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…

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Bacall At The Blood Bank.

Oh, I know this one’s seen everywhere, but it is almost Halloween, after all, and who better to help celebrate the season here at a “noir culture” site like The Stiletto Gumshoe than Lauren Bacall, in a now-famous Harper’s Bazaar cover photo from 1943. I’ll assume the photo had more to do with serious business like wartime blood drives (it being right in the middle of the U.S. involvement on WWII) than Bacall posing as a stylish creature of the night contemplating a blood bank raid. 

But then, who needs an excuse to post a picture of Lauren Bacall?

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: The Toff.

“The Toff” (the Honorable Richard Rollinson) opens his mail and discovers a beautifully crafted doll of a naked woman – with a dagger plunged into her chest – which lures him into the bizarre world of the Obeah and a dangerous occult mystery. Maybe mystery, crime fiction and the supernatural (or at least the exceedingly eerie) ought to intersect more often. This one’s a pulpy adventure in John Creasey’s long running series of some sixty “Toff” novels published between 1938 and 1977. The piece of cover art above is from a 1967 Hodder & Stoughton UK paperback edition of A Doll For The Toff, though sadly without an artist credit that I know of.

More From Larry Schwinger.

Pennsylvania artist and illustrator Laurence ‘Larry’ Schwinger’s full color illustrations made my recent used bookstore find of the 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a real jewel. And all for less than ten bucks. His non-stylized, no-nonsense illustrations added a lot to the classic vampire tale. 

Schwinger didn’t do a lot of horror work that I’m aware of. Or that much mystery/crime fiction material either. But he did some, and they’re nifty pieces, including a series of Cornell Woolrich 1980’s Ballantine paperbacks like I Married A Dead Man (at the top), The Bride Wore Black and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and more recently, some Hard Case Crime novels, including Spiderweb, Shooting Star, Witness To Myself and Robbie’s Wife

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Witches, 1950’s Style.

This should’ve been in an October issue, but it’s actually from the February 1958 issue of Jem, “The Magazine For The Masterful Male”, one of the countless Playboy knockoffs from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

“Broom And Board” by R. Fred Arnold, is the “authentic, never-before printed story of the life and times of a witch”. Authentic it’s not, though 1950’s-funny it aims to be. Young Beaulah Broome of Coffeyville, Kansas is more or less a normal small-town teen who sometimes hears spooky voices and other-wordly laughter. Tossing and turning in bed one night, she awakes to find a witch perched right on her own footboard. “At least, I imagined it was a witch. She had on a peaked hat and long grey robes. There was a broom clutched in her hand. But far from being the weather-beaten hag pictured in the usual drawings of witches, she was a beauty. The grey robes fitted tight over a voluptuous figure. The peaked hat made her long face and laughing eyes even more beautiful.” With a sprightly “Hi-ya, witchy,” the visitor welcomes Beaulah to the IWW (the International Witch Workers) who’ve been monitoring her since childhood. Young Beulah is whisked away for training at…Wichita State University.

You can actually read the whole story online (the entire February 1958 issue of Jem is at Flashbak (flashback.com), “Where Everything Old Is New Again”. Beulah masters the art of infiltrating other women’s bodies in order to seduce men, but if you’re expecting something 1950’s-naughty, be warned: the tale’s strictly PG rated, if even that. Nonetheless, it did feature a nice (though uncredited) illustration.

The Big Hoax.

I expected something akin to Affair In Trinidad or even Gilda, two cherished South American locale films noir teaming Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Well, The Big Hoax isn’t quite like those films, but is still a very intriguing piece.

This is a 2020 Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics 124-page hardcover edition of the 2001 graphic novel by Carlos Trillo and Roberto Mandrafino’s – the Argentine writer and artist, respectively. In what appears to be the post-WWII era, the banana republic of La Colonia’s corrupt regime is a notorious vice haven run by gangsters and ex-Nazis, populated by a devout but downtrodden peasantry and threatened by rebels. Disgraced former detective Donald Reynoso, a useless drunk when we first meet him, is hired by the lovely Melinda Centurion to retrieve some very compromising photos, which pit the duo against corrupt cops, revolutionaries and a ruthless and relentless hit man. Precisely why Melinda must get these revealing photos back is a whole other story, and what the titular “Hoax” is about.

Trillo’s story veers between bawdy humor and pure hard-boiled banter and action, frequently stepping back from the narrative for various characters to briefly narrate vital backstory. All of this is depicted in Roberto Mandrafino’s fluid and energetic artwork, which has a touch of caricature about it, but always stays focused on telling the tale. Even if it wasn’t at all what I first expected, I really got a kick out of The Big Hoax, but then, I’ve yet to be let down by any of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics.

Le Diable.

These femmes fatales are devilish enough, but this isn’t another Halloween post.

I confess: I’ve seen some of these illustrations lurking around sites and blogs forever and always assumed they were retro styled but recent comic or pinup art. Not so. They’re but a few of dozens of cover illustrations from French paperback and digest novels done by “R & R Giordan”, which is really the brothers Raoul and Robert Giordan, who had a long and successful career doing comics, book covers and spot illustration work in the 1940’s through the 1970’s, particularly popular in science fiction and adventure titles.

The Giordan brothers came from Nice, Robert born in 1922, Raoul in 1926, and worked at a hotel during WWII. After a brief postwar stint at an animation studio, they began working in comics, much of their 1950’s-60’s era work being graphic novel style adaptations of popular science fiction books. In the 1970’s, Raoul began to drift away from comics and illustration work to focus on his own painting, and some years later, both had stopped commercial work altogether. Sadly, brother Robert passed away at the young age of only 61, though Raoul gave an SF/Fantasy comic one more go as late as the 1990’s. Raoul Giordan passed away in 2017.

Even though they’re best known in European science fiction/fantasy/adventure circles, the brothers did a lot of covers for mystery/crime fiction digests and paperbacks as well, some of which are shown here. Le Diable En Bas Nylon by Gerald Rose (The Devil In Nylon Stockings, no surprise) from 1952, and others, are indicative of their consistent style: A particularly ‘fatal’ femme fatale either beckons to some soon-to-be victim, or is already gloating over his downfall, as we see in Robert Trebor’s Mauvais Pretexte. There’s quite a bit about the Girodan brothers to be found online, but mostly in French, and four years of high school French doesn’t equip me to decipher more than a random word or two. Perhaps the less linguistically-challenged among you will fare better.

More Manhunt.

A little over a year ago, I got my hands on Stark House Press’ The Best Of Manhunt, edited by Jeff Vorzimmer (see link below for more on that book).  A legendary postwar mystery/crime fiction pulp magazine like Manhunt clearly deserves more than just one “best of” volume, so Vorzimmer’s back with The Best Of Manhunt 2 (2020), a 420+ page companion trade pb. Much like the first book, there aren’t a lot of ‘extras’, such as author bio’s or cover reprint images. The stories are the attraction. The book opens with some brief entries including Peter Enfantino’s foreword, Jon L. Breen’s introduction and his 1968 article, “On The Passing Of Manhunt”, and finally a 1970 Robert Turner article “Life And Death Of A Magazine”. Those only take up twenty pages or so, and then it’s on to forty tales culled from 1953 through 1964 issues of Manhunt magazine.

The first book may have included a roster of more ‘marquee’ authors, but this follow-up volume still features familiar names like Fletcher Flora, Bruno Fischer, Erle Stanley Gardner, Wade Miller and Donald Westlake. Manhunt’s gritty, hard-boiled rep didn’t seem to attract many women writers, but you’ll find Delores Florine Stanton Forbes (1923 – 2013) included, appearing here as De Forbes. Helen Nielsen (1918 – 2002) was better known as a TV mystery scriptwriter, but her “You Can’t Trust A Man” from a 1955 issue is short, sweet tale with a gotcha ending, and it’s a real treat. 

I don’t know if it makes sense to list “best of’s” from a “best of” book. So I’ll just point out my favorites. While the anthology finds noirish and hard-boiled crime and mayhem in every corner of the U.S. from Florida to Chicago, make-believe burgs and various nowheresvilles, my faves were coastal, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Frank Kane (1912-1968) is the man behind the long running Johnny Liddell P.I. series of nearly thirty novels and numerous sort stories. His glib NYC gumshoe is too slick and smart-assed for some readers, but Kane’s non-Liddell story, “Key Witness” from a 1956 issue is near-perfect. In part a police procedural, it feels like it could have been written today save for a few anachronisms. There’s no wisecracks or trademark Kane leering, the longish tale was quite dark, gritty and, for me, wholly unexpected.

Heading west to Los Angeles, William Campbell Gault’s “Death Of A Big Wheel” from the April 1957 issue is a lengthy story featuring Hollywood private eye Joe Puma. Some innocent cocktail lounge small talk with a past-his-prime film star finds Puma mixed up with hard-as-nails B-movie studio starlets and gangsters. It’s a real fun read, and was just begging to made into a movie. Still ought to be, if you ask me.

Covers of some of the Manhunt issues the forty stories included in The Best Of Manhunt 2 are shown here.  If you’re interested in postwar mystery/crime pulp fiction that’s a couple notches above the repetitious fistfights, gunplay and outlandish mysteries of 1930’s-40’s era pulps, you can’t go wrong with either (or both) of The Best of Manhunt books.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/09/06/the-best-of-manhunt/

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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