United We Stand.

Vogue July 1942

United we stand: We did once, and I have to believe we will once again. Shown here: the cover of the July 1942 issue of Vogue magazine.

Miss America.

miss america 2

“Socially aware” Washington D.C. teenager Madeline Joyce tampered with a scientist’s equipment during an electrical storm, giving her superhuman powers and the ability to fly. She stitched together her own costume and adopted the name “Miss America” to fight Axis spies, saboteurs and criminals, first appearing in Marvel Mystery Comics in 1943, then getting her own title in 1944 in stories written by Otto Binder and drawn by Al Gabriele.  A lot of the vintage capes-n-tights crowd’s costumes are pretty impractical, if not downright silly, “Miss America’s” as much as many others (dig the sleeves on her tunic!) but I like it.

miss america 1

There were other “Miss America” superheroes around the same time, most notably “Joan Dale, Girl Reporter” who fell asleep at the foot of The Statue of Liberty, which magically came to life and endowed her with superpowers to aid America in its time of desperate need.

Mary Murphy.

Mary Murphy 1

Born in Washington D.C. but growing up in Cleveland, Mary Murphy’s father passed away when she was only nine years old. Mom packed the family off to Los Angeles, where Mary was signed to a Paramount Pictures contract after being discovered while on her lunch break from a Saks Fifth Avenue package wrapper job. The usual bit parts and uncredited roles in forgettable comedies, westerns and sci-fi flicks filled the next two years till she got her breakout lead role as Kathie Bleeker opposite Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One.

Mary Murphy 3

Mary Murphy appeared in nearly twenty more films and countless television roles through the early 1970’s, including The Desperate Hours with Frederic March and Humphrey Bogart on one hand, and the cult fave Live Fast, Die Young in 1958. A brief six-month marriage in 1956 to actor Dale Robertson was annulled after only six months, though Murphy remarried in 1962, that one ending in divorce several years later. Retiring from acting in the mid-1970’s, Murphy focused on environmental causes and art gallery work till her death in 2011.

Mary Murphy 2

No one’s going to suggest that she ought to nudge noir icons like Lizabeth Scott or Jane Greer aside, but Mary Murphy’s role as a deliciously devious femme fatale in 1955’s Hell’s Island (I much prefer the original title Love Is A Weapon) should secure her a place in the dangerous dames hall of fame, even if that movie isn’t exactly at the top of her resume.

Mary Murphy 4

Love Is A Weapon.

Hells island 1

It’s said that director Phil Karlson joked, “we took The Maltese Falcon and we did The Maltese Falcon…in our own way”.

That might be stretching it a bit, but if you get a chance to see Paramount’s Hell’s Island (originally titled Love Is A Weapon, a much better and more accurate title, I think), you’ll see what Karlson meant. Shot in Technicolor and Vista-Vision, Hell’s Island is one of several mid-1950’s crime and romantic suspense films that seem to point the way – visually, at least – to what would become neo-noir years later…specifically, how to capture film noir’s ominous and foreboding darkness in richly saturated hues. It’d be nice to watch a crisp and clean version of this movie, but aside from an incompatible format European DVD, all I’ve come up with are the online versions. Even so, it’s well worth viewing.

Hells Island 3

The opening credits roll over a violent shootout and cut to late-era noir stalwart John Payne on the operating table about to get a bullet dug out of his shoulder. A police detective squeezes in between the surgeon and nurses to light a cigarette for Payne (who’s apparently not under anesthesia…and allowed to smoke in the operating room). In classic film noir fashion, Payne launches into a voice-over narration about how he wound up there.

He’s Mike Cormack, who lost it all just a year earlier when his lifelong love Janie Erskine concluded that marriage to a dashing Caribbean pilot had more appeal than life with a struggling Los Angeles assistant D.A. Seven months spent drowning his sorrows in a bottle of booze didn’t help Cormack get over being jilted, but it did cost him his career, and now he’s a glorified Las Vegas casino bouncer. There he meets a Sydney Greenstreet/Kaspar Gutman clone played by Francis L. Sullivan in one of his last roles, an unsavory wheelchair bound manipulator with a borderline illegal proposition: A grand upfront and four more to follow if Cormack will go to Puerto Rosario to look for a precious carved Madonna ruby, stolen from the local museum and presumed lost when the smugglers’ plane crashed on takeoff. Why Cormack for this peculiar mission? Because the pilot was none other than the glamorous flyboy who stole Cormack’s girl.

Hells Island 2

To say too much about the twists and turns that peel off one after another once Cormack makes it to Puerto Rosario would be cheating. Just know that Cormack and Janie do meet up, the silver screen could just about melt once they do, and soon enough the bodies start piling up…culminating in the climactic shootout with Cormack lighting one cigarette after another on the operating table. And Janie being led away by the law into a waiting police van.

Not everyone’s a John Payne fan, but I like him just fine in this and similar roles. Mind you, if Paramount had snagged Robert Mitchum for this role instead, I wouldn’t complain. But the real revelation here is Mary Murphy as Janie Erskine (now Jane Martin). Known more for ingenue, pioneer woman and small-town girl roles, Murphy’s Janie deploys both vulnerability and duplicity wrapped in a steamy allure in order to get what she wants, and when that fails, is ready with a loaded automatic to seal the deal. There’ve been much bigger stars, more memorable heroines and evil villainesses in film noir, but only a few who can match this character’s cold bloodedness. Hell’s Island is worth looking for just to watch Murphy at work.

“Sometimes, love is a weapon,” John Payne’s Mike Cormack is told near the end of the film as he finally begins to realize that he’s been played right from the beginning. Indeed it is, particularly when it’s wielded by someone like Mary Murphy’s memorably dangerous dame.

Hells Island 4

The Case Of The Singing Skirt.

1963 the case of the singing skirt

If we can trust online translations (which we probably can’t), this 1963 Dutch edition of Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1961 Perry Mason novel The Case Of The Singing Skirt reads “The Girl’s Secret In Leotard”.  Well, that’s what I got, anyway. Which might make sense since the model in Dutch photographer Philip Mechanicus’ cover photo doesn’t appear to be wearing a skirt at all. To be fair, many U.S. paperback editions of Gardner’s Perry Mason novels showcased peculiarly steamy covers for their wildly successful mysery/courtroom potboilers. This one? A low-rent California gambling den’s cigarette girl and aspiring songstress who witnesses a gambling debt payoff winds up pinned with a murder rap…Perry Mason to the rescue.

Singing Skirt Group

Block & Pochoda In Mystery Scene.

mystery scene 164

You’ll find Ivy Pochoda (These Girls, 2020) and Lawrence Block (Dead Girl Blues, 2020) in the current Mystery Scene magazine, issue 164. Pochoda nabs this issue’s cover, and is treated to an excellent four-page profile by Oline H. Cogdill. Lawrence Block appears with “A Burglar’s Future”, a Bernie Rhodenarr story from the new The Burglar In Short Order 2020 release. Honestly, there’s not a page to be skimmed over in this particular issue, even including a review (the lead review, that is) for the novel I just finished, Pip Drysdale’s new The Sunday Girl (see an upcoming post for that one).

Prezio’s Crime Scenes.

victor prezio. the scene of the crime

Victor Prezio (born 1924) is one of those unsung heroes of the postwar pulp and paperback cover art era, largely eclipsed by better known names but responsible for a lot of illustrations you’ve likely seen many times at leading retro-art and kitschy-culture sites. These two Prezio pieces almost bookend the artist’s evolving style: Early on, working as richly shadowed and every bit as painterly as a James Avati cover illustration, like the grim piece above appropriately titled “Scene Of The Crime”. Then later, much more casual (and surely faster and for less money) brushwork dashes out the scary image below for a sleazy 1966 Real Men magazine cover. Westerns, gothic romances, and no shortage of women-in-peril illustrations for the “men’s adventure” magazine market, Prezio did it all, and is (I think) still with us, but presumably retired by now.

victor pezio real men cover sept 1966

From Muskrat To Mink To Murder.

Howell Dodd 1953

This work week’s enough to drive me to drink. And it calls for a really large drink (and I’m not much of a buzzer, mind you).

Just like the gal down to her last few smokes in the Howell Dodd illustration from the June 1953 issue of True Fact Crime magazine, I could use a large one too. In fact, I’d be happy to pay more than thirty cents for it. But we all know that two bits and a nickel will only buy trouble, and in her case, will lead her down a bloody road “from muskrat, to mink, to murder” as the magazine’s lurid teaser lines stated.

You just gotta love those old pulp magazine copywriters.

The Vegas That Was.

Maximum Rossi

Two business trips to Las Vegas don’t qualify me as an expert gambler, only squandering some dough on the slots and not much more. Writer Paul W. Papa, on the other hand, knows his way around a casino, with books on vintage and even haunted Las Vegas to his credit. So if some portions of Papa’s novel Maximum Rossi (2020) occasionally read like a Las Vegas travelogue or gambling tutorial, a reader’s likely to forgive him. Papa’s fondness for “the Las Veags that was” bleeds through lovingly on every page of the novel.

This book was the prefect remedy for a diet of depressing current events titles and one dense literary novel. Maximum Rossi is a fun, fast read, harkening back to any number of 1950’s-60’s era PBO’s featuring private eyes, troublemakers, adventurers, men-about-town and shady anti-heroes mixed up with bad guys, mysteries and dangerous dames. Here Massimo ‘Max’ Rossi, son of a Boston mob fixer but not in the life himself, lingers in Las Vegas after a bachelor party and winds up deep in trouble with both the law and organized crime families after intervening to save a gangster’s mistress from a bruising. Noble? Yes. But certain to cause trouble. So when that same mobster is found murdered later that night, all fingers point to Max, and the race is on to solve the crime and somehow stay alive.

Flipping back through the book, I don’t see a specific year noted, but will place it comfortably in the mid to late 1950’s. A Ford Thunderbird tells me it could be no earlier than 1955, while Chicago mob chief Tony Accardo references suggest a 1957 (or thereabouts) cut-off. Whatever the year, it seems to be comfortably set in a pre-Rat Pack era that’s ripe with criminal fun.

Specialty press HPD Publishing’s cover art from Darned Good Covers (which I believe is a self-publishing and small press stock cover graphics resource) might be a little misleading. Oh, Vegas dancers and chorus girls waltz in and out of Max Rossi’s troubles (or may even be at the heart of them, and I’ll say no more than that), but you’ll find no saucy scenes intruding on the fistfights and gunplay here. Mind you, I’m quite fond of some sexy sizzle stirred in with the more sinister goings-on. Just as Maximum Rossi the novel fits in well with a 1950’s-60’s style of crime fiction, the book’s cover art maintains that era’s tradition of packaging paperbacks in saucy come-on covers that didn’t always match the stories inside.

It looks like Max Rossi’s Vegas adventures will continue in a sequel, Rossi’s Gamble, due out later this summer (the book included a teaser for that new novel), and I’ll be buying it. You should too. If you get a kick out of what you browse through here with The Stiletto Gumshoe, you’re bound to get a kick out of Paul W. Papa’s Max Rossi.

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