Rare spot­light on fe­male crime writ­ers

Early movies from books by sadly un­usual list of au­thors

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - By G. Allen John­son G. Allen John­son is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: ajohn­son@sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @BR­film­sAllen

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?

20th Cen­tury Fox 1944

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).

BAMPFA

An un­dated photo of writer Vera Cas­pary, au­thor of “Laura.”

Dorothy B. Hughes

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