“A Ruthless Story Of Rackets And Redheads”

Snapshot

DVD’s of the 1956 noir-in-color film Slightly Scarlet are supposed to come with extras, including a Max Allan Collins commentary. Mine may have been bought new, but from a closeout bin, and it came with nothing but a disk with the movie on it. Just a knock-off copy? Who knows? But I would’ve really liked that Collins commentary track.

Slightly Scarlett DVD

Call it a noir, call it a crime melodrama, call it what you will, but director Allan Dwan’s film of a Robert Blees’ screenplay – adapted (rather freely) from James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit — is an intriguing movie, and in more than one way.

Loves Lovely Counterfeit

The source novel isn’t Cain’s best, but less-than-perfect Cain can be better than some others’ best work, and being James M. Cain, the novel includes some scenes/themes that a mid-1950’s movie could never hope to get away with. Here, John Payne plays Ben Grace, who works for Bay City’s ruthless rackets boss Solly Caspar, and has been assigned to dig up dirt on a crusading mayoral candidate making trouble for the syndicate. Doing so might be easier than Ben Grace imagined, once he discovers that the reformer has a girlfriend, and she has a sister newly released from prison.

Rhonda Fleming plays ‘good girl’ June Lyons, who Ben Grace promptly falls for. Arlene Dahl plays ‘bad girl’ Dorothy, an unrepentant thief with an eye for the fellows — the badder the better — and Payne’s Ben Grace will do just fine. With the heat on and the mob boss forced to flee town, Ben Grace takes over the rackets while he falls for sister-the-good but is seduced by sister-the-bad, all in suitably 1950’s era levels of sex-i-fied sizzle. But then Solly the mob boss returns, with wads of dough that more than make up for his gruff ways as far as Dorothy is concerned. Soon, bullets start flying, bodies pile up till the law finally arrives, though not before Ben Grace goes down.

Slightly Scarlet 4

John Payne may have gotten top billing, but this was Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl’s movie all the way, and they’re a delight to watch. Dahl, in particular, pushes the era’s boundaries in both subtle and then overt ways as an unapologetic crook whose sex drive is always in high gear, whether she’s pawing through wads of loot the mob kingpin tosses at her feet, or more provocative still, is sprawled on a sofa and apparently enjoying a little…uhm…’private time’. (Demurely shot from behind the sofa, of course…C’mon, it was 1956!) Bottom line: The two actresses get a workout in this film and turn in terrific performances. FYI, both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are still with us, I believe.

While Slightly Scarlet wasn’t a big budget production, it was filmed in Technicolor (and “Superscope”, whatever that is) and in many scenes and setups, seems to point the way toward the look of many “Neo-Noir” films to come decades later. Familiar film noir camera angles and deeply shadowed corners, backgrounds and overheads are evident throughout, but all in color instead of black & white. Visually, at least, much of the film looks ahead of tis time.

Slightly Scarlet 3

Maybe you’ll spot Slightly Scarlet poking out of a bargain bin yourself. If you do, grab it. It won’t (and shouldn’t) replace Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice on your DVD shelf, but you’ll watch two 1950’s pro’s dialing some so-so material up a few notches, all of it shot in a nifty noir-in-color style that presages ominously dark visuals to come a few decades later.

Got A Light?

femme fatale by sergey bogomyakov 500 px

A gentleman ought to whip out his lighter. But what she’ll do once that cigarette’s lit is anyone’s guess. “Femme Fatale” by Sergey Bogomyakov, from 500px.

And I Haven’t Read A Single Story Yet.

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It’s over a month ago that I reserved a copy of Otto Penzler’s The Big Book Of Reel Murders – Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films, warned at the time that it might not arrive till mid-November. In fact, I got it almost two weeks ago and have been burrowing through this nearly 1,200-page monster of a book since.

And yet – so far, I haven’t actually read a single story.

The Big Book Of Reel Murders

Each of the 61 stories by writers like Robert Bloch, Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Sinclair Lewis, Daphne du Maurier, W. Somerset Maugham, Budd Schulberg, Cornell Woolrich and others was the basis of a mystery/crime/noir film. Some you’d know, of course. Some, perhaps not. (I’d never heard of a few!) The movies inspired by the anthology’s tales include Woman In The Dark (1934), The Big Steal (1949), Fear In The Night (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), Tip On A Dead Jockey (1957), Mr. Dynamite (1951) and many others — some stills, publicity shots and posters for those shown here with this post.

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Many anthologies seem to be hastily put together, with little more than a brief genre celebrity preface, editor intro and — if the reader’s lucky — author bio’s. Not this book. Each of the 60+ stories are preceded by a two or three-page introduction providing author, story or publication background info, plus details and anecdotes about the film inspired by that story. Add it up: These intro’s almost form a book on their own, with the insights into familiar films being informative treats, the others being prompts to hunt up the movies as yet unseen.

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Oh, I’ll go back and read the stories, of course. The Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie tales I already have elsewhere and have read more than once might be skipped, but there’s some choice material in this big book. And though it might seem a little weird, some of the choicest content is actually the story introductions, as much as the stories themselves.

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You Have Killed Me.

You Have Killed Me Cover

Cold and windy under nonstop pouring rain, last Saturday would’ve been a good day to stay indoors. But I ventured out to pick up a current events book reserved at the library (there being a current event or two to keep tabs on these days). The local public library’s a bit lean on actual books, but is well appointed with comfy reading nooks, plush seating and even a fireplace. Almost ready to check out, Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones’ You Have Killed Me caught my eye on the graphic novel section’s endcap. I have it, of course, being an ardent Jones fan. Still, I paused to flip through the 2018 trade pb edition of this 2009 graphic novel anyway. Before I knew it, I’d dropped into one of those fireside chairs to reread this yummy bit of retro noir fun from cover to cover before dashing back out into the rain.

You Have Killed Me Art

Some will holler cliché. Me? I see nothing but classic noir and hard-boiled genre tropes lovingly celebrated in Rich’s story, a smooth flowing piece of work that reads like a period-perfect screenplay for a 1940’s-50’s noir. As for Joelle Jones art? Fans might be surprised to see some softer lines and curvier faces here and there, but it’s still Joelle Jones’ brilliant, stylized draftsmanship throughout, and an excellent chance to see where she was ten years ago. The pair make an excellent team (as seen since on Lady Killer, for example) in this tale of hard luck P.I. Antonio Mercer, hired by wealthy and beautiful Jessica Roman to locate her sister Julie, who’s gone missing on the eve of her society wedding…the missing Julie also Mercer’s one-time lover. But family dramas and messy love affairs are the least of Mercer’s problems once he begins to tangle with gamblers, gangsters and hard-assed cops in jazz clubs, racetracks and roadhouses. Any savvy noir fan will smell a rat – or at least an untrustworthy femme fatale – early on, but even the savviest may not be ready for what really happened to the missing sister. Trust me: This one’s a treat.

Sure, I got soaked on my way back to my car. But I did get the political rant hardcover I’d reserved a week earlier (just to drive myself nuts) and had a good time savoring Jamie Rich’s wordsmithing and ogling Joelle Jones art, both every bit as tasty today as ten years ago when the book came out.

 

Paul Mann

Paul Mann 1

In the preceding post, Daniel Kraus’ new Blood Sugar from the Hard Case Crime line depicted a Good Girl Art pinup style Halloween witch on its cover, done by Salt Lake City, Utah artist and illustrator, Paul Mann.

Paul Mann 2

In fact, Mann seems to be Hard Case Crime’s current go-to artist, if you check out their site. You can also go to paulmannartist.com to find out more about this talented artist and his traditionally styled work.

Paul Mann 3

Just Ignore The Witch.

paul mann coverpng

Snowing again this morning, looking more like December than October for the second day in a row, but a great big Happy Halloween to you too…

I’ve bought most of the Hard Case Crime line’s titles, from before and after their Titan acquisition. I may have a soft spot for the earlier releases reintroducing us modern readers to forgotten postwar paperback original crime classics, and for having the why-didn’t-someone-think-of-this-before bright idea to package them just like the rack sized pocketbooks they emulated…right down to the cover art.

Daniel Kraus’ Blood Sugar is still on order from my local bookseller and not in yet, whether because it’s sold so well that it’s already out of stock, or the early October publication date wasn’t met…or maybe the counter clerk’s just fibbing to me. Who knows? Clearly it won’t arrive before Halloween, though I did want it for a holiday read.

Apparently, Paul Mann’s fun cover art is a fooler, though. The line is called Hard Case Crime. But Blood Sugar isn’t a retro-pulpy mystery with a fetching witch up to some kind of criminal or even supernatural hijinks. Look closer and you’ll note that the illustration only depicts a calendar’s October pinup. The story actually deals with that most familiar Halloween urban myth (or is it just a myth?): A twisted recluse, aided by three outcast kids, seeks revenge on the neighborhood children with trick-or-treat candy boobytrapped with razor blades, broken glass, drugs and poison.

Chicago author Kraus is the cowriter, along with Guilermo del Toro, of the Oscar winning The Shape of Water. Let’s hope no quirky oddballs get any ideas this year after reading Blood Sugar. Which, it seems, everyone else might do before me.

Mark of The Vampire.

Inside Detective - Mark Of The Vampire April 1939 copy

Mark of The Vampire? No, it’s not a feature on MGM’s 1935 Todd Browning film with Bela Lugosi donning the black cape (only the second time onscreen, I think).

This “Mark of The Vampire” is from the 1939 issue of Inside Detective magazine with cover art by illustrator Albert Fisher, and is a lurid ‘all-true’ story about an Oakland, California ‘vampire killer’, his victim found in a lovers lane.

Mark 3

I’d been planning on something goofy for later Halloween evening, once the trick-or-treaters stop ringing the bell, that is. Instead of watching creepy classics (and I have a few on DVD), maybe just a horror comedy like Victoria Justice in The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (what, you don’t have any guilty pleasures?) or perhaps the first Elvira movie with…well, Elvira, of course.

mark 1

But I know I have MGM’s 1935 Mark of The Vampire lurking somewhere on my shelves. Bela Lugosi, ultra-creepy Carrol Borland as his vampire daughter Luna, the two Lionel’s – Barrymore and Atwill – as an investigator and police inspector in a mid-1930’s visual delight of gothic eeriness, despite Todd Browning’s insistence on inserting intrusive comedic bits that really…just…aren’t. Originally titled The Vampires of Prague, adapted from Browning’s silent era London After Midnight (the Holy Grail of lost silent era films) and based on a scenario by Guy Endore, the film deals with the death of a Bohemian nobleman, apparently a victim of Count Mora and his daughter Luna, the local vampires. But near the film’s end, it’s all revealed as an elaborate ruse to catch a very human murderer with his eye on the victim’s daughter. I’ve never decided if Todd Browning was a genius or a hack (most likely a little of both) but the man sure could set up some stunning visuals, and Mark of The Vampire, for all of its flaws, is classic horror eye candy.

Hmmm…I could go gloomy and gothic instead of ‘goofy’, couldn’t I?

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Pulpy Vampire Noir

PNElrod 1

Happy All Hallows-Eve-Eve. Doesn’t quite look like Halloween hereabouts today. More like Xmas-Eve, with the snow falling this morning.

The preceding post looked at the “blurred lines” between horror and noir, as addressed by Zach Vasquez in a 10.29.19 Crime Reads article. Crime and horror often go hand in hand, with some ‘suspense’ novels more accurately billed as horror and some horror novels devoid of anything remotely supernatural but chock full of grisly stuff being done by sadistic crazed criminals. ‘Noir’ and horror can intersect, sharing hopeless quests, battles between indistinct shades of good and evil, shadowy figures in long cape-like coats emerging from the fog and evil seductresses tricking fools into (figuratively, at least) selling their souls.

Within the horror genre, vampires seem to be cyclical, dominating bookshelves and movie screens for a stretch, only to crawl back into their coffins to lay low till agents, editors and readers crave them once again after overdosing on the traditional castles-capes-n-fangs crowd, twinkling puppy-love teens, undead zombie style ghouls and various (and seemingly countless, at least in the E-book and self-published scene) sex-crazed vampiresses who prefer to do their imbibing in bed. Naked. Or, gussied up in period lingerie inevitably described in infinitely minute detail.

Oh yeah, and usually with another woman. (Don’t blame Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, blame those 1970’s Hammer movies.)

If “The Stiletto Gumshoe” is a home for quirky noir culture, there’s also a fondness here for most things retro-pulpy, so let’s peek at P.N. Elrod’s (Patricia Nead Elrod) The Vampire Files series, where hard-boiled meets horror, with vampires, no less. Elrod, a writer with a truly prodigious output in horror, fantasy, gaming tie-ins and more, wrote an even dozen titles in this series, I believe, the first published nearly thirty years ago. No, make that twelve and a half – I spotted a self-published version of The Devil You Know from Elrod’s own Vampwriter Press.

The Vampire Files novels are set in 1930’s Chicago (in the beginning), where ace newspaperman Jack Fleming must solve a murder in the first book, having awoken as a vampire after a gangland slaying. As in, his own. Ultimately, Fleming becomes a kind of undead hard-boiled private investigator (later a nightclub proprietor) aided by human pals and his new girlfriend Bobbi as they grapple with various mysteries, mobsters and supernatural villains, with a crew of determined vampire hunters always on his tail.

I no longer have any of Elrod’s books on my shelves, but if I recall, I had two or even three of The Vampire Files books at one time, including the first. Ace published new editions in 2010-2012 or thereabouts, with five volumes combining multiple novels from the original series in each. As I write this, I’m making a mental note to either track down some used bookstore originals or to order up the re-issued versions. As I recall, they were fun reads, with a good mix of supernatural vampiric-ness and retro-pulp style hard-boiled crime fiction, all punctuated with bits of wry humor.

Vampire detectives have been done by others, of course, particularly on television. Canada’s Forever Knight starring Geraint Wyn Davies ran from 1992 through 1996, based on a dropped 1989 CBS pilot starring Rick Springfield, and had a late-night cable run in the U.S. before going into syndication. I’m sure I’ve seen episodes on one of the many cable rerun channels (there are a few of those, aren’t there?). Blood Ties (2007 – 2008) originated in Canada as well, airing on Lifetime in the U.S., based on Tanya Huff’s Blood Books series and starring Christina Cox as a former Toronto cop turned P.I. who’s teamed up with a vampire. Moonlight (2007 – 2008) was a CBS prime time series starring Alex O’Loughlin as a private eye turned into a vampire. I’m sure there are more, and more vampire-as-investigator books and book series that I’m not mentioning here. P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files deserved being singled out, its familiar retro crime fiction turf a good fit for The Stiletto Gumshoe’s world.

Now, get back to work on your Halloween costume.

PNElrod 6

 

 

Blurred Lines.

The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man (1943)

Crime Reads may not be the first place you’d turn to for talk about horror, even at Halloween time. But it’s definitely worth a visit to read Zach Vasquez’ look at 20 essential films which blur the line between horror and noir (link below). Myself, I’ve always been surprised that more films do don’t do precisely that, the two ‘genres’ sharing some common roots and any number of familiar tropes and stylistic cues. Want to quibble with some of Vasquez’ choices, or toss in your own instead? Go right ahead. I fully concur with several of the article’s selections.

Crime Reads

After all, anything produced by Val Lewton might qualify, and Vasquez’ chooses 1943’s The Leopard Man. Similarly, while the article singles out David Lynch’s 1997 Lost Highway, most anything in Lynch’s body of work will likely merge something horrific with the vaguely noirish, the possibly anachronistically retro, and certainly the just-plain-weird. Vasquez also points to The Eyes of Laura Mars from 1978, that Helmut Newton fashion-kink photo suite brought to life on the big screen, its screenplay adapted from a spec script penned by John Carpenter (Halloween). Or there’s Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart from 1987, and of course, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 dark classic Les Diaboliques.

Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques (1955)

Some can argue that many films billed as horror are really just particularly gruesome serial killer thrillers. And others might assert that the moment a film (or story or novel) includes anything remotely supernatural, it no longer qualifies as ‘noir’. But then some people get too hung up on genres and classifications, and I’m not getting into those arguments. Rather, I’ll just encourage you to read Zach Vasquez’ 10.29.19 Crime Reads article “20 Essential Films That Blur The Line Between Horror And Noir” and see for yourself if you don’t find a film you might want to watch come Halloween night.

 

https://crimereads.com/20-essential-films-the-blur-the-line-between-horror-and-noir/

 

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