Noir Is Where You Find It.

shaun mcguan taylor swift

“Noir” is where you find it, and it’s not always cloaked in shadowy lighting or filtered through hazy cigarette smoke. The darkness won’t always part to reveal wide-brimmed fedoras shading square jawed private eyes, or purse sized pistols wielded by fetching femme fatales. No, this thing we call “noir” – film noir, neo-noir, domestic noir, rural noir, L.A. Noir, femme noir, whatever noir — is something much more than just all the visual trappings of classic film noir or the pulps, paperback mysteries and crime comics from the same era, or the reimagined pastiches and homages produced since.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 1

I was reminded of this when I scrolled past a Tumblr post at the always intriguing comics and art blog Dirty River (link below) with its repost from artist Shawn McGuan’s Tumblr blog (link also below), showing off his illustration (the terrific art shown at the top of this post) for a Tidal article, “The Delectable Neo-Noir of Taylor Swift” by Alex Segura (and again, link below). If I’d bothered to check my email that morning, I’d have already seen a link to the Tidal article at my 8.24.19 Crime Reads e-newsletter.

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Alex Segura’s essay begins: “Revenge. Betrayal. Bad blood and knives in the back. Getaway cars, heists gone wrong…these aren’t potential plot threads for a treacherous crime novel. They’re references to songs by Taylor Swift, a beloved pop princess who’s built a name with her catchy, teen-friendly and seemingly All-American odes to lost love and shaking it off. But there’s more to America’s sweetheart…a complex, layered, conflicted character who could easily saunter in front of a film noir’s monochrome and stark stylish camera.”

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A Taylor Swift expert I’m not. Diana Krall, Beethoven, Joan Jett — those I know, which tells you how screwed up my musical tastes are. But you’d have to be a hermit not to have heard Swift’s music or surfed past her award show performances, each treated like an event. Arriving at the day job’s Friday morning’s staff meeting, for instance, a coworker was being teased for not getting enough sleep Thursday night, everyone but me presuming the dedicated Taylor Swift fan stayed up to get and then give a few listens to Swift’s brand-new album Lover, a midnight release.

It takes more than a pop star – particularly one who started out as a teenage country & western sensation – donning saucy thigh-highs for a duet with Madonna, performing in some provocative cinematic style music videos or sidling up to a bar in a slit dress for Vanity Fair (which is where the 2015 photos for this post all came from, BTW) to make her a purveyor of anything we’d label noir or even neo-noir. But as Alex Segura points out in his essay, “The driving force that propels all noir stories can be summed up with one word: desire…the best works of noir also feature ostensibly good people forced or tempted to do bad things – then dealt some harsh consequences they can’t recover from”.

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I love the clichés, stereotypes and tropes of classic noir and get a kick out of their redeployment in contemporary neo-noir. But I know full well that the genre – if it is one – isn’t comprised of props, wardrobes, sets and lighting cues. Probing further than the mere look of noir films, crime pulp magazine illustrations and 1950’s private eye paperback covers is what leads us into the dark netherworld of noir, a grim place filled with larceny, lust, greed, amorality, vapid evil and small hope for redemption or escape. Yum. Let me buy my ticket now, please.

So, Taylor Swift as a noir princess instead of just a princess of pop? Well, when you read Alex Segura’s article, you may just agree. Not because of some provocative photo shoots or music videos, but because of the themes in so many of her songs and the canny word-smithing she employs to convey them.

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Check out Alex Segura’s article. No one’s trying to convert you into a Taylor Swift pop music fan, least of all me. But for dedicated mystery/crime fiction fans and what might be called noir culture enthusiasts, it’s always good to ponder what makes “noir”…well, noir, even when it challenges our notions of what the genre really is.

And while you’re at it, take a look at Dirty River and Shawn McGuan’s blog, though I’ll be posting a few of McGuan’s pieces here shortly, and it isn’t the first time he’s shown up at The Stiletto Gumshoe.

https://dirtyriver.tumblr.com/

https://mcgone.tumblr.com/

http://read.tidal.com/article/neo-noir-of-taylor-swift

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/

 

‘Bad Times’ Was A Good Time

I’m usually the last one to see any current movies, often as not streamed or on disk instead of herded into the multiplex. Case in point: Drew Goddard’s 2018 stylish neo-noir Bad Times At The El Royale. Released not long before Halloween 2018, my own sale rack DVD was tossed in my bag for a weekend getaway where cable, broadband, WiFi (or even a land line) was unavailable. So I finally saw it a week and a half ago. If I recall a brief Autumn 2018 marketing blitz, it didn’t seem to pay off at the box office. Still, the film’s been well reviewed, and I’ll add my own thumbs-up for Goddard’s Quentin Tarantino homage (well, that’s what it seemed like to me).

El Royale Intro

A brief intro’s muted palette and its unexpected jolt of mayhem alerts viewers that they’re in for a smart bit neo-noirish fun.

And the film delivers, as a traveling salesman, a Catholic priest, a singer and a smart-mouthed hippie converge on the El Royale, a peculiar and nearly deserted (its gaming license recently evoked) resort hotel straddling the Nevada-California state line. But no one’s who they seem to be, including the kinda-creepy desk clerk, apparently the only staff on site. Jon Hamm’s salesman is really an FBI agent. Jeff Bridges’ priest is actually a paroled bank robber, Dakota Johnson’s hippie is on the run from a Manson Family style cult, her little sister drugged and tied up in the car trunk. Lewis Pullman’s creepy guilt-ridden perv of a desk clerk is a former Army sniper. Only Cynthia Erivo’s singer-for-hire appears to be playing it straight, though that hardly keeps her out of trouble.

In a decidedly non-linear narrative, we glimpse each character’s backstory, enough to deepen the mystery and drag the viewer inexorably towards a violent climax. When the credits finally roll, a few questions might remain unanswered or at least some details left unclear, but that’s okay. Written and produced by director Drew Goddard, the film’s a visual treat, drenched in almost surreal hues, erupting in sudden bursts of violence, with every participant turning in terrific performances.

El ROyale Cast

Cynthia Erivo and young Cailee Spaeny are both new to me, but I’ll be watching for more from them, that’s for sure. Just as I’ll be watching for Dakota Johnson to further demonstrate how well she can do bad-ass and handle a gun.  If there’s a lethal assassin, cat burglar or (dare I hope) a gumshoe role in her future, I’m in.

Dakota Johnson

If you missed Bad Times At The El Royale, and enjoy a quirky neo-noir thriller, and like Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez’s or even David Lynch’s work, then give this film a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I sure wasn’t.

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Femme Fatale (2002)

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A cult favorite among many cinephiles but a box office bomb, Brian DePalma’s 2002 Femme Fatale is (like most other DePalma films) a visual treat full of twisty turns, Hitchcock-homages and, according to some, utterly indulgent artsy trash. But artsy trash in a good way, if you ask me. I’ll leave it to the film scholars and critics (of which I’m neither) to render judgments on that. But Rebecca Romijn (then still going by Rebecca Romijn Stamos) was one hell of a lethally cool Continental jewel thief.

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No surprise that most blogs, sites, articles and reviews of this film tend to zero in on Romijn in a saucy bit in dark undies, Romijn in a saucy bit in white undies, Romijn in a saucy bit in no undies, or most of all, the extended steamy opening scene of Romijn and actress Rie Rasmussen hooking up in a nightclub restroom (which is really a heist).

Everyone overlooks how totally cool Romijn’s Laure Ash/Lily Watts can be when she keeps her clothes on, her hands off some pretty girl or hunky guy and on an automatic instead. As for me, I say the coolest bit in the film is a quickie of the titular Femme Fatale, watching one of filmdom’s ultimate femme fatales on TV (in French): Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity…I just love that.

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Criminal #6: Can’t Wait

Criminal 6

I just picked up Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s Criminal #4 this past weekend, and now I see that the cover for Criminal #6 just appeared at Sean Phillips’ site on Monday morning – theartofseanphillips.blogspot.uk. Not due out till mid-July…but I’ll be waiting.

Lovers & Drifters

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A t-shirt and lacy tap pants go well with cowboy boots in a southwest milieu, at least in this gritty desert noir photo suite, “Lovers & Drifters” with Cora Keegan shot by Jason Lee Perry.

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But a word to the wise: Think twice when you slow down for an abandoned sedan on a rural highway shoulder. Not every car needs a jump, particularly if the driver’s missing her pants. And packing a really big gun…

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Carla Gugino: A Femme Fatale Princess

Carla Gugino by Greg Williams 2Carla Gugino by Greg Williams 3Sure, she’s done goofy comedies, wholesome family films and television series going back to the 1980’s.

But for me, Carla Gugino is a member of contemporary noir royalty. With memorable performances in Sin City, the so-weird but so-cool Sucker Punch, then Hotel Noir, and nominated for Best Actress by the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival for Greg William’s and Sebastien Guiterriez’ indie short Tell-Tale (see preceding post), Gugino rightfully belongs in the ranks of cinema’s most notorious (and therefore utterly loveable) femmes fatales. Whether browsing darkly stylish fashion editorials or film stills from selected projects, one could almost fill a mini-blog just with Gugino in various dangerous dames roles. I won’t, but I will include these three here as a glimpse of her work.

carla gugino by greg williams

8 Minutes Of Noir Bliss

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Can a deliciously dark neo-noir film be nearly perfect, even if it’s less than ten minutes long?

Venezuelan writer, director and filmmaker Sebastien Guiterriez is an inventive artist and clearly a fan of classic Hollywood film noir. Not a name popping up on TMZ and People magazine? No, Guiterriez is not, but he creates some unusual work, like the screenplays for films like Gothika and even the over-the-top Snakes On A Plane. He directed the 1998 blink-and-you-missed-it neo-noir crime thriller Judas Kiss, and wrote and directed a truly unusual blend of horror and neo-noir, Rise: Blood Hunter in 2007 with Lucy Liu and Michael Chiklis, a movie I hope to chat up here later at some point. (I mean it’s definitely a horror film, but it’s also a pretty darn good neo-noir crime film in its way.) But Guiterriez is quite the entrepreneurial sort, writing and directing one of the first wave of regular ‘feature type’ films intended exclusively for online distribution, 2011’s Girl Walks Into A Bar, and then turned to Kickstarter to launch the great Hotel Noir, a faithful homage to classic Hollywood film noir and sundry genre classics, which later saw limited theatrical release, renamed City Of Sin.

Definitely more about that one later.

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But it’s his 2010 internet short Tell-Tale, directed by Greg Williams, that intrigues me. Short? How about really short, as in eight minutes short. Yet to me, it’s practically perfect. Dark. Claustrophobic. Steamy. Relentless. Surprising.

Carla Gugino, Guiterriez’ one time and maybe still partner, works alongside Alan Arkin and others in Tell-Tale, and as the title suggests, the film’s kind of a riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Carla Gugino plays a dangerously alluring woman accused of murdering her lover, while her husband’s grilled for the same crime in the adjoining interrogation room, the questioning interrupted by flashback cuts to a torrid love scene. Yet, there’s much more happening here than a love affair gone bad, or something simple like a jealous spouse’s rage. But it would be unfair of me to spoil it, and c’mon, it’ll only take you eight minutes to see for yourself at YouTube or wherever.

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Sets, camera work, wardrobe, acting, dialog (brief as it is)…all dead on, so a big round of applause to director Greg Williams, and to Guiterriez…and to all involved.

Also worth pointing out, Tell-Tale demonstrates something I’ve always contended: sex on screen can literally sizzle till the film melts even without gratuitous nudity. Creative cinematography, artful editing, wardrobe, sets, and of course, the actors’ performances can all work together to generate memorable scenes likely to make you squirm in your  seat. Yet, once they’re done, you realize that it all happened through the sheer magic of crafty filmmaking.

I stumbled across this gem by accident. Then I watched it again. Then returned to it a couple more times, and expect I will do so again. After all, it’s only eight minutes long. You could knock it off during a coffee break (not that I’d advise doing so at the office). As movies go, it’s more of a sketch than a fully fleshed out film. But if you’re in the mood for a quick shot of delectable darkness, go look for Tell-Tale.

 

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