Rare spotlight on female crime writers
Early movies from books by sadly unusual list of authors
There aren’t many films from the first half of the 20th century that depict the career working woman, but they existed in real life, many of them, and Vera Caspary was one.
Born in Chicago in 1899, she put herself through business school, worked in advertising and journalism, and became a novelist and a playwright, fully supporting her mother with her writing by the time she was 25 years old. No wonder she writes so eloquently about independent career women in her novel “Laura” and in her film treatment for “The Blue Gardenia,” which were turned into two of the best noirs of all time.
Caspary was one of several female pulp fiction writers who churned out genre stories (under their own names as well as noms de plume) — a list that includes Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Charlotte Armstrong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Dolores Hitchens. The films those writers inspired are part of a terrific new film series at the Berkeley Art Museum’s Pacific Film Archive, “Band of Outsiders: Women Crime Writers.”
The series runs through Aug. 17, when Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 French New Wave masterpiece “Band of Outsiders,” a loose adaptation of Hitchens’ “Fools’ Gold,” screens.
Series curators Kathy Geritz and Judy Bloch were inspired by a pair of recent book projects edited by Sarah Weinman, the two-volume set “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s” and an anthology of short crime fiction, “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense.” Co-sponsored by the Bay Area Book Festival, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will have both volumes of “Women Crime Writers” on sale. (Weinman’s website companion to “Women Crime Writers,” at http://womencrime. loa.org, is an excellent resource.)
There is an elephant in the room with these mostly excellent films: They are all directed by men. How much of the original author’s intent made it to the screen? Caspary once famously ran into “Laura” director Otto Preminger at the Stork Club in New York and proceeded to loudly berate him about his adaptation of her novel, and how the character of Laura Hunt was not as independent and career-minded as her vision.
Nevertheless, in “Laura” (July 21), Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt is a smart, confident career woman who knows who she is. It is the men in her life — columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) and gigolo Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) — who have an idealized view of Laura, as symbolized by her portrait that hangs in her apartment, that aligns with their own fetishes and reflects their own fantasies. Thus, she is constantly confounding their expectations.
It’s worth noting that Preminger also directed a mostly faithful adaptation of Elizabeth Janeway’s “Daisy Kenyon” (6:45 p.m. Sunday, July 9), starring Joan Crawford as a strong career woman torn between two lovers (Andrews and Henry Fonda).
Caspary is also represented by the rarely screened, minor but interesting British adaptation of her “Bedelia” (July 21), which stars Margaret Lockwood as a country wife with a murderous past. Caspary, who in addition to her novels and plays also wrote screenplays (“A Letter to Three Wives”), is credited as one of the screenwriters.
The issue of honoring the original author’s intent comes to the fore in three adaptations of Hughes, one of the best and most adventuresome writers in the series. Her “Ride the Pink Horse” was adapted, excellently and mostly faithfully, by director and star Robert Montgomery, and as a 1964 TV movie directed by Don Siegel and starring Robert Culp (both screen Aug. 4).
But “In a Lonely Place” (Aug. 11) is something yet again. As directed by Nicholas Ray, it stars Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter with an anger-management problem who is accused of murder. He becomes involved with a neighbor and potential witness, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). It is one of the great noirs, and yet ...
Hughes’ book is something else. In her creation, Dixon Steele is a war veteran and woman-hating serial killer, and Laurel Gray is an actress (we don’t know what she does for a living in the movie) who becomes ensnared in an abusive relationship with Dixon and begins to suspect that he is a dangerous criminal. But Hughes audaciously chooses to tell the story not from Laurel’s viewpoint but from Dixon’s. Perhaps her intent was to suggest, in a hyper-stylized way, the misogyny that 1940s postwar women faced.
But the one constant is the strength, resourcefulness and maturity of Laurel Gray. In the film, in a great performance by Grahame that must have pleased Hughes, she is the stronger character. And when your co-star is Bogart, that’s quite a feat indeed.
There is an elephant in the room with these mostly excellent films: They are all directed by men. How much of the original author’s intent made it to the screen?
In Otto Preminger’s “Laura,” Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) seen in the flesh (left) and as idealized image (center portrait) by detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews).
An undated photo of writer Vera Caspary, author of “Laura.”
Dorothy B. Hughes