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.

Bye, Dex.

This won’t be the first one we’ll hear about, pandemic production a logistical nightmare for every TV show and film, and viewing routines all discombobulated. ABC’s Stumptown, based on Greg Rucka’s darkly hard-boiled comics series and starring Cobie Smulders as Dex Parios, was originally renewed for a second season. But the news came down last week that the show’s been cancelled. Dex was one of broadcast television’s better ‘stiletto gumshoes’, though the likelihood of seeing Dex teetering on stiletto heels would be pretty slim. One hopeful note: ABC is reportedly trying to sell the series to another network or streaming service. Fingers crossed, right?

Rui Ricardo.

More work from Portuguese artist, illustrator and designer Rui Ricardo, who did the handsome cover art for Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors The Dead, discussed in a prior post. To see more of the artist’s work (and there’s a lot to gaze at) go to http://www.rui-ricardo.com

What’s Old is New Again.

My pre-Halloween reading (an illustrated edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) wrapped up a few days before the holiday, and I was tempted to grab another horror classic as we headed closer to the 31st. But the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable still had a few books, with one right on top I was anxious to get to, the sleek Rui Ricardo cover art calling to me each time passed by. 

“Fortune favors the bold” is a Latin proverb, and frequently used as a slogan by the military and on European coats of arms. Fortune favors the dead? Well…

I didn’t know much about Stephen Spotswood’s new Fortune Favors The Dead, only that it was set in post-WWII NYC and had been likened to a gender-bending version of Nero Wolfe, all of which sounded good to me. As it turned out, the only disappointment with Spotswood’s debut novel came once I reached the end. No tap dancing around things here: I loved this book, did not want it to end, and insist that Spotswood hunker down on a follow-up…like now.

Fortune Favors The Dead introduces a memorable detective duo: Lillian Pentecost, an already well-known and successful New York private investigator and all-around ‘fixer’ who’s reserved, insightful, and unfortunately, suffering from worsening MS. Finding a very special person to mentor as an assistant is essential. In a sort-of prologue set three years before the novel’s main storyline, we meet the narrator, Willowjean “Will” Parker, a teenage runaway roving the country with a small-time circus, earning some extra pocket money during its New York stay. In an exciting opening scene, Willowjean’s knife throwing skills save Lillian Pentecost, and land Will in jail.

The real story picks up right after the end of WWII, with the Pentecost agency enlisted to investigate the murder of a wealthy industrialist’s widow (the industrialist having offed himself earlier). The killing took place right after a spooky séance at a Halloween costume party and is a genuine locked room mystery with plenty of suspects.

What’s old is new again in Spotswood’s capable hands, situating his debut novel in comfortable territory and populating it with familiar types. Mind you, none of this is done in a derivative manner. Quite the contrary, Spotswood turns Golden Age mystery fiction and film tropes on their ear, reinventing everything in a way that honors genre roots but feels entirely fresh and new, most notably by replacing cerebral Nero Wolfe and streetwise Archie Goodwin with an intriguing detective duo like Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker, than taking things still further with Will’s risky attraction to a possible suspect — the pretty party girl stepdaughter of the murder victim — and even further still with the ultimate resolution of the crime(s). An admission: I didn’t figure out even one tiny bit of the mystery on my own and clumsily fell for every single red herring the author inserted along the way. Credit to Stephen Spotswood.

Is Fortune Favors The Dead a standalone? I really hope not. I want to return to Lillian Pentecost’s well-appointed headquarters home and tag along with Willowjean Parker, whether she’s getting herself in trouble (which she does) or getting in too deep with a pretty face. Come to think of it, those are both the same thing.

Chugging ZZZQuil With Map Daddy.

A dedicated film noir fan ought to be more of a drinker, able to take it straight from a pint bottle of rye like any hard-boiled gumshoe, or at least able to keep a grip on a long-stemmed cocktail glass in a smoky nightclub like any self-respecting femme fatale. A writer as well? Hell, there ought to be a fifth of bourbon flanking my manual Royal, no glass required. 

But it’s a Mac, not a typewriter, and only a coffee mug and an ash tray (tsk-tsk!) keep the computer company. And when it comes to alcohol, frankly, I’m a lightweight. 

Still, it might’ve made sense to stake out a bar stool at a local lounge ‘round mid-day Tuesday the 3rd and just stay put for the night, for a week or however long it took. “It” being the election, of course. Michael Koelsch’s cover art for Hard Case Crime’s Cocktail Waitress (above) by James M. Cain looks about right. Though Paul Rader’s art for ‘March Hastings’ (Sally Singer) The Drifter (below) from 1962 was more the feeling.

We all knew it wouldn’t get called Tuesday evening, what with tens of millions of early vote ballots, mail-in ballots, absentee and overseas ballots in a tightening race. Nail-biters like Georgia aside, increased turnout, extra scrutiny and a little thing called the pandemic were bound to drag things out. Oh, I still had to go to the day job on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Fill the tank, grab some groceries and all the other regular life stuff. But it was hard to focus on anything while it felt like the fate of the world hung in the balance…which, of course, it did. Hanging out till the wee hours with the broadcast and cable networks’ Map-Daddies (MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki the best of the bunch, whether you like the channel or not) is not good for the blood pressure, peace of mind or trying to catch some ZZZZ’s. It would’ve been better to hunker down in the writing lair with the TV going and a bottle of something strong at hand, but as noted above: I’m not much of a drinker. No, it was four nights of watching till whenever and then guzzling some ZZZQuil to catch some sleep before the AM alarm went off, and I could go back to pretending that we weren’t teetering between some hoped-for return to normalcy and something infinitely worse than merely four more years of chaos. 

Confession: It wasn’t actually ZZZQuil. Cheapskate that I am, I buy the private label version. 

The chaos isn’t over, not by a long shot, though if you ask me, the shenanigans that will persist for a few more days – or even weeks – are more about using lawsuits (or the threats of suits that never materialize) to raise some much-needed cash to replenish depleted campaign coffers. But as of late Saturday morning, I feel like I can breathe again. I mean, did they actually ring bells in Paris? Probably not, but still. Up till then, it felt silly to be crafting posts about books and movies and artists when so much was at stake, and though a few items were already pre-queued to appear at Tumblr, I just let ‘em go and wasn’t paying much attention. 

So, back to ‘normal’ now. Or, sort of. As if there isn’t a killer plague ravaging the world and the U.S. in particular, and the economy isn’t shot to hell and the rising Covid case counts aren’t threatening another statewide lockdown before Thanksgiving and…well, that’s all another story, I guess. But at least I can motivate myself to crack open a book once more, watch a movie, string a few words together to compose a blog post, and hopefully, lay off the ZZZQuil – branded or generic – so my body can get back to making its own melatonin again.

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. 

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