can make a person fantasize, can’t they?

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