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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Love Is A Weapon.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kelli Vance: Context is Everything.

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Houston, Texas artist Kelli Vance studied at Texas universities and apparently chose to stick close to home, teaching at various schools since, including her own alma maters, the University of Houston and the Glassell School of Art at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

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Her brand of austere realism might recall any number of painters, though the specifics of Vance’s scenes and subjects make me scratch my head to think of accurate comparisons, scrolling through a mental list of various bad-girl/boy artists who like to play with conventions by juxtaposing provocative images in deceptively complacent looking settings. Some of these are pretty brave works depicting unsettling scenes, but with a kind of dark poetry about them that forces you to look…and just keep looking. And if that makes you uneasy, then I’m betting the artist would be pleased.

It’s interesting to consider how context is everything, though. Mystery/crime fiction enthusiasts are accustomed to — even expect — all kinds of murder and mayhem on treasured vintage pulp magazine and postwar paperback covers, treating them as kitschy novelties, often as not. But when those same things are depicted (nowhere near as gruesomely) in an entirely different context — in paintings hanging on a wall in a gallery or museum, for instance — they suddenly become that much more provocative and disturbing. Not drawing conclusions, mind you. I just find myself intrigued.

See more works in a following post…

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The Sunday Girl.

The Sunday Girl

Pip Drysdale’s new The Sunday Girl from local publisher Sourcebooks had me worried at first. When twenty-something London real estate market research assistant Taylor Bishop is royally screwed by her bad-boy boyfriend and inspired by Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War to plot her revenge, a series of nasty but hardly deadly gotcha’s can’t quite even the score for getting dumped, much less learning that her ex posted a particularly kinky sex video of Taylor online. Enter wealthy, handsome Pierce Brosnan clone David Turner to turn her head, and 50 pages in, I wondered if I’d seen The Sunday Girl promoted at mystery and crime fiction sites or was reading an edgy contemporary romance instead.

But that was only Drysdale playing the reader, and quite craftily so, waiting till we’re fully invested in the major players and the set-up and then swiftly unleashing the real suspense and genuine mayhem. Yes, Taylor thinks she’s been quite the sneak with each of the nasty tricks she’s played on her jerk of an ex. And her friends (and the reader) will be totally perplexed when she unexpectedly gets back together with him. Which is when we discover just how malevolent he really is.

Sarah Prindle’s lead review of Pip Drysdale’s The Sunday Girl in the current Mystery Scene magazine will give you a much better glimpse of this excellent novel than anything I can offer, not being a reviewer myself. If you find this book mis-shelved anywhere other than your bookstore’s Mystery/Crime Fiction section, don’t be fooled, and don’t let the first 50 or so pages worry you. Drysdale’s crafted a wryly witty, suspenseful and extremely dark contemporary tale here, with a very real, relatable protagonist in the person of Taylor Bishop, who could easily be your own pal or coworker, and will have to learn the hard way what she’s capable of. And what the consequences of her own actions could be.

pip drysdale by frank faller

Author Pip Drysdale photo (c) Frank Faller

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

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