Bahner’s Hand-Colored Femmes-Noir.

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German photographer and photo-artist Bertram Bahner may be better known in some circles by his “Kim Anderson” brand name, which he used for a long running series of charming hand-colored black & white children’s photos, popular in posters, prints and licensed to greeting cards. Born in 1959, Bahner originally worked in advertising and fashion photography, his sometimes provocative black & white images catching the eye of Verkerke Reproukties, a Dutch art print, poster and greeting card conglomerate. By the mid-1990’s, Bahner had begun photographing his own children, hand coloring the prints (a truly dying art now in a digital photography/Photoshop era) and moved to Switzerland to pursue that work full-time.

Bertran Bahmer 1

But his distinctive hand-colored work graces some wonderfully neo-noirish images from his earlier advertising, editorial and fashion work, like these shown here. ‘Femmes Fatales’ indeed, and a visual reminder of how brimmed hats are such an integral part of femme-noir iconography.

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3 Days To Kill

3 Days To Kill

Luc Bresson’s 2014 3 Days To Kill was Kevin Costner’s movie, but sometimes it’s not the film’s lead that sticks with you. And though talented actors like Connie Nielsen and Hailee Steinfeld co-star, it’s Amber Heard’s portrayal of lethal CIA assassin Vivi Delay that really lingered with me.

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Costner plays aging CIA agent Ethan Renner, skilled but no longer at the top of his game, especially when he misses the chance to take out a ruthless international arms trafficker. Diagnosed with a terminal disease, Costner hopes to use his remaining days to reconnect with his wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who’ve never known the truth about his dangerous double-life, only that their husband and father was never there for them. But Heard’s Vivi Delay presents Costner with a bargain: A potentially life-saving experimental drug in exchange for his help to finally take down the criminal arms trafficking network.

3 Days To Kill 3Fun action-thriller chases, shootouts and explosions ensue, with Costner’s wife and daughter in jeopardy, all leading to a climactic kill-the-bad-guy scene…that chore finally falling to Heard’s Delay. Once the dust settles, it looks like Costner’s reconciled to spending his final days making amends with his wife and daughter. But Heard’s Vivi Delay looks on as he receives the final dose of the life-saving drug.

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Silly stuff? Sure it is. But 3 Days To Kill managed to make money even though it was far from a critical favorite. It’s not a ‘big’ film and employs many bigger-budgeted action films’ setups and tricks, and it may even leave you wondering where Liam Neeson is.

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But as I noted, it’s Amber Heard that stuck with me, even if I’m not exactly sure what made CIA assassin Vivi Delay who she is. Heard’s dedicated trainee, then cool and methodical operative, then decadent femme fatale and, finally, lethal killer (but with a soft spot?) sports various looks and sometimes may not make a lick of sense. But each of her character’s personas were a treat to watch, for me at least, and thus, so was the film, critics be damned.

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Nobody Move.

nobody move

We’ve been here before with writers and filmmakers like Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino (quotes from both of whom lead off this novel). But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth another trip through So-Cal Neo-Noir, especially when we’re in the hands of a talented storyteller, and based on this debut novel (or so I assume it to be), that’s precisely what Philip Elliott is.

Action-filled stories like Nobody Move’s plot are hard to summarize, but I’ll give it a try: What ought to be a routine collection call by a couple of low-level enforcers goes bad, resulting in a pervy narcotics distributor and his innocent wrong-place-wrong-time mistress shot dead, their bodies none too well hidden (and promptly discovered) in the hills. And that results in the dead man’s much-more-dangerous brother arriving from Texas and out for vengeance, and a world-weary single mother homicide detective assigned to the case. Meanwhile, an enigmatic young woman shows up, hunting for the half-sister gone missing from their South Dakota Oglala Reservation home (who was the murdered mistress, of course), and the crime lord who initiated the whole affair is determined to silence everyone involved…permanently. Bottom line: Everyone’s looking for Eddie, the inept crook who stupidly pulled the trigger and set things in motion. Colorfully quirky characters provide ample cannon fodder for the sudden bursts of explosive violence that erupt on cue in Elliott’s (thankfully) straightforward linear narrative: A retired gay porn star (now pre-op trans) turning traitor, a sleazy lawyer, a strip club dancer, a Puerto Rican hitman and other assorted thugs among them. The characters’ multiple paths converge, sometimes violently, sometimes humorously, and ultimately in a harrowing daylight bank robbery and then a major shoot-out. If this is Elliott’s debut novel, then he handles a complex multi-character plot handily and keeps everything moving along at a fast-paced clip. People toss the term ‘page turner’ around a lot (myself included) but this one really was, at least for me.

If you give Nobody Move a try, I challenge you to not picture your own dream cast for each character’s role, or to constantly visualize Elliott’s well laid out scenes in the quirky, jump-cut violence-filled big screen version it ought to be. Philip Elliott is the editor in chief of the print and online literary magazine, Into The Void, and this novel is from their small press publishing operation. That suggests no literary agent was involved, but I sure hope the author has someone working overtime to drop this novel onto appropriate Hollywood producers’ desks.

Not The Blue Dahlia Or The Black Dahlia: A White Orchid.

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I don’t know if the Humphrey Bogart Estate sponsoring its debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, or even having Bogie’s son Stephen Bogart as one of the executive producers provides a new neo-noir film with some type of implicit ‘Noir Imprimatur’. But those credentials can’t hurt. Even so, writer/director Steve Anderson’s 2019 White Orchid, starring indie darling Olivia Thirlby, owes more to Otto Preminger’s Laura, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or perhaps Brian DePalma’s Body Double and Dressed To Kill than it does to The Maltese Falcon or Dead Reckoning.

White Orchid might be considered a so-called ‘erotic thriller’, a 21stcentury take on that 1980’s-1990’s era direct-to-video/DVD/cable sub-genre. If so, the ‘erotic’ is more a matter of mood than explicit sex scenes. The film dials up the suspense, but does so without car chases, gunplay, explosions or bloodshed. It is sexy, but in a very intimate way, and aside from some brief dance floor grinding, a frenzied bit of groping in the back of a taxi and some intriguing business going on behind the closing credits, the effect is sensual more than sexual, all part of the film’s stylish atmosphere.

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Always reliable freelance investigator Claire Decker (Olivia Thirlby) reluctantly accepts an unusual case from Social Services bureaucrat Jennifer Beals, for whom she normally ID’s the elderly who’ve died alone, or tracks down the deceased’s survivors so their estates can be settled. Claire’s really, really good at what she does, better than Beals’ own staff, in fact. But this time she’s assigned to investigate a high-profile murder, “The White Orchid”: A beautiful stranger whose body was found on sleepy waterfront resort town Morro Bay’s beach. Shot dead. Decapitated. Her hands and feet removed. The murder scene’s become a morbid shrine, rabid true crime enthusiasts lurk everywhere and local teens prank the victim’s house. There, all of her things remain, right down to the vases of white orchids. The local police resent Claire’s intrusion but grudgingly cooperate, even giving her unfettered access to the dead woman’s home.

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No-nonsense Claire Decker favors sensible clothes, drives a sensible car and is unencumbered by anything that could be called a social life. Focused, patient and methodical, she quickly uncovers clues overlooked by the police. Convinced there was something more sinister than mere murder involved, Claire becomes increasingly intrigued by the victim herself. Bit by bit, intrigue turns into obsession, till Claire’s actually seduced by her subject, drawn to the White Orchid’s vintage roadster and plushly furnished seaside abode, the closets of designer apparel and drawers full of luxurious lingerie.

Oh, and a hidden stash of cash. A lot of cash. Clearly the murder victim had some secrets…if she even was who the police think she was.

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Convinced she’s figured things out, Claire effectively becomes the White Orchid, telling herself it’s only to unmask a killer when she masquerades in the woman’s clothes and wigs. But in fact, she’s fully succumbed to this obsession with a dead woman…or with the woman who impersonated the victim. Or withwell, who knows? Frankly, we’re not certain. What is evident is that Claire’s antics put her in danger and get her in deep trouble with the local law. A climactic meeting between Claire and the stunning femme fatale behind it all is less an investigator interrogating a suspect and more of a mutual seduction that practically steams up the screen. But White Orchid still has one more trick up its sleeve with a nifty gotcha ending any savvy noir enthusiast should’ve seen coming.

Confession time: I didn’t.

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I’m not saying White Orchid is Oscar material. There’s a bit of peekaboo voyeurism at play, even it’s there to tell the story. There are some red herrings and narrative threads left unresolved, but I’ll bet the original shooting script made things a bit clearer and some film ended up on the cutting room floor with bits and pieces that filled in various holes. That Claire Decker is a reserved, intellectual, non-social sort who’s intrigued by the flamboyant, sexually adventurous ‘White Orchid’ is one thing. That this sensible loner would play dress-up in the dead woman’s own things is another that could use some explaining. At least Thirlby’s Claire Decker learns that there’s much more to being a femme fatale than donning a costume. The makeup, wigs and saucy lingerie might seduce the mousy investigator into some risky behavior and make her feel like she’s someone else. But in the end, Claire’s still who she is, just as the real femme fatale is who she is. And she really is fatal. Both characters resume their appropriate roles by the film’s end.

White Orchid is the kind of dreamy neo-noir that’s content to play with the viewer a bit, and frankly, I didn’t mind at all, perfectly pleased to follow Olivia Thirlby’s well-acted transition from slightly nerdy loner to obsessive curiosity seeker to fetching femme fatale. I don’t know what path contemporary ‘erotic thrillers’ ought to take, or if that genre (if it even is one) still has a place in today’s culture. But if it does, White Orchid isn’t an entirely bad place to start to reinvent a particular subset of neo-noir.

 

Stumptown: And So It Begins.

Stumptown

And so it begins: A new Fall television season, this time with some real treats. Batwoman, the new Nancy Drew series, and ABC’s Stumptown for starters. It’d be easy to distrust a broadcast network to adapt a hard-boiled graphic novel properly, but any advance word I’ve noticed online about Stumptown sounds optimistic. I’m rarely watching television at 9:00 PM CST, much less a broadcast channel. But I’ll be there tonight to check this out, fingers crossed. Oline Cogdill weighs in on Stumptown at Mystery Scene magazine’s website (link below). As this piece says upfront, the show “has the kind of crime fiction pedigree that’s been missing from TV for several years”. I mean, it’s Greg Rucka, after all.

Rucka’s Dex Parios was a damn fine creation, flawed but heroic in her way. Cobie Smulders’ resume may be dominated by a sitcom, but I’m betting she’s going to be fine. Cogdill said, “Brash and often out of control, Dex is the kind of character seen more on cable shows than a mainstream network. I am looking forward to that edgy character and I have high hopes as Rucka’s source material is solid”. The few stills and set shots I’ve seen may look a little lighter than the dark, crooked Portland I’d envision, but again, lets see the show.

Fingers crossed…

https://mysteryscenemag.com/article/6594-greg-rucka-s-stumptown-comes-to-tv

Noir Is Where You Find It.

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“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.

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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/

 

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