Mary Murphy.

Mary Murphy 1

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.

Hells island 1

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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Femme Noir.

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In a preceding post I mentioned a list of comics missed or overdue for a revisit that has accumulated while the shops have been shuttered the past few months. They still are closed, around here at least, but are expected to re-open soon. All the same, while I’m blessed with several nice stores very close by, they’re woefully light on indies, being strictly focused on the capes-n-tights crowd from the majors. But one off the beaten track shop will come through, I know, and that’s where I’ll mine the bins for Christopher Mills and Joe Staton’s Femme Noir.

Femme Noir 1

I have several back issues, but grabbed them at random and not in sequence, and really want to hunker down with the whole series. Bursting out of Port Nocturne’s deep dark shadows in always-energetic artwork, Mills and Staton’s Femme Noir seems like a genuinely pulpy comic treat based on the disjointed storyline I’ve gleaned from what I have. The Dark City Diaries, Blonde Justice and Dead Man’s Hand…now there’s a bunch I need to acquire, whether in individual issues or trade reprints. Counting the days (or a couple weeks, depending on what I hear).

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A Deadly Kiss.

n saunders mans story 1970 copy

Let’s hope that kiss was really, really worth it, since the revolver digging into that fellow’s chest seems likely to bring this embrace to a very abrupt end. It’s a spot interior B&W illustration by pulp maestro Norman Saunders for a 1970 issue of Man’s Story magazine.

The Client.

Ward Sutton - New Yorker

Sure, but then the venetian blinds couldn’t cast distorted and ominous shadows across the room. A New Yorker magazine cartoon by Ward Sutton.

David Seeley

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What gets you? Spiders, creepy clowns, snakes? For me it’s 1) deep water/drowning and 2) heights, either of those likely to plague my rare nightmares, and both frighteningly popular scenes among crime pulp cover artists, vintage paperback cover illustrators and many of the B&W’s and duotones in the prewar pulps and postwar men’s adventure mags. So artist David Seeley’s terrifying depiction of a woman being shoved out of a highrise window has been giving me the chills since I first spotted it. (Kinda shivering right now.)

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Neither prudish nor particularly political, normally I just yawn when it comes to contemporary artists doing pinup style art. Seventy years ago? That was then, this is now. And many of the subjects in David Seeley’s work do seem to lose track of their clothes, except for some skimpy lacies. But they never seem to lose sight of their guns, and maybe that’s what caught my eye and why the work reminds me less of peekaboo paintings and more of familiar Robert McGinnis 1960’s series paperback covers and the popular styles seen in so many 1960’s/70’s illustrated film posters.

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Boston based artist David Seeley studied architecture and first worked as a successful architect until some serious soul-searching led him to pursue art full-time. In a modern day spin on many postwar illustrators’ shared NYC studio spaces, Seeley shares a virtual studio with fourteen other artists including the likes of Greg Manchess. Seeley’s technique is an intriguing blend of digital photo-composition merged with traditional oil painting on archival printouts, and he details his process at his site, www.daveseeley.com. Check it out…it’s pretty interesting even if you’re not an artist.

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Brent Joseph Lynch

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Brent Joseph Lynch studied at the Vancouver School Of Art And Design and England’s St. Martin’s School Of Fine Art, eventually working under Nicholas Ray and David Hockney before launching his own successful career as an illustrator and muralist. His fine art work filters sleekly modern and sometimes nearly noir-ish contemporary culture iconography through an ‘Hopper-esque’ style of simplicity, depicting everything from intimate vignettes to blatantly nostalgic scenes.

Spot some influences? We’ll all see some, from Peregrine Heathcote to Jack Vettriano to Edward Hopper to any other of a long list of contemporary painters mining retro-flavored settings and tropes. Myself, I really like the things Lynch is probing in these pieces, and I eagerly look forward to seeing where it all goes.

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Name Your Poison.

Robert Stanley

“Name Your Poison,” the intro to the 1955 anthology Dangerous Dames instructs the reader. “Or maybe you don’t care for poison. Maybe you’d rather be shot full of holes, or tossed over a high balcony, or ripped apart by dogs…there are twelve dames in this book, and they supply a lot more in the way of sex, savagery and surprises than a man usually bargains for.”

It’s pretty rare for to find a vintage paperback (or retro pulp magazine or even many Golden Age comics) with a credit for the cover artist inside, but “Cover Painting By Robert Stanley” is right there at the bottom of the copyright page of Dangerous Dames, edited by Brett Halliday (David Dresser), though the cover says “Selected by Mike Shayne”. (Non-nod, wink-wink).

In the anthology’s foreword, Halliday shares a pretend conversation he had with his own fictional hard-boiled hero, private-eye Mike Shayne, about choosing the dozen stories for this book, which date from 1936 through 1955 and include work from Bruno Fischer, Anthony Boucher, Harold Q. Masur and Day Keene (Gunard Hjertstedt 1904 – 1969). Keene’s “A Better Mantrap” from 1947 opens the anthology, and aside from a few period anachronisms, you’d think it was a newly written domestic noir. When a wife’s had it with years of subtle and not so subtle abuse from a boorish husband, there are all kinds of ways to get rid of him. It’s a treat, and if it’s any indication of the quality of the tales in Dangerous Dames, one of the first books to begin replenishing my previously empty to-be-read spot on the writing lair’s endtable, then my shelter-at-home reading drought is over.

Dangerous Dames

Dangerous Dames Are Heading My Way.

Dangerous Dames Ordered

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is usually stacked high, but I’d been whittling it down the past week or two, and got caught empty-handed just as we were all directed to burrow into our shelters. No libraries. No local indies or Barnes & Noble, no Half Price Books, no comix shops…nothin’.

So, I spent some weekend time burning through my credit limit for items from multiple sites from small press publishers to Amazon, for curbside bookstore pickup and elsewhere. First up: Some nifty noir-ish and pulpy anthologies spotted at The New Thrilling Detective Web Site with handy links to Amazon for these (presumably) used OOP gems.

“Twelve Lively Ladies…Twelve Deadly Dolls!” it says up above on the cover of 1955’s Dangerous Dames.  Okay, I’m in, even if it’s a pretty fair assumption that ‘Mike Shayne’ had no hand in the selection process. I’d have probably gone for The Dark End Of The Street based on the cover alone, and I’m kinda miffed that I missed that one before. “New Stories Of Sex And Crime” sounds like a nice mix of the noir and the naughty, and who couldn’t use that when we’re all so social-distanced?

Dark At The End Of The Street Ordered

I know I’ve seen Otto Penzler’s Murder For Love but don’t know why it’s not in my bookcases.

Murder For Love Ordered

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins may seem like a puzzling duo to some, but thank goodness the scribe from Iowa befriended everyone’s hard-boiled hero while Spillane was still among us. I definitely did not know about this particular anthology, and very much want to see how those two managed to narrow things down to only twelve “hard-boiled, hard-hitting women writers”.

Vengeance Is Hers

Last up, an oldie from the Martin Greenberg anthology factory, which put out some terrific as well as some been-there-done-that anthologies in its heyday. But then, who knows how long the great sheltering may last…apparently past Easter Sunday, contrary to some hare-brained podium bluster. I’m betting I’ll find something I like in a book titled Tough Guys And Dangerous Dames.

Touch Guys And Dangerous Dames Ordered

I tried for Dolls Are Murder, a 1957 pocketbook from The Mystery Writers Of America, but someone else got there first and it was no longer available.

More books are en route from elsewhere and via pickup, and the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable shouldn’t look quite so forlorn pretty soon.

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