Happy Valentine’s Day?

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I’d love to send each and every one of you a gold box of decadent Godiva chocolates and a dozen long stemmed roses for Valentine’s Day. Not gonna, of course.

Since The Stiletto Gumshoe comes from the Second City (well, it was ‘second’ at one time) or the Windy City if you prefer, lets skip the hearts and flowers for this Valentine’s and consider a Valentine from just over 90 years ago…along with one from over 50 years ago while we’re at it.

You know, you can chow down on pretty darn good pizza at an Italian restaurant/bar where a corner table looks out right into the alley where John Dillinger was gunned down. In fact, if the pussycat-sized rats will let you pass, you can even take an après-dinner stroll between that eatery and the Biograph Theatre where the Public Enemy, his gal-pal Billie Frechette and the notorious “lady in red” took in Manhattan Melodrama almost ninety years ago.

Unfortunately, you can’t poke around the bullet-riddled brickwork of the North Clark Street garage where the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred, that building torn down long ago and only a vacant lot now (photo below).

2018

That bloody but botched assassination attempt was a symbolic climax to the violent prohibition era gangland warfare that turned Chicago into a battleground throughout much of the 1920’s, in which Al Capone and the Mafia tried to take out North Side bootlegger George ‘Bugs’ Moran once and for all. As it happened, Moran coincidentally escaped the bloodbath, but members of his gang, hangers-on and a garage mechanic were lined up against the wall by Capone gunmen dressed as Chicago cops and Tommy-gunned down. Capone was questioned but never charged with the crime, but always assumed to have ordered the killings, supposedly planned by Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn.

Massacrethe St valentines day massacre Poster

For all of Hollywood’s fascination with gangsters, no one made a movie specifically about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre until Roger Corman’s 1967 version with 20thCentury Fox. Working with an unfamiliar big-budget and full studio resources, B-Movie veteran Corman intended to shoot on location in Chicago with classically trained actors backed up by some AIP reliables, but studio execs immediately vetoed Orson Welles as Al Capone, putting Jason Robards (originally cast as Bugs Moran) in the role. Moreover, the movie was shot on the Fox studio backlot and sound stages, some street scenes looking pretty familiar from countless 1950’s/60’s/70’s era TV shows and movies. (The climactic massacre itself was shot at Desilu studios.) Ralph Meeker, Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson all make appearances along with often-seen TV and B-movie actors, and while no one would claim that Robards looks remotely like Capone, he delivers an energetic performance. Screenwriter Howard Browne had done extensive research on the subject and already written Seven Against The Wall for CBS’ Playhouse 90 in 1958. Supposedly with the seven-week shoot nearing completion, director Corman fretted that the movie was missing something – specifically, a woman…any woman – and they quickly cobbled together some business for Moran gang gunsel George Segal’s gun moll, played by Jean Hale. Intrusive as the bit may be, it’s a surprisingly well done and entertaining sequence for something shoehorned in at the last minute.

St Valentine Massacre

The St Valentines Day Massacre 1967

I’ll leave it to true crime and gangster buffs to nit-pick the historical inaccuracies – and I’m sure there are many. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde this is not. Still, it’s a pretty entertaining flick, surely lurking online somewhere or likely to turn up on cable. Hopefully you’ll have more romantic things to do this Valentine’s weekend. But if not, what would go down better than Chicago bootleggers, mobsters and the most infamous gangland slaying in a kitschy 1960’s B-movie?

Al Capone - Jason Robards

Cigarette Girls

Cigarette Girl

Back in mid-May I mentioned Susanna Calkins’ new novel (the first in a new series, I think), Murder Knocks Twice, a period mystery set in early 1929 Chicago. Struggling to care for her ailing father, young Gina Ricci takes a job as a cigarette girl in a local speakeasy, only to learn that the girl she’s replaced was recently murdered, and the club’s brooding, mysterious photographer turns out to be an estranged cousin from the family that disowned her and her dad. When Gina witnesses that same enigmatic photographer brutally murdered, she obeys his dying words and takes his camera, then learns to process film, and that’s only the start of the multiple mysteries that erupt in Calkins’ novel, all of which is set against a backdrop of the Capone-Moran gang wars, the book’s final pages playing out just as the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurs. It’s a fun read, leisurely paced (or methodically, depending on your assessment) and brimming with red herrings and subplots. Some may think Calkins’ tale is a little light on mayhem and Roaring Twenties decadence, considering the time, place and characters. But if so, it certainly didn’t detract from her good storytelling.

MURDER KNOCKS TWICE copy

Two things struck me as I read Murder Knocks Twice.

First: how Calkins used photographs and her hero’s urgent need to learn photography and film processing as a crucial driver in the narrative. That intrigued me, since it’s similar to things going on in both the first The Stiletto Gumshoe novel currently making the rounds and its sequel, still underway. A female protagonist, a Chicago setting — albeit with thirty years separating the two, my tale set in 1959 – it’d be presumptuous of me to say ‘great minds think alike’. I will say it was nice to see another author use photos and processing the way Calkins did.

4 cigarette girls

Second: Calkins wise choice of a nightclub cigarette girl for her main character (and what looks like a series character at that). It got me thinking about just how few cigarette girls have helmed mystery/crime fiction novels, when it’s such an obvious role. If you’re writing period crime fiction, which understandably may involve speakeasies, casinos, roadhouses and nightclubs, a cigarette girl is ideal for a character that needs to be right in the middle of the action. I’ve thought about it, I’ve browsed my own bookshelves and I’ve surfed online, but found precious few (if any) cigarette girl characters, much less lead characters, even among vintage pulps. So, hats off to Calkins for finally giving a vintage crime milieu fixture her proper due!

Cigarette Girl Pulps

And while we’re at it, congrats to her for a job well done. If you insist on non-stop gunplay, grisly violence or sizzling bedroom hijinks, (and frankly, I often do!) then Murder Knocks Twice may not be the next book you’ll consider. But, consider it nonetheless. It really is a good read.

P.S. Yes, that’s a young Audrey Hepburn in the cigarette girl costume in the quadrant of photos above.

 

The Rusty Heller Story

Elizabeth Montgomery The Rusty Heller Story

Everyone probably knows Elizabeth Montgomery (1933 – 1995), daughter of Hollywood golden age actor/director Robert Montgomery, as suburban mom and housewife – and witch – Samantha Stephens in the long-running sixties sitcom Bewitched (1964 – 1972). She got her start on Broadway about ten years earlier, and worked primarily in dramatic roles on many different television series, playing everything from pioneers to jewel thieves. One such early but memorable role is in the second season premier episode of The Untouchables (1959 – 1963), titled “The Rusty Heller Story”, for which she was nominated for an Emmy, the first of nine nominations. Forget the witch’s wiggling nose; Montgomery’s Rusty Heller is a sizzling performance, series star Robert Stack’s favorite episode, this being the only time his no-nonsense Elliot Ness became emotionally involved with a character. Watch The Rusty Heller Story if you can, and you’ll see why even hard as nails Ness fell for her.

Elizabeth Montgomery - The Rusty Heller Story 4

Montgomery plays a wily southern gal transplanted to Prohibition era Chicago, frustrated by her demeaning job as a costumed performer in a nightclub/brothel, very well aware of her sexual allure and eager to put it to work to trade up. With Al Capone in the clink and mobsters jockeying to take over the Chicago mob, Rusty sees an opportunity to use her charms to manipulate first a big time racketeer, then his lawyer and then a mob accountant, while concurrently feeding info to the Feds. And that’s how she meets – and promptly falls hard for the stoic Elliot Ness, who surprisingly falls for her too, ‘bad girl’ or not.

Elizabeth Montgomery - The Rusty Heller Story 3

But the relationship’s doomed, as is Rusty herself, and a climactic gun fight between the mobsters and the Untouchables squad ends with Montgomery’s Rusty Heller catching a slug in the back, then dying in Ness’ arms. It’s pretty powerful stuff for period television, showcasing what a terrific dramatic actor Montgomery really was, though we know her best as an equally good comedienne. Anecdotally, the mob lawyer Montgomery’s Rusty Heller neatly wraps ‘round her little finger is played by actor David White, who’d soon work with her throughout Bewitched’s run, playing advertising agency McMann & Tate’s managing partner and husband Darren Stephens boss, Larry Tate.

Elizabeth Montgomery - The Rusty Heller Story 2

The Untouchables’ “The Rusty Heller Story” is ranked in the top 100 of TV Guide’s Best Series Episodes list. Pretty sure this one’s on YouTube and elsewhere, and well worth watching.

The Untouchables

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