Not The Blue Dahlia Or The Black Dahlia: A White Orchid.

White Orchid 4

I don’t know if the Humphrey Bogart Estate sponsoring its debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, or even having Bogie’s son Stephen Bogart as one of the executive producers provides a new neo-noir film with some type of implicit ‘Noir Imprimatur’. But those credentials can’t hurt. Even so, writer/director Steve Anderson’s 2019 White Orchid, starring indie darling Olivia Thirlby, owes more to Otto Preminger’s Laura, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or perhaps Brian DePalma’s Body Double and Dressed To Kill than it does to The Maltese Falcon or Dead Reckoning.

White Orchid might be considered a so-called ‘erotic thriller’, a 21stcentury take on that 1980’s-1990’s era direct-to-video/DVD/cable sub-genre. If so, the ‘erotic’ is more a matter of mood than explicit sex scenes. The film dials up the suspense, but does so without car chases, gunplay, explosions or bloodshed. It is sexy, but in a very intimate way, and aside from some brief dance floor grinding, a frenzied bit of groping in the back of a taxi and some intriguing business going on behind the closing credits, the effect is sensual more than sexual, all part of the film’s stylish atmosphere.

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Always reliable freelance investigator Claire Decker (Olivia Thirlby) reluctantly accepts an unusual case from Social Services bureaucrat Jennifer Beals, for whom she normally ID’s the elderly who’ve died alone, or tracks down the deceased’s survivors so their estates can be settled. Claire’s really, really good at what she does, better than Beals’ own staff, in fact. But this time she’s assigned to investigate a high-profile murder, “The White Orchid”: A beautiful stranger whose body was found on sleepy waterfront resort town Morro Bay’s beach. Shot dead. Decapitated. Her hands and feet removed. The murder scene’s become a morbid shrine, rabid true crime enthusiasts lurk everywhere and local teens prank the victim’s house. There, all of her things remain, right down to the vases of white orchids. The local police resent Claire’s intrusion but grudgingly cooperate, even giving her unfettered access to the dead woman’s home.

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No-nonsense Claire Decker favors sensible clothes, drives a sensible car and is unencumbered by anything that could be called a social life. Focused, patient and methodical, she quickly uncovers clues overlooked by the police. Convinced there was something more sinister than mere murder involved, Claire becomes increasingly intrigued by the victim herself. Bit by bit, intrigue turns into obsession, till Claire’s actually seduced by her subject, drawn to the White Orchid’s vintage roadster and plushly furnished seaside abode, the closets of designer apparel and drawers full of luxurious lingerie.

Oh, and a hidden stash of cash. A lot of cash. Clearly the murder victim had some secrets…if she even was who the police think she was.

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Convinced she’s figured things out, Claire effectively becomes the White Orchid, telling herself it’s only to unmask a killer when she masquerades in the woman’s clothes and wigs. But in fact, she’s fully succumbed to this obsession with a dead woman…or with the woman who impersonated the victim. Or withwell, who knows? Frankly, we’re not certain. What is evident is that Claire’s antics put her in danger and get her in deep trouble with the local law. A climactic meeting between Claire and the stunning femme fatale behind it all is less an investigator interrogating a suspect and more of a mutual seduction that practically steams up the screen. But White Orchid still has one more trick up its sleeve with a nifty gotcha ending any savvy noir enthusiast should’ve seen coming.

Confession time: I didn’t.

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I’m not saying White Orchid is Oscar material. There’s a bit of peekaboo voyeurism at play, even it’s there to tell the story. There are some red herrings and narrative threads left unresolved, but I’ll bet the original shooting script made things a bit clearer and some film ended up on the cutting room floor with bits and pieces that filled in various holes. That Claire Decker is a reserved, intellectual, non-social sort who’s intrigued by the flamboyant, sexually adventurous ‘White Orchid’ is one thing. That this sensible loner would play dress-up in the dead woman’s own things is another that could use some explaining. At least Thirlby’s Claire Decker learns that there’s much more to being a femme fatale than donning a costume. The makeup, wigs and saucy lingerie might seduce the mousy investigator into some risky behavior and make her feel like she’s someone else. But in the end, Claire’s still who she is, just as the real femme fatale is who she is. And she really is fatal. Both characters resume their appropriate roles by the film’s end.

White Orchid is the kind of dreamy neo-noir that’s content to play with the viewer a bit, and frankly, I didn’t mind at all, perfectly pleased to follow Olivia Thirlby’s well-acted transition from slightly nerdy loner to obsessive curiosity seeker to fetching femme fatale. I don’t know what path contemporary ‘erotic thrillers’ ought to take, or if that genre (if it even is one) still has a place in today’s culture. But if it does, White Orchid isn’t an entirely bad place to start to reinvent a particular subset of neo-noir.

 

Stumptown: And So It Begins.

Stumptown

And so it begins: A new Fall television season, this time with some real treats. Batwoman, the new Nancy Drew series, and ABC’s Stumptown for starters. It’d be easy to distrust a broadcast network to adapt a hard-boiled graphic novel properly, but any advance word I’ve noticed online about Stumptown sounds optimistic. I’m rarely watching television at 9:00 PM CST, much less a broadcast channel. But I’ll be there tonight to check this out, fingers crossed. Oline Cogdill weighs in on Stumptown at Mystery Scene magazine’s website (link below). As this piece says upfront, the show “has the kind of crime fiction pedigree that’s been missing from TV for several years”. I mean, it’s Greg Rucka, after all.

Rucka’s Dex Parios was a damn fine creation, flawed but heroic in her way. Cobie Smulders’ resume may be dominated by a sitcom, but I’m betting she’s going to be fine. Cogdill said, “Brash and often out of control, Dex is the kind of character seen more on cable shows than a mainstream network. I am looking forward to that edgy character and I have high hopes as Rucka’s source material is solid”. The few stills and set shots I’ve seen may look a little lighter than the dark, crooked Portland I’d envision, but again, lets see the show.

Fingers crossed…

https://mysteryscenemag.com/article/6594-greg-rucka-s-stumptown-comes-to-tv

Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree

Deadly Beloved Art

Artist Terry Beatty’s work for Ms. Tree, the pioneering 1980’s woman detective character he co-created along with writer Max Allan Collins. Shown above, the cover illustration for Collins’ Hard Case Crime standalone 2007 Ms. Tree paperback novel Deadly Beloved.

 

 

 

 

One Mean Mother

Ms Tree Front

Finally got my Ms. Tree trade paperback after a long wait. I’ve been pining for this book since March. This first trade pb, Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother re-introduces us to writer Max Allan Collins and artist Terry Beatty’s groundbreaking character, Ms. Michael Tree, widow of murdered cop Mr. Michael Tree (they shared first names), and an even more formidable detective than her beloved husband ever was as she goes to war with the criminal syndicate responsible for his death.

Bottom line: Ms. Tree (get it: Miss-tree…Mys-ter-y) appeared in 1981 like a breath of fresh (albeit hard-boiled and noir-ish) air on comic shop racks overloaded with the capes-n-tights crowd, delivering a woman detective who could mix it up with the bad guys but was still a three-dimensional person and not just a cartoon…and certainly not another spandex clad beauty pageant refugee. That she really is ‘one mean mother’ can be taken quite literally…how many bad-ass detectives pound the pavement when they’re pregnant? (In the comics, I mean.)

Both Collins and Beatty have worked on syndicated comic strips, and that’s evident in the artist’s work with its clean, simple narrative storytelling style, traditionally executed back in a pre-Adobe era. Intentional or not, the look is reminiscent of 1950’s era crime comics, and it really works.

Ms Tree Back

One Mean Mother is a nice ‘n fat beautifully printed book from Titan Comics’ Hard Case Crime line, with cover art by Denys Cowan, an introduction from writer Collins, an afterword titled “Ms. Tree (Almost On Film)” about the character’s screwed up path from comics to television (which never worked out) and a bonus 1994 Ms. Tree short story, “Inconvenience Store”. Looks like Titan’s Hard Case Crime line isn’t done with MWA Grand Master Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree yet, with Book 2: Skeleton In The Closet due in 2020 and what looks like more releases still to follow. I sure hope they come through.

skeleton in the closet

Dial back to my March 2019 post about Max Allan Collins, Terry Beatty and their pioneering character, Ms. Tree:

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/03/14/ms-tree-2/

 

Nasty Pills

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Evil biotech corporation, Golden Dusk, developed a new DNA altering drug called (appropriately) ‘Nasty Pills’, which can modify users’ appearance, health, mood and behavior. But Nasty Pills aren’t being administered to cure diseases, only to breed beautiful, submissive, STD-immune young girls abducted from St. Stephens orphanage to be reconditioned and then auctioned off to the highest bidders as sex slaves. But the evil execs at Golden Dusk didn’t reckon on gun-packing gumshoe May Campbell, who may not care much about the law – or anything – but does care about her one true love, Rebecca, one of the Nasty Pills’ victims. The oversize “crazy pulp book” first issue is from Amigo Comics, written and drawn by ‘Massacre’ along with additional art by Dani Seijas. It’s just a two-issue series, so May Campbell’s campaign of violence and vengeance on millionaires and mobsters will wrap up quickly.

Nasty Pills 1

You Broke My Heart, Peggy.

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Some mighty intriguing viewing available right now, with more to come: Season Four of Veronica Mars, and soon Batwoman, Stumptown and the edgy new Nancy Drew reboot, for instance. Everything I’ve read about the ones about to debut tells me I’m bound to get hooked from their first episodes in each case.

But I’ll do so warily.

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I’m still smarting from ABC’s cancellation of Agent Carter. Never quite got over it, to be honest. I know…it’s been a while, let it go.

Hayley Atwell’s terrific work in the first Captain America film, bittersweet unfulfilled romance and all, sort of groomed her for the BBC’s Restless role that followed (and if you’ve never seen her turn in that as a British spy in the early days of WWII, do look for it). So she was well equipped to return to being a 1940’s era operative, and I confess that I absolutely adored Atwell in the role of Peggy Carter and the Agent Carter show in general, completely hooked from the first season’s premiere, and still a fan in season two, despite the series’ move to a west coast setting and its more sci-fi flavored story arc.

But the show’s cancellation was a hard lesson learned: Don’t get hooked. Shows come and go. Comics series inexplicably vanish after a few issues with storylines left unresolved. Novel sequels fail to materialize. I guess that’s what DVD boxed sets are for, though I still haven’t finished connecting all the cables to a new TV I bought and the DVD-R remains dormant.

Oh Peggy…you broke my heart when you went away…

Agent Carter 1

Candy Matson

Candy Matson

Not unlike the zillion cable TV channels which I frequently surf right through, I probably don’t put my car’s satellite radio to good enough use, mostly hopping back and forth between MSNBC and Sirius’ one old time radio channel. But that paid off a couple days ago with a Candy Matson broadcast, a ‘stiletto gumshoe’ I’d never heard of before. But I’ll definitely be shopping for more episodes now.

A west coast regional NBC show, Candy Matson starring Natalie Parks aired from 1949 through the end of the 1950-1951 season, reigning as San Francisco’s most popular crime drama for a while. Written by Parks’ husband, Monty Masters, it was originally planned as yet one more male private eye series (starring Masters himself), but old-time radio legend says that his mother-in-law convinced him to reimagine the show with a female private eye, which he did, and which west coast stations and their listeners liked – a lot.

Unfortunately, like many old time radio shows, they weren’t all recorded. National shows often were performed twice, once for the East Coast and Central time zone, then again later the same day for Mountain and Pacific time zones. Others were transcribed to air later for the west coast, and many of those survive. But Candy Matson was a regional west coast production, with no need for rebroadcasts or transcription, and sadly, only 14 of the show’s 90+ episodes remain.

Former San Francisco fashion model turned private eye Candy Matson worked out of her swanky Telegraph Hill apartment, drove a sporty roadster and had a closet full of stylish threads which she put to good use, being attractive, well aware of it and perfectly content to flirt when it could help solve a case.  She often had to sneak around Homicide Detective Ray Mallard, but managed that handily since the detective was clearly smitten with her, their evolving romance one of the keys to the show’s popularity with listeners. Matson was a witty, sarcastic glamour gal, actress Natalie Parks delivering the well-written wisecracks and classic hard-boiled P.I. style first person narration with real sass. Packing a gun in her purse and not afraid to use it, she was full of bravado, which often got her in trouble with crooks and sundry other dangerous folks, though some of the episodes are more lighthearted.

Unable to secure a permanent sponsor, Parks and Masters reluctantly threw in the towel at the end of the 1950-51 season, but did so with a series finale in which Detective Mallard finally proposed to Candy and she decided to retire. So, West Coast listeners would no longer hear the phone ringing to open the show, or Candy answering with “Hello, Yukon 28209. Yes, this is Candy Matson”. (Note that one of the series audio CD sets depicted with this post managed to get that darn phone number wrong.)

Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer

Betty Bates 2

Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer (AKA Betty Bates – Attorney at Law, Betty Bates – Lady at Law and just plain ol’ Betty Bates) is one vintage female crimefighter comic series that needs no apologies or caveats. Created by Stanley Charbot, pen name for Bob Powell, and sometimes drawn by artists Al Bryant, Nick Cardy and Alice Kirkpatrick, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer appeared in Hot Comics for ten years from 1940 through 1950. The early issues’ art is, frankly, pretty crude, though no worse than many other comics were at the time (peek at the earliest Batman issues for comparison). But with Cardy and Bryant wielding the pencils, inking pens and sable brushes later on, there are spots in the series that could rival even some of Matt Baker’s fluid panels.

Betty Bates 1

Consider: Betty Bates wasn’t just one more in a long line of assistants, secretaries or girlfriends. Bates was the D.A. In fact, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer was the longest running series led by a lawyer – man or woman – till Marvel’s Daredevil passed the ten-year mark, and it was one of the longest running non-super powered/non-costumed comic heroes of the golden age.

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But Bates doesn’t spend too much time in the court room, far too busy fighting crooks, looking for trouble or getting caught up in it. Using her wits and falling back on some handy martial arts skills when needed, she normally prevails on her own and without the aid of some hunky cop or boyfriend, though some stories include ‘Larry’, a reporter who’s obviously smitten with the lady lawyer.

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Two things leap out at you: The drawings foregoe the then customary ‘good girl art’ look, with its intrusive peekaboo bathing suit and undressing scenes. Similarly, though Betty falls into some bad guys’ clutches, it’s no more frequent than in any other crime comics or costumed superhero series, and no one could label Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer as a ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘women in peril’ comic. In fact, the stories are really quite good, several stand up well even today, and with ten years of material, there’s a lot to read.

Betty Bates Attorney At Law 2

The Gwandanaland Betty Bates – Lady At Law Readers Collection is a hefty volume, with over 400 pages of Betty Bates stories. Strangely, they’re all black and white, though the comics were full color, of course (I’ve included some online finds here, the book too fat to open in my scanner). A couple came from awful originals, were scanned off of second-generation copies or perhaps just poorly scanned and not corrected, and I was pretty disappointed that the publisher would include such barely readable pieces. But with so many in the book, quantity made up for quality…I guess.

I don’t know why, but they also decided to tack on a few unrelated ‘bonus’ pieces: several Jungle Lil and Miss America stories, also with some mighty uneven scanning and in black and white. I’m not much for adventure pulps/comics, whether Jungle Jane’s, Jill’s or Lil’s, and 1940’s era costumed superheroes aren’t really my thing. But I’ll be bringing up the Miss America stories in another post nonetheless (you’ll see why). No idea why Gwandanaland added this material…the Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer stories really made for a nice fat book all on their own.

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Gail Ford – Girl Friday

Gail Ford

Homicide Bureau Inspector Madson’s able assistant Gail Ford is rarely seen slogging through routine office chores or clerical duties, more typically enlisted to go undercover to help the police solve vexing cases, palming herself off as everything from a greasy spoon waitress to a department store clerk, a personal maid or a fresh-off-the-bus rube just arrived in the big bad city.

Gail Ford – Girl Friday was created by Gene Leslie and first appeared in Crime Smashers in 1950. Or, depending on the source, she was created by Ray McClelland, and also appeared in Smash Detective magazine as one of that crime fiction pulp’s comics features. I’ll have to leave it up to vintage pulp and comics experts to confirm authorship and venues, none of which matters much to a non-collector like myself. But the 15 stories included in this Gwandanaland trade paperback are supposed to be from 15 consecutive Crime Smashers issues running from 1950-1953. A couple are credited to Pierre Charpentier and Keats Petree.

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Unlike some near-contemporaries like Adolphe Barreaux’ well-known Sally The Sleuth or Queenie Starr, Gail Ford – Girl Friday managed to chase crooks and solve crimes without losing all of her clothes. A smart investigator and quite the daredevil, she kept a revolver handy in her purse and knew how to use it, and had to trade blows more than once with menacing thugs, most of whom learned the hard way just what a high heel can really do when there’s a full-force Gail Ford kick behind it. She almost seems like a prototype for Mickey Spillane’s Velda, right down to the shoulder length Bettie Page style hairdo, complete with neatly trimmed bangs.

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The Gwadanaland book includes no intro, front or back matter, just scans of the comics pages themselves. But it’s a nicely printed book and the material is all quite crisp and readable, considering. The firm aims to publish largely forgotten public domain material, and I’ll be getting more from them for sure.

 

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