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/

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.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 2

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.”

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 3

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”.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 4

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.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 5

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

Tango Noir.

Jorge Botero Lujan 1

Just a dance? No, seems like much more. Intriguing paintings from Jorge Botero Lujan, artfully capturing the steamy embraces of dark ballroom romance.

Jorge Botero Lujan 2Jorge Botero Lujan 3Jorge Botero Lujan 4Jorge Botero Lujan 5Jorge Botero Lujan 6

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/

 

Mignon And More In Mystery Scene

Mystery Scene 160 - 2019

I know there are no books by Mignon G. Eberhart on shelf at my local public library. I checked. But then, the list of well-known mystery/crime fiction writers missing from the shelves there would too long to start counting.

Another Mans Murder

The latest issue of Mystery Scene magazine is full of the usual features and excellent interviews and articles, and didn’t disappoint. But it rarely does. Michael Mallory’s article “Mystery’s Enigmatic Mistress – Mignon G. Eberhart” was a pretty in depth look at a woman who was a bit of mystery herself. Born Mignonette Good in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1899, Eberhart went on to write nearly 60 mystery novels along with numerous short stories and plays, beginning with the Sarah Keate medical mystery series in the 1920’s. By the time of her death at 97 in 1996, Eberhart was considered one of the highest paid mystery writers in the field, yet biographical information remains pretty sparse, with very few interviews ever conducted. Mallory’s excellent article provided just enough info to get me intrigued, and I’ve been digging up some of Mignon G. Eberhart’s mysteries since, some of which have been reprinted in multiple editions and are readily available.

On a more somber note, Nancy Bilyeau’s “Berlin Noir – Philip Kerr’s Novels Of The Third Reich And After” gives an overview of Kerr’s incredible Bernie Gunther series, in which the Chandler-esque Berlin homicide detective navigates the rise of Nazism, the horrors of WWII and its aftermath, and struggles to find a place in a postwar world through 14 always-entertaining but incredibly thought provoking novels. Philip Kerr, of course, sadly passed away in March of 2018. The publication of his 13thGunther novel Greeks Bearing Gifts just a month after his death was a bittersweet event for his ardent fans (count me among them), and presumed to be the final work from this master. But there was one more, Metropolis, published just this April, and surprisingly, a kind of origins story set in 1928 when the horrors to come were only glimpses of still unimaginable anomalies in Weimar Germany, where cynical Berlin cop Bernie Gunther was still working his beat, eager to please and, if a smart ass at heart, not yet the hardened world weary soul readers came to love across a dozen-plus novels.

So with one magazine’s issue, I learn about a prolific writer I never knew much about (but will, soon enough) and bid farewell to a writing hero whose work I’d grown to love. Can’t ask for more than that from a magazine.

‘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.

El ROyale 3

 

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/

Walk Softly, Sweetheart

walter stackpool larry kent 513 1960

It was just some casual curiosity that had me poking around Australian websites for more info on the “Larry Kent, Detective” series, and one of the chief illustrators of the books’ covers, Walter Stackpool. Now it’s turning into an obsession. A link’s below to a recent post about Stackpool, but there’ll be more to come about the 150+ radio show episodes and 400+ (!!!) novels and novelettes in the long running Larry Kent series, which began (on radio) as a former New York newshound who’d emigrated to Australia and set up shop as a freelance private eye. The books, I think, are all set in the U.S. Check out some covers online for yourself. Looks to me like the Australians had as good or better a handle on just how to depict 50’s-60’s era noir-ish and hard-boiled milieus than many of our own artists here in the States.

Above, Walter Stackpool’s cover art for Walk Softly Sweetheart from 1960, a not-so-good screen grab of the book below.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/05/20/walter-stackpools-larry-kents/

Walk Softly Sweetheart

 

 

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