Criminal On-Duty.

Foreign (Italian, I’m thinking) poster art for Columbia’s 1953 noir Pushover with Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray, called “Criminal On Duty” here. This poster’s art always intrigued me, first because it’s such a disturbing image – a knock on the door, you open it and WHAM! Badness is about to happen.

But aside from the visceral artwork, it’s an interesting decision not to depict either of the film’s two main stars (well, other than Fred MacMurray’s hand) and show Dorothy Malone instead of Kim Novak. Mind you, I love them both, and Malone did what she could in a small but important role. All the same, the image here is dynamic and unsettling at the same time, don’t you think?

Pushover: Double Indemnity, Take Two.

I haven’t read Thomas Walsh’s 1953 novel The Night Watch or William Ballinger’s Rafferty from the same year, but both books were adapted by screenwriter Roy Huggins for Richard Quine’s 1954 Columbia noir, Pushover. At the time, reviewers compared it (favorably or not) to 1944’s Double Indemnity, and understandably so, both films starring Fred MacMurray as a too-smart-for-his-own-good fellow who may not be dirty but is certainly a bit dusty, enough to fall in love or lust with a seductive blonde even though he knows she’ll be pure trouble. In the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s steamy novel, it was Barbara Stanwyck, of course, in one of most memorable roles. Here it’s a young Kim Novak. 

The movie opens with an action-packed robbery that goes bad. Cut to stag-night MacMurray spotting unattached Kim Novak at a late-night movie. Kim’s car trouble leads them to a cocktail lounge, then to more drinks at home (and presumably whatever else goes on there that couldn’t be shown in 1950s films). The coincidental meeting looks to turn into a romance, till we learn that MacMurray’s actually a cop who’s been tailing Novak all along, she being the gal pal of the armed robber who’s now wanted for murder. 

She’s no dope, figures out that MacMurray’s a detective, but love is love and lust is lust, and soon enough the two conspire to get their mitts on the heist man’s loot and make their getaway. Just why they think their hastily hatched scheme can succeed with two-man police teams doing round the clock surveillance on Novak’s apartment eludes me. Meanwhile, MacMurray’s confirmed bachelor partner falls hard for Kim Novak’s neighbor, played by Dorothy Malone, a cute nurse he’s keeping an eye on (literally) through binoculars from his perch across the street. Keep that in mind the next time you wonder if you ought to close the blinds when you’re down to your skimpies or getting up to something naughty.

No surprise, just about everything that could go wrong does, with MacMurray getting deeper in trouble by the hour and a couple of bodies left in his wake. Like all good noirs, doomed love is precisely that: Doomed.

I’d only seen this film once before, but it’s suddenly in rotation on the MOVIES! cable channel’s Sunday and Thursday night noir showcases. Double Indemnity it’s not, but it’s damn good. Dark, steamy, punctuated with sudden bursts of violence…all you could want from a mid-1950’s crime film. 

It had been ten years since Fred MacMurray helped make the screen sizzle alongside Barbara Stanwyck as Walter Neff and Phyllis Deitrichson. With a 25-year age difference, it’s understandable if you consider him mismatched with sleek 21 year old Kim Novak. But then, Hollywood never fretted much about pairing middle-aged (and older) fellows with ingenues and starlets (I mean, Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn? Seriously?). That we believe that Kim Novak’s gun moll doesn’t only see MacMurray’s crooked cop as her ticket out of the life, but that he actually gets her motor humming, is just a testament to the young actress’ emerging talent. Bottom line: The duo make it work. MacMurray was an old pro, and one of Hollywood’s highest earning actors at the time, but this was Kim Novak’s first starring role. In fact, it was only her second film, the previous part just an uncredited walk-on. 

On TV, online (it’s there) or on disk – if you haven’t seen Pushover, check it out. It won’t make it to the top of your film noir list, but you won’t be disappointed.

Happy Belated B-Day, April.

I thought I had this scheduled for Monday the 2nd, but I messed up.

So, a happy belated birthday to “April Dancer” (what a cool character name), The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., AKA Stephanie Powers, one of retro TV’s iconic girl-with-a-gun characters, who later starred in the mystery series Hart To Hart, and earlier in her career earned her ‘Noir Cred’ as Toby Sherwood in Blake Edwards’ creepy 1962 neo-noir thriller Experiment In Terror.

Powers was born Stefania Zofya Paul Federkiewicz in Hollywood (that made for a short trip to get a career rolling) on November 2, 1942, and happily is still with us today. 

Probably too much to ask, but can I have that sleek Girl From U.N.C.L.E. car, pretty please?

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Post Mortem.

Halloween 2020: If there were trick-or-treaters out and about Saturday afternoon and evening, they vanished like ghosts. Mostly out and about myself on a loooong list of errands from mid-morning through sundown or thereabouts, I saw some folks perched beside outdoor candy bowls in their driveways, one “trunk-n-treat” going on in a grammar school parking lot, but only a handful of kids in costumes making the rounds, and who knows how many houses were ready with treats vs. how many opted for a pandemic year off. 

My Saturday to-do list found me driving from here to there and back again for hours, with satellite radio and a local station’s Halloween specials of old-time radio horror shows for creepy company. As noted in previous posts, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, Casey, Crime Photographer and a host of other mystery/crime shows are more my taste, but the 1930’s – 1950’s Golden Age of Radio had its share of spooky shows, like Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, The Hermit’s Cave, Suspense, Witches Tales and others. I heard a couple of stinkers and some darn good ones, and even the worst were better than listening to the dueling pre-election rallies on the cable news stations’ simulcasts.

Once it got dark and the grown-up ghouls could take over, I’m guessing the nightspot costume parties were few and far between ‘round here, new indoor dining and drinking Covid restrictions in place since Friday. That’s a lot of Party City and pop-up Spirit Halloween store sexy devils, sexy nurses, sexy vampires, sexy angels, sexy cops, sexy witches and sexy-whatever’s who had to stash their wigs and fishnets in storage till next year. 

The most Halloween-ish thing I did was watch Universal’s 1943 Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, the first of the studio’s monster bash movies, and the first to show the monster stumbling around with outstretched arms (though it never explains that he’s supposed to be blind…along with a whole lot of other classic horror trivia that make for a story in itself) and in general, is a charming (not scary) piece of vintage camp.  

I’ll look ahead to Halloween 2021, when things will hopefully be slightly closer to normal, trick-or-treaters can crowd the sidewalks and sexy-whatever’s can see if their costumes still fit. Thinking about things still remaining the way they are now is scarier than any Universal monster-fest flick.

Witch photo: Igor Voloshin

Goodbye, James (1930 – 2020).

I may not be the biggest James Bond fan in the world, only kinda-sorta into the Ian Fleming novels, but I do truly love the first four films, Dr. No through Thunderball, with Scottish actor Sean Connery in the 007 role, and for me Connery will always be James Bond (Pierce Brosnan’s stint in the part comes second, so the Roger Moore, Daniel Craig and George Lazenby fans can howl all they want now). It’s sad when anyone passes, but today’s news that Sean Connery passed away is bittersweet, the man having lived a long and full life that any one of us can only envy. We mourn another icon lost, but cherish the memories.

Rest in peace, Sir Thomas Sean Connery. Your body of work will live on for a long time to come. 

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Meow.

I’m usually not big on the vintage pinup and cheesecake photos, but I am big on Paulette Goddard, probably best known for her work with Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and The Great Dictator. But in her way, she also marked her turf among Golden Age Hollywood horror actors and scream queens for her starring roles in back-to-back horror comedies with Bob Hope, The Cat And The Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940). 

Paulette Goddard (real name: Marion Levy 1910-1990) was a child model, a Zeigfield Girl, an Oscar nominee, a 1950’s Hollywood blacklist victim, appeared in over 60 films between 1929 and 1964 and was married to Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. And she managed to look pretty adorable when she had to wiggle into a studio costume department’s black cat suit (literally) for some Halloween pinup shots. 

Well, It Scared Me When I Was A Kid.

Seasonal movie watching has been a little sparse this year, and I don’t mean the Hallmark Channel ladling out a new batch gooey sweet Christmas romances. No, I’m talking about the Halloween season. My fault, though, since I’m not much of a fan of most of the contemporary horror films cluttering the cable channels, finding most of them gross at best or sadistically vile in a few cases. Universal 1930’s – 1940’s classics (even the silly multi-monster-fests) are more to my taste along with a few of the 1950’s – 1970’s Hammer horrors (partial to the Dracula and other vampire films, even the later sex-ified lesbian-vampire bared-breast-fests). I’ve caught a few of all these on cable or my own DVD’s. And though I’m kind of indifferent to most of the 1950’s – 1970’s Roger Corman/AIP shockers and their kin from that time, I do like one flick from that era: Shock-meister William Castle’s The House On Haunted Hill from 1959.

1959 being the same year in which my own personal writing projects are set (that being “The Stiletto Gumshoe”), The House On Haunted Hill even merits a mention in the first novel currently making the rounds (still). And that film was on in primetime Wednesay evening, so I was sprawled on the couch in the dark watching it. Sure, the movie’s kind of silly, but it’s more eerily subdued than most drive-in fare from that time…dark and claustrophobic throughout, and I bet it was spooky enough in a dark movie theater sixty years ago…especially with showman Castle’s “Emergo” in-theater special effects (a dummy skeleton floating on wires over the audience). 

Vincent Price plays an eccentric millionaire who’s invited a seemingly random group of guests to spend the night in a notorious haunted house. Anyone who can survive till morning earns a cool ten grand. They’re joined by his very reluctant (and presumably unfaithful) wife, played by Carol Ohmart, and watching Price and Ohmart chew up the scenery while they try to out-bitch each other is quite a treat. There are sudden shocks aplenty, but one sequence in particular absolutely un-nerved me when I first saw this movie on TV as a kid. Carolyn Craig plays Nora Manning, the ingenue among the guests, and she bears the brunt of the frights and ghostly attacks. Not long after Carol Ohmart’s found dead – hung over a stairwell, though whether it was suicide, murder, or by some otherworldly hand is unclear – her spirit appears outside young Nora’s bedroom window. The very rope she was hung by slowly snakes in through the window, slithering across the floor towards Nora, circling her feet, ready to loop into a noose…and – 

Well, I’m not sure what it was ready to do. Hang Nora by her heels? No matter. That rope pulling tight around her shoes along with the sight of the presumed dead Carol Ohmart floating outside the window was (and still is) pretty chilling. I’m sure I saw much scarier things in my wayward youth, even scarier things in The House On Haunted Hill, but this sequence still lingers with me..   

The House On Haunted Hill wraps up with a pretty standard if slightly implausible haunted house tale resolution to chase away all (or most) of the supernatural. And though I usually consider it a sacrilege, there’s even a colorized version of this movie that’s not un-watchable, the hues much more subdued than most colorized hatchet jobs.

As if the movie’s eerie sense of dread and the macabre wasn’t enough, it even intruded on real-life when the lovely Carolyn Craig (1934 – 1970), who’d only started working in films three years before appearing in The House On Haunted Hill and whose resume already included 8 movies (even the critically acclaimed A Face In The Crowd), tragically took her own life, dying from a self-inflicted gunshot, and only 36 when she died.

Cue the spooky music now…

Cordelia On Screen.

P.D. James’ young London private detective Cordelia Gray debuted in the 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (see the preceding post for more about that book). Twenty-two, just this side of broke, partnered with a former Scotland Yard detective in a none-too-successful P.I. agency, Cordelia suddenly must take over when she finds her one-time mentor and former boss dead in his office. 

The first Cordelia Gray novel was not only a bit of a groundbreaker, being a decade ahead of some more well-known mystery series led by women detectives, but also a darn good read. So, it’s surprising that writer James (1920 – 2014) only penned one more Cordelia Gray novel, and that one came ten years later. But presumably the character resonated with fans nonetheless, first in a 1982 film that quickly came and went (and if it’s still lurking out there somewhere, I haven’t found it), then, fifteen years later, Cordelia reappeared, and this time more successfully. 

The UK 1997 – 2001 BBC series of feature length episodes started out based in part on James’ novel, but the rest used original stories, though intended at least to maintain the novelist’s tone and stay true to the character. To be fair, there really were only two Cordelia Gray novels to adapt. Some sites suggest that P.D. James wasn’t entirely thrilled with the film/TV adaptations and remained determined to undermine anymore attempts (thus, refusing to write another Cordelia Gray novel). True or myth, I can’t say. I can say that the series lead, Helen Baxendale, does a very credible job of portraying Cordelia Gray. Baxendale may be more familiar to U.S audiences (or at least Gen-Xr’s and syndicated rerun channel watchers) as Emily Waltham, David Schwimmer/Ross Geller’s unlucky British girlfriend/fiancée/wife from the NBC mega-hit sitcom Friends. Baxendale’s real-life first pregnancy may have cut short her stint on that US series, but was neatly written in to An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. So, Ms. Gray joined the select club of literary/TV/film/comics private eyes and cops mothers and moms-to-be. 

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Dark Seduction.

If you plunk down some hard-earned coin for a look at Dark Seduction, a low-low budget film that’s part film noir pastiche and part 1980’s vampire spoof, don’t come looking for me. I’m not recommending Greg Travis and Steve Bishart’s twelve-years-in-the-making pet project, nor condemning it. Haven’t seen it, actually, only viewing an online trailer, and really only rooting around for suitable items to post here for the Halloween season. Stumbling across a 2016 LA Weekly article by Gwynedd Stuart titled “A Lesbian Vampire Film Noir 30 years In The Making Is A Time Capsule From 1984” seemed to fit the bill.

The Queen of Technicolor.

Green eyed and red haired, she was dubbed “The Queen of Technicolor”, but actress Rhonda Fleming (8.10.23 – 10.14.20), who passed away earlier this week at age 97, never cared for that label, preferring people to recognize her professional accomplishments, which were many. Appearing in nearly fifty films between 1943 and the mid 60’s, plus numerous television appearances, she played everything from the best of the good girls to the worst of the femmes fatales in romances, crime films, westerns and costume dramas, but ultimately was perhaps better known for her philanthropic work after she semi-retired from acting. Fleming needs no intro to film noir and crime melodrama enthusiasts, having appeared in classics like Out Of The Past (the memorably malicious San Francisco secretary trying to frame Robert Mitchum), Spellbound, Cry Danger, The Killer Is Loose, While The City Sleeps and others. 

For a glimpse of Rhonda Flemings work (alongside costar Arlene Dahl) hit the link below for more about 1956’s “noir-in-color” Slightly Scarlet from 1956.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/11/06/a-ruthless-story-of-rackets-and-redheads/

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