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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At Crime Reads: Virginia Kellogg

T-Men 1947

I still haven’t worked my way through all of the Crime Reads articles I’ve saved, and they just keep flinging more at me. FYI, if you get the itch to scroll backwards through Crime Reads’ site, you’d best allocate a lot of time. You’ll get lost there, albeit happily so.

Case in point: Last week’s article by Chris McGinley, “Virginia Kellogg: The Forgotten Screenwriter Behind A String Of Classic Noirs”. It’s tagged “She wrote some of the greatest crime movies in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Today we know almost nothing about her”.

Crime Reads

Native Californian Virginia Kellogg (1907 – 1981) originally worked as a Los Angeles Times reporter, then a secretary and script girl, penning a couple early screenplays as far back as the pre-code era. But her important work would come later in the postwar era, with projects like T-Men (1947), White Heat (1949) and Caged (1950), those last two earning her Oscar nominations. Now White Heat and Caged are surely familiar faves for anyone popping in here, but Anthony Mann’s faux-documentary styled T-Men is a real treat, with a complex story by Kellogg (screenplay by John Higgins) and visuals that could be used as a how-to textbook on the classic film noir style.

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Head to Crime Reads (link below) for Chris McGinley’s article, and then I challenge you to not start scrolling online or rooting through your disk shelves for one of these three films. Me? I’ll go with T-Men, a movie with more shades of ‘dark’ than you’d think is possible to capture on film.

https://crimereads.com/virginia-kellogg-the-forgotten-screenwriter-behind-a-string-of-classic-noirs/

The Noir Style.

The Noir Style

Alain Silver and James Ursini’s 1999 Harry N. Abrams/Overlook Press The Noir Style is a frequently seen bookstore sale rack and remainders table staple, and that’s where I got mine, the $50.00 (when published 20 years ago) oversize 244-page hardcover still in a shrink-wrap and for only $12.99. Now I can’t vouch for the trade pb edition, but this sumptuous hardcover, designed by Bernard Schleifer, is almost an objet d’art with 170+ duotone photos on matte coated stock, as nicely produced as any coffee table art monograph you’d buy in a museum store.

The book’s title and the glamorous cover photo might mislead you into thinking The Noir Style is about the costuming and wardrobe design of so many memorable film noir femmes fatales and heroines. But no, Silver and Ursini (supported by additional material from Robert Perforio and Linda Brookover) provide a glorious overview of the ‘look’, the ‘style’ and the visual motifs of both classic film noir and more contemporary neo-noir (well, ‘contemporary’ for a book published in the 1990’s). It’s packed with familiar and not-so-familiar images of memorable characters and stars, scenes and set designs, all crisply reproduced and accompanied by a generous amount of text chronicling the roots of film noir, the genre’s evolution, various noir themes (from a visual perspective) and more.

Film Noir Readers

Silver and Ursini have practically made a cottage industry out of film noir books of one sort or another, only a few of which are shown here, and it should be no surprise that I have a few. But they’ve also partnered on books about horror cinema, vampire films and other subjects. I’m usually cautious with film noir non-fiction books, having been burned by a few overly academic (make that downright snooty) ones determined to filter the genre through the author’s personal perspective, Marxist, feminist or other “ist”, which sometimes make sense and often times does not. But if you see The Noir Style at some puzzling low price on a bookstore’s sale table (particularly the hardcover!), snatch it.

Film Noir Books

Just Ask Eddie.

Ask Eddie

A Film Noir Foundation email blast tells us to “Ask Eddie”, promoting an upcoming live stream Facebook page where questions can be posed to that master of all things noir, Eddie Muller.

I think I need to stay away. Or at least, keep my questions to myself. After all, is it even possible to sift through the hundreds (thousands?) of questions I’d love to ask the main man himself? But don’t think I won’t be swooping in to snoop.

Want to know more? You know where to go, fellow film noir friends.

www.filmnoirfoundation.org

The Dark Side In Color Or B&W.

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Largely self-taught photographer and filmmaker Quentin Shih works out of both New York and Bejing, and clearly has a flair for the dark side, the images sometimes evoking the look and feel of classic film noir, and sometimes indulging in sumptuous (but still deliciously dark) saturated hues for neo-noir homages.

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The Girl He Goes For: Whistle Stop (1946)

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It’s been months, but I’m still grumbling about losing Turner Classic Movies and its Noir Alley feature. Oh, I manage to get by (sort of) with Movies! Sunday Night Noir, which offers a mix of genuine classics alongside lesser known and oddball crime melodramas. But I get the feeling that the network’s definition of “Noir” demands no more than coming from the 1940’s/50’s and being in black & white.

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Not everyone’s a fan of George Raft (1901 – 1980), many considering him too wooden a performer who was understandably eclipsed by Humphrey Bogart and others as one of the studios’ main tough guys. But I do like him, though I’d be the first to concede that in Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films/United Artists release, Raft was woefully miscast as Ava Gardner’s former lover, being more than twenty years older (and that’s if you believe Raft’s ‘official’ 1901 birth date, which many contend was actually 1895).

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As for Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990), she’d been toiling away in walk-ons, bit parts and uncredited roles since arriving in Hollywood in 1941. But 1946 would be her year, starting with Whistle Stop and ending with the much more memorable The Killers alongside Burt Lancaster. For me, Gardner’s like Ida Lupino or Lizabeth Scott: I’d buy a ticket and happily watch them read the dictionary, file their nails or do absolutely nothing at all for an hour and half. Gardner acquits herself well in this, her first starring role, playing Mary, a girl with a reputation returning to her small ‘whistle stop’ hometown far outside Detroit after a two year absence. Mary’s not just returning for a family visit, but yearns to rekindle a steamy affair with Kenny Veech (George Raft), and when that doesn’t quite work out, she takes up with a shady nightclub owner. There’s already some bad blood between Raft and the sleazy gambler, and soon enough someone will have to die.

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Screenwriter Philip Yordan claimed he was faithful to the source material…what little of it he could actually use, that is, since it was much too sexually explicit for 1946 audiences.  That would be Maritta Wolff’s 1941 first novel by the same name. Wolff (1918 – 2002) actually wrote the seamy tale of small-town violence, vulgarity and sex as a book-length assignment for her senior year composition class at the University Of Michigan. It went on to be published in multiple hardcover and paperback editions, earn rave reviews and lead to a successful writing career. Maritta Wolff’s second novel, Night Shift, was also made into a film, The Man I Love (1947) starring Ida Lupino. Intensely private, Wolff refused to do publicity for her books, and her final manuscript was discovered hidden in her refrigerator after her death (Sudden Rain posthumously published to great success).

Whistle Stop Books

Whistle Stop’s okay, though mostly because we get to watch Ava Gardner assume the mantle of a lead actress, alternately seductive, manipulative and vulnerable from scene to scene. The film was interesting enough to prompt me to look for Maritta Wolff’s novels so I could find out more about this adventurous college kid cranking out a provocative hit novel in college. Whistle Stop and Night Shift are en route right now.

“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.”

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The new Summer 2020 Mystery Scene issue arrived yesterday, but there was no time to read it last night, being stuck with some day job take-home work. More about what looks like a terrific issue later. But I did manage a quick peek over this morning’s drive-through large-with-cream (God bless Dunkin’ Donuts) on the way to work, and the last item in Louis Phillips “Mystery Scene Miscellany” column caught my eye, it being the day after Dashiell Hammett’s birthday.

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“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

No, not the Carly Simon song from her 1987 Coming Around Again album or paraphrasing Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade delivers that final line of dialog in the 1941 The Maltese Falcon, just before he and Ward Bond exit while we watch the elevator gates close over Mary Astor’s resigned face, the car descends into darkness and that memorable Adolph Deutsch composed Warner Brothers studio orchestra music builds for the film’s close, a mere minute or so of truly iconic proto-noir cinema that gets me every time I see it.

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“The stuff that dreams are made of.” According to Mystery Scene Miscellany (referencing a 1989 Lawrence Grobel biography of the Hustons), that wonderful line which had long been attributed to director/screenwriter John Huston was actually ad-libbed on set by Bogart himself. Doubly intriguing, since all I’ve read about the film indicates that Huston was meticulous about sticking to his script in this, his first feature film directorial assignment, even shooting largely in sequence.

But I’m glad at least one bit of improvisation was allowed, and all the more pleased to think of Humphrey Bogart coming up with that particular – and memorable – line.

Kirilin’s “Gun Crazy” Series & More.

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You’ve probably seen a couple of these photos  (the “stiletto gumshoes” in particular) a zillion times on Tumblr, Pinterest and elsewhere. I know I have. What I don’t see very often is anything mentioning who shot them. They’re by Israeli photo-artist Vladimir “Volf” Kirilin, including some shots here from his “Gun Crazy” and “In The City Of The Moonlight” series. Look for more of the master’s work at 500px.com.

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