What Could Go Wrong?

Noir City Poster what could go wrong?

I took four years of French in high school, not Spanish (not that I can remember a damn thing from those classes), so it’s not as if can translate “Que podria salir mal?” on my own. Not sure if we should ever trust online translation sites, but apparently it reads “What could go wrong?” And with any classic film noir or crime melodrama storyline, what could go wrong?

Only everything, right?

Another stunning Film Noir Foundation Noir City film festival poster, this one for the 18thannual San Francisco fest in early 2020.

No Noir City Chicago For Me.

Noir City Chicago

So, does this figure, or what? The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Chicago starts this Friday (the day after tomorrow, when this post appears). And where will I be?

Well, not in Chicago. About 350 miles away, in fact.

In A Lonely Place, A Kiss Before Dying, The Killing, Kiss Me Deadly…oh, the list just goes on and it’s getting me depressed. Sure, I’ve seen many of the fest’s film offerings already, but a laptop or TV screen is no match for the big screen. There’s no better place for these films hereabouts than The Music Box Theatre. I’ve seen some memorable movies there, each experience enhanced by the place itself. But I knew in advance I’d be away for the fest, and ought to be reconciled to it by now.

The Music Box Theatre

Want to know just how much I’d ache to be there, even for one night? Hit the link below for an old post, “Noir City Daydreaming: On The Road”. It’s me fantasizing about chucking the day job and following The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City film festivals from city to city like some kind of noir-nomad.

Noir City Daydreaming

These post are typically scheduled a bunch at a time and days in advance. And I shouldn’t really be complaining, since I’ll be mixing work with some R&R and fun where I’ll be. Still, the timing’s rotten. Oh well…next year.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/30/noir-city-daydreaming-on-the-road/

Long Ago And Far Away…Not.

Crime ReadsI’m deep in James Ellroy’s 2019 This Storm, but expect to be wallowing in the underbelly of 1942 Los Angeles’ dark side for days to come, the meaty novel just shy of 600 pages. Loving (worshipping?) Ellroy as I do, I wouldn’t dream of skimming a single passage, preferring to relish every syncopated jazz-rhythmic sentence, almost wishing I could read it all out loud.

The novel, the second book in Ellroy’s epic second ‘L.A. Quartet’, opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues into the Spring of 1942, right in the middle of the periods we often associate most closely with classic mystery/crime fiction and film: The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and Golden Age Hollywood, Word War II, the tumultuous postwar years and the Red Scare and Cold War era of the 1950’s. These are the decades of the sleazy crime pulps, the rise of hard-boiled detective paperback original series, classic crime melodramas and film noir, banned crime comics and even the earliest TV detective series. The visuals – the clothes, the cars, the city streets, the diners, bars and buildings – all trigger associations with a classic crime and mystery milieu that’s firmly ingrained in pop culture.

In “The Art Of Setting Your Crime Novel In A Not-So-Distant Past”, a 7.24.19 Crime Reads essay (link below), New York writer (and NYT bestselling author, to be precise) Wendy Corsi Staub talks about growing up in the 1960’s, smitten with bygone eras which seemed so much more intriguing than her everyday world of bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, unaware that all too soon that ticky-tack Melmac dinnerware and avocado applianced world would itself become ‘history’. Maybe not fog-shrouded Victorian London, Colonial Boston or Medieval Europe, but history nonetheless.

While we look back nostalgically through rose-colored glasses to the 1930’s – 1950’s for so much classic crime/mystery, the real people who lived in that era similarly looked back 60 – 80 years earlier, though in their case it led them to the Wild West, which may account in part for the popularity of Westerns in film, pulps, comics and television shows from the 1930’s till they abruptly vanished altogether in the late 1960’s.

Wendy Corsi Staub points out that the decades of our own youth – Boomer, Gen-X or Millennial as the case may be – are already (or soon will be) history every bit as much as Philip Marlowe roaming 1930’s/40’s Los Angeles or Mike Hammer pounding perps in 1950’s Manhattan. But writing about (and reading about) the recent past can be challenging. Writers themselves may be surprised to discover how much they don’t know (or don’t remember) about periods that aren’t so far gone. Staub checks in with several novelists including Alyson Gaylin and Laura Lippman who’ve recently released books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was particularly pleased to see a personal favorite of mine included, Anthony award finalist James W. Ziskin, whose Ellie Stone mystery series (now at six novels) is set in the very early sixties. It would just be sheer hubris to suggest that ‘great minds think alike’, but I felt reassured when these writers explained how they may have relied on everyday magazines more than Google – ads, recipes and all – to build their arsenal of period-correct details and get a feel for the times. Spending a bundle at Ebay equipped me with loads of period mags to browse, highlight and scan, and were much more fertile sources than even the novels or TV series reruns from the same years. James Ziskin echoed what drew me to the specific years in which I’ve set my own current projects. The Stiletto Gumshoe opens in the Spring of 1959. The in-progress sequel takes place only a few months later. If I’m lucky enough to sell this darn thing and turn it into a series (which I realize is a lot like spending your Lottery jackpot before buying a ticket) I’d forecast the timeline up to the mid-sixties, before so many sudden and sweeping political, cultural and social changes erupted. Why? Precisely as Ziskin states, those years are “on the cusp” of change. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. For me working in 1959, one foot’s firmly rooted in the older mid-twentieth century world, while the other very hesitantly tip-toes a bit towards what’s still to come.

You don’t have to sell me on the appeal of the ‘classic crime and noir’ decades: The enormous fat-fendered cars, fellows in their double-breasted suits with the wide-brimmed fedoras pulled low over the eyes. The women sporting silly truffles atop their freshly set do’s, shapely in tailor pencil skirts, their stocking seams straight. Boat-sized Yellow taxis and elevator operators, newsstands and nightclubs with tiny tables, each with a little shaded lamp in the center. And everyone smokes. Everyone. It all seems so much more glamorous, more dangerous and more intriguing than the ‘now’. Or even the recent ‘now’, whether that’s mods in mini-skirts or disco divas in Danskin wrap dresses, shopping mall cliques ogling MTV or hackers with their noses glued to smartphone screens. The familiarity of our youth – the recent past – can make it seem bland. But it’s not. And the details of those years – the essential bits and pieces and subtle cues writers need to sprinkle throughout their material – may even take some research to get right. Even if it’s very recent.  And the fact is, there’s richness in the recent past that can equal all the imagined romance of earlier eras.

Yes, even the fashion disaster that was the 1970’s.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, check out Wendy Corsi Staub’s essay at Crime Reads:

https://crimereads.com/the-art-of-setting-your-crime-novel-in-a-not-so-distant-past/

 

La Petite Mort

Longreads screen cap“Who do I have to fuck and kill to get a good erotic thriller?” Soraya Roberts asks in her 5.24.19 Longreads article “The Erotic Thriller’s Little Death” (link below).

While that may be one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time, I suspect that Roberts could bed or murder anyone she likes, but it wouldn’t help. Only a time machine dialed back two decades or more could locate a good erotic thriller. The genre – if it truly was one – has been retired, or at least placed on hiatus while the business and our culture sort things out.

Soraya Roberts’ piece points to high profile big screen films from the 1980’s through 1990’s, bracketed by Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Body Heat (1981) and Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct (1992) which trace their lineage back to the mid-twentieth century noir and proto-noir films that sidestepped cops & robbers in order to zero in on more intimate tales of jealousy, lust, greed and desire. Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity would be the obvious reference, but John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde in Roadhouse, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of The Past, and Lizabeth Scott and Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning come to mind.

Roberts’ article quotes Linda Ruth Williams’ 2005 The Erotic Thriller In Contemporary Cinema for a definition of the genre: “Erotic thrillers are noirish stories of sexual intrigue incorporating some form of criminality or duplicity, often as the flimsy framework for on-screen softcore sex”, and that’s about as good a definition as I can think of. If I read “The Erotic Thriller’s Little Death” correctly, Roberts assumes that cultural changes doomed the genre. Woman-as-sex-object simply doesn’t cut it in a #MeToo era. But she rightly wonders why empowered women taking control of their own sexuality while concurrently asserting themselves in screenwriting, producing and directing haven’t given birth to a new breed of neo-noirish erotic thrillers? And thus, her article’s opening question: Where are the erotic thrillers for today?

This may be where Soraya Roberts and I part company…well, to a degree. She labels a handful of sexy big screen films as ‘erotic thrillers’. But for every one of those, there were dozens (if not more) made in the same era, but viewed on TV screens, not at the multiplex. Erotic thrillers as a very recognizable film genre peculiar to the 1980’s and 1990’s (with some stragglers creeping into the early 2000’s, perhaps) were primarily a direct-to-video VHS tape and then DVD phenomenon, rented at Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, regional chains and local mom-n-pops. They were produced on shoestring budgets at near assembly line speed and efficiency without costly location shoots, elaborate sets, CGI effects, large casts or big-name stars. Armed with a decent script, an earnest crew and a talented director-wannabe, it didn’t take much more than a knife, a firearm with blanks, some stage blood and a rent-a-prop squad car to get the cameras rolling. Wardrobe? It could almost be borrowed right out of the actors’ own closets, perhaps with a quick side trip to a shopping mall lingerie chain store.

Most were dreadful. Some very few were actually quite good and stand the test of time (well…almost). And in this, the ‘real’ erotic thrillers (not the much smaller number of big screen A-List productions from the same era) mimicked the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp magazine and postwar paperback original marketplaces. They were hastily produced, easily accessed and packaged in garish, sexy covers, with more and more needed every month to fill the video rental chain shelves’ ravenous appetites. The genre, if it was one, doesn’t trace its lineage back to James M. Cain so much as Spicy Detective pulp magazine stories, trashy Gil Brewer and Orrie Hitt 1950’s crime novels and the few vintage sleaze PBO’s that actually had plots.

I don’t think evolving attitudes had anything to do with the erotic thrillers’ little death. The swift blink-and-they’re-gone decline of the movie rental store did. Redbox DVD kiosks and streaming services seem largely disinterested in keeping the genre alive, and what even Soraya Roberts acknowledges as ‘one handed watching’ is more easily accomplished (if one is so inclined) with free online porn, story be damned.

My own experience with the 1980’s – 1990’s erotic thrillers is limited to what I’ve come across in used bookstores’ close-out bins. Note: Not sale shelves. Close-out bins. And not used VHS tapes. (I mean, who has a VCR? Are they still sold at Best Buy, shelved between 8-track tape players and rotary dial phones?) Many 1980’s – 1990’s ‘classics’ have been repackaged and dumped into outlets as $1.99 – $2.99 brand new and sealed DVD’s. Can’t miss them: Look for a photo montage with a pistol and some spiky heels. Have I bought some? Sure have, even if feeling a little squirmy bringing one up to the cashier, depending on the DVD case cover art. And yes, I’ve been disappointed by some, but pleasantly surprised by others, concluding that Shannon Tweed, Joan Severance, Kari Wuhrer, Shannon Whirry and an entire Hollywood subculture of nimble-fingered writers and hard-working crews scrambled from one studio or location to another in a round-the-clock production schedule, so many of the scripts, costumes, sets and wardrobes (or lack thereof) fully interchangeable from one film to another.

Mainstream cinema is a little timid about sex right now. Streaming and cable may be less squeamish, perhaps, but sex and crime mixed together into a neo-noirish cinematic cocktail seems to make everyone uneasy. Instead, we get sparkling vampires dreamed up by a Mormon, dreary faux S&M that’s more effective than Melatonin gummies at lulling you to sleep, totally de-sexed Lifetime Channel thrillers and sex-ified CW tween-TV series. The erotic thriller as a big screen mainstream release or a slew of low-budget online/cable movies has been sanitized, diluted or outright abandoned.

But the dark impulses that propelled James M. Cain novels to the screen in the 1940’s and the more explicitly depicted drives that found their way onto tape, disk and cable in the 1980’s and 1990’s still linger. Hollywood and the culture at large may need to reassess, purge some outmoded and frankly repellant voyeuristic dismissiveness and ultimately discover a new vocabulary for the 21stcentury. Then maybe Soraya Roberts won’t have to fuck or kill anyone just to get a good erotic thriller again.

Link to Soraya Roberts’ Longreads.com article:

https://longreads.com/2019/05/24/the-erotic-thrillers-little-death/

 

Love Stories.

Gorgi Omnibus

If you write mystery, crime fiction or have the audacity to say you’re trying to write that often elusive thing called ‘noir’, then hit your touchpad or click your mouse and get to crimereads.com for managing editor Dwyer Murphy’s excellent tribute to James M. Cain (link below), whose birthday was just this week (July 1, 1892). I won’t quote passages from The Wit, Wisdom And Noirs Of James M. Cain – 25 Of The Greatest Lines Ever Written By A Crime Fiction Master, but will only encourage you to relish those that Murphy wisely selected, which include riveting lines from Cain’s novels as well as the master’s thoughts on writing and language. Keep in mind (as Dwyer Murphy points out) that Cain didn’t really consider himself a crime writer as such, much less ‘hard-boiled’ or a purveyor of anything called ‘noir’. He felt that he was writing love stories. Love gone tragically bad, doomed love, deadly love, perhaps. But love nonetheless. There’s a lesson there, I think. One day when I’m much smarter I’ll have learned it.

Omnibus 2

Tempting as it is to use any of the many original editions of his novels for some visuals for this post, or the 1940’s – 60’s era paperback reissue gems or even the much more tawdry 1970’s and later editions, I grabbed some omnibus editions and collections here instead. Aw heck, they’re all good.

Omnibus 1

https://crimereads.com/the-wit-wisdom-and-noirs-of-james-m-cain/

A Dangerous Dame’s Debut

Carol Ohmart

I believe no less an authority on such things than the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly magazine Noir City consider The Scarlet Hour from 1956 the end of the classic cycle of films noir. I’ll leave that up to film scholars.

The Scarlet Hour Lobby Card

Directed by none other than the great Michael Curtiz, the film was supposed to launch the career of Carol Ohmart (1927 – 2002), a Seattle/Spokane beauty pageant contestant who’d been modeling for famed comics illustrator Milton Caniff as “Copper Calhoun” in his Steve Canyon strip, and who the studio was already promoting as a “female Brando” and the next Marilyn Monroe. But every blonde starlet was probably billed as the next Monroe then. Apparently playing a manipulative, alcoholic schemer didn’t endear Ohmart with movie goers, since she was dropped by Paramount shortly after, and her career never really took off quite as planned. Many know her best as Vincent Price’s nasty wife in The House On Haunted Hill. But I say she made one hell of a great femme fatale in her film debut, even if some highbrow critics claim that The Scarlet Hour was a lackluster finale to film noir’s original classic era.

The Scarlett Hour B&W

Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss - Hnd Colored

Not sure if I’ll be home in time for TCM’s 11:00 PM CST Noir Alley with host, noir maestro Eddie Muller. Tonight it’s Vincent Sherman’s 1947 Warner Brothers film Nora Prentiss, shot by James Howe Wong with a Franz Waxman score, starring one of Hollywood’s hardest working actresses, Ann Sheridan. I’ve never seen the film and would like to, particularly with Muller’s always insightful opening and closing remarks.

You like your film noirs with syndicate bosses, mobsters, dirty cops and gun fights? Who doesn’t? But there’s an equally essential subset of classic film noir and crime melodrama focused on smaller stories that are equally dark and fatalistic, Nora Prentiss among them, considered by some as one of the best “women’s noir”.

Nora Prentiss - MontageKent Smith plays Dr. Richard Talbot, bored with his humdrum life and marriage, who begins an affair with seductive nightclub singer Nora Prentiss, played by Ann Sheridan. He fakes his own death in order to run away with her, relocating from the west coast to New York, where she goes back to work in the clubs. But it can’t go well, and Dr. Talbot grows increasingly paranoid once he leans that his faked death is now a murder investigation. Soon he’s bitter, jealous, combative and drinking too much, finally crashing his car. Disfigured from the accident, unable to identify himself, he’s actually accused of his own murder.

Nora Prentiss still

Though the film sounds like it’s Talbot’s story more than Ann Sheridan’s, it’s really not, at least based on what I’ve read. And Ann Sheridan rarely disappoints, especially when she gets a meaty role where she can play street smart with an undercurrent of vulnerability (though I suspect her husband-stealing songbird might not be particularly vulnerable). Well, in or out, that’s what DVR’s are for. I’m catching this movie one way or another.

Nora Prentiss poster

Tu Bei’s Noir Series

Tu Bei 1

Tu Bei is a US concept artist and illustrator, with an array of gorgeous and diverse work to be viewed at Art Of Tu — artoftu.com. Here are just a few examples, above a character design concept, and below, three pieces from Tu Bei’s “Noir Series”.

Tu Bei 3Tu Bei 2Tu Bei 4

 

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