“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”
It’s only natural to honor Joan Bennett on her birthday by explaining her powerful influence on my writing. A lot of this influence goes back to my earlier years watching old movies. As a kid, I started out hooked on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and the rest of the stable of Universal and RKO horror films – God Bless Val Lewton! The mystery and otherworldliness of black and white film, the smart dialogue, the clever twists of plot that other forties and thirties film genres shared with horror lured me into a liminal world like a perpetual deep summer night. I was further captured by classic films’ biting wit, challenging plots, and independent women – especially in what I came to know as film noir. And who showed herself the queen of this world? Above them all, Joan Bennett.
I must admit that I first came really to know Joan when she appeared in Dark Shadows. Her Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was formidable, reminding me of my mother when I was in deep trouble. How could vampires, werewolves, and witches withstand her powerful, regal stare? Still, like my Mom, there was deep feeling and love for her daughter and her family. However, only in film did I discover Joan displaying one of the traits I loved best about my Mom: that witty, smart-talking-gal sense of humor. In outright comedy, Joan could drop a clever line with style and intelligence, but even in some of her darkest dramas that wit came through. What a delight to see her wield that humor to put firmly in their places anyone trying to crush or bamboozle her. In The House across the Bay, she undercuts a smart-mouth chorine who harangued her, “Cheep, cheep, cheep” with “Where’s the birdseed?” When the obnoxious woman tries to go after her physically, Joan rakes her over the coals with, “Just a minute, Miss Dimwit. I was silly enough to apologize, but now that you want to make something of it, I’ll give you a good reason. You’re a phony, you’ve got a voice like four panes of cracked glass, and about as much appeal as a can of embalming fluid. I could go on, but that ought to give you a rough idea of how I feel about you.” Eight years later, when Paul Henreid tries to disparage her cynicism towards him in The Scar with a deprecating, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she puts him in his place with a world-weary but tough, “It’s a bitter little world, full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.” In The Man I Married, Joan’s not even daunted by Nazis, telling her husband-turned-fascist, “Heil heel” when he promises to dump her and take their son. Her feistiness isn’t limited to verbiage, either. Take a gander at this picture.
Like my Mom, Joan played women of wit, strength, humanity, and confidence – not just what the New York Times dubbed her gallery of “hydrochloric dames.”
So, in my twenties, when I decided to take my writing seriously than developing Victoria Holt knock-offs or spoofs of Dark Shadows, I turned to 1940s style mysteries to inspire my own adventures of romance, danger, suspense, and wit. Interestingly, as a writer influenced by film, I found I could better create distinct, believable characters by casting them as actors with whom I was familiar, blending their traits with some of the people I knew (including myself!). I also knew that I didn’t want my heroine to be wimpy, weepy, and inclined to faint in the final reel or pages, which, unfortunately, did often happen on the page or screen in the ’40s and ’50s. Guess who I saw as perfect for the role of Jessica Minton, a smart, independent, quick-with-a-quip forties gal? Someone who had a sensitive heart and a strong sense of responsibility, but didn’t take guff from anyone – and would smack said guff out of the ballpark with whip smart humor.
I do see a lot of myself in Jessica – and in Joan’s less nasty roles – or maybe an idealized version of myself, anyway. I know that mischievous banter with those I love and pointed barbs for those I don’t is something I share with Jess, which Joan plays to perfection. However, I doubt that like Jessica, I’d have the guts to hold onto a mysterious package left by a mysterious and handsome British stranger at the risk of being liquidated by Nazi fifth columnists – to disguise myself as a maid to get into a criminal’s apartment while he’s still there (!) to retrieve a gun used to frame a friend – to grab a gunsel by the lapels and threaten to turn him into a soprano if he ever threatened my cat again – to show up in a shadow-draped room and wittily bargain with a gun-toting femme fatale and her hired gun to trade stolen jade for my friends’ lives – or to slip into a cove and explore a beached and rotting ship while layers of ocean fog swept in around me. I might dare to weaponize a banana-cream pie, but I can’t guarantee my aim would be as good as Jessica Minton’s. I can guarantee you that any fans of our Joanie could picture her carrying off these adventures with verve and wit, though not without human trepidation.
Those of us who love Joan Bennett and appreciate her talents would also, as Sam Fuller writes, see her as “a sensitive actress” enough to also believe her playing Jessica’s distress at being torn between loyalty to an old boyfriend and to a new man who brings her adventure and love; a sister who gets annoyed with her older sibling’s foibles leading them into danger but sticking by her to the end (though not without a smart quip or two exchanged between them); a sweetheart waiting to hear news of a fiancé lost in the war, then a wife supporting her husband’s struggle with memories from that war. And Jessica loves her cat. I know Joan was a dog person, but heck, there’s still part of me in Jessica Minton. So, she’s a cat person!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject, but if you’d like to take a peek at some passages from Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man, click on the links on the titles and have fun picturing Joan working her magic as Jessica Minton. Oh, and by the way, I cast her sister Elizabeth as Rosalind Russell (and my sister-on-law). Can you imagine what a grand ride it would have been to catch Joan and Roz trading quips with each other, then marshaling their humor to take on Nazis, criminally corrupt American aristocrats, femme fatales, underworld crooks, and crooked cops? And I’ve got two more books on the way! Viva Jessica Minton and Joan Bennett!
If you love mysteries on the screen or on the page, especially centered on the golden era, click here to go to my web page where you can find lots of interesting stuff – including my Joan Bennett tribute page!
Photos: Author’s collections
Bitter Rice is a hopeful film, as rousing a myth of national unity as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Its young director, Guiseppe De Santis, was a member of the Italian Communist Party who had fought with the Roman Resistance, putting him in a strong position at the liberation. His first feature film, The Tragic Hunt (1947), received funding from the National Association of Italian Partisans and won the award for Best Italian Film at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.
A story of crime and passion set in the rice fields west of Milan, Bitter Rice owes much to James Cain, as far as its story is concerned, and to Dorothea Lange’s images of sharecroppers in the American South for its cinematography. Indeed, De Santis was an assistant director on Obsession (1943), Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but as a doctrinaire Marxist, his…
View original post 276 more words
Yang and I have some specially favorite rail trails to ride, and one of these is the Pittsfield to Adams line. Even if we do it once in the spring, we have to do it again in the fall because the colors are so gorgeous! This year, we made our trip around the Columbus Day Weekend, on Tuesday. We thought we’d try something different by not going straight from Pittsfield to Adams, but by parking at the dam in the middle and first going down to Adams. Then we’d come back and having lunch at a restaurant near where we’d parked before continuing on to Pittsfield and returning. As you can see I was able to take some beautiful shots of hill full of colorful trees across the river from the parking area.
It was a gorgeous day, a little colder than the weather had been before, but the sun was out and the air was crisp. A warmer fall jacket did just nicely and the foliage was superb. I had to stop here, not only to enjoy the surrounding hills but to inspect what I thought might be a beaver’s dam.
I couldn’t help stopping to take pictures of some of the most wonderful flaming maples. It was so cool to see colors that went from crimson flame to soft orange all in one tree! I noticed that there weren’t too many scarlet leaves to see as we’d experienced in our first fall ride here. My guess is that those leaves had either lightened in color or fallen.
We ultimately cruised down the hill leading into Adams. I wished I could have taken shots of the dusky green woods and glacier-abandoned boulders on my right or the tumbling river on my left, but there was no stopping on that race down the hill. Just before we entered the town, we stopped to take some shots, with the gold, orange, flame hills shot with evergreen surrounding the town. The pale azure sky forms a complement of color. And here’s a most handsome guy in the foreground!
On the other side of the town, the trail runs along where the river has been channeled into a canal. Again, the hills embracing the town’s valley make you think that it must be glorious to wake up in the morning or return from work in late afternoon to such gorgeous colors surrounding you.
We may have raced down a hill to get into town, but we had to labor up it when we left. I may not be as young as I used to be, but I made it, albeit panting a bit at the end. I didn’t need a sign to tell me to Stop! Luckily, there ‘s a lovely little bridge where you can rest. Nice view, isn’t it?
You can tell by the look on my face that it was a loooong ride up. Thank God for water!
Wouldn’t you know that when we finally got back to the parking lot, it turned out that the restaurant was closed on the only day of the week we were there! We ended up having to forego the rest of the ride and scout out a place to eat in Pittsfield. That’s okay, though. We’d actually conquered the toughest part of the ride. Even better, we found this great little (literally) Italian restaurant in town, Brooklyn’s Best. Later, we took some fun pictures while walking off dinner. We discovered this neat little gargoyle above. I even made a new friend. Do you think Rosie and ‘Tasha will share their litter boxes with him?
These past few weeks, Yang and I have had some wonderful bird sightings, sometimes, literally, in our own back yard. Case in point, one Friday, Natasha was meowing at the door all day. Then Rosalind was in the pantry window bird-chattering away, while I worked on my novel in the dining room. I stopped and suddenly became aware that I’d been hearing a high-pitched hawkish call. I got up and looked out the window in the dining room, and what did I see in the patch of sea roses, but two Merlins! One flew away, while the other hung out for some time – before attacking a sparrow who out-smarted him. I got these pictures through the window because I was afraid going outside would drive my visitor off. Hence, it’s much blurrier than I’d like. What do you think of this new guy? I haven’t seen him since, but I did find an ominous splash of tiny white bird feathers on the nearby back porch.
Our bird feeders have returned to us the usual suspects. Lots of Titmice and some Chickadees battle four pushy Blue Jays. We also have two male and one female Cardinal visiting. One of the males is pretty aggressive. While he’s fine with the little birds, he’ll go after the Blue Jays and drive them off! We also have Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Goldfinches wearing their winter buff, and even a Yellow-bellied Woodpecker. One day, a Carolina Wren gave me such a scolding when I came too near the juniper bush!
On a visit with friends on the Cape, we came across one of my favorite, but rarely seen, birds. At first, seeing the creature head on, I perceived a bird with a brownish head and chest with a white belly forming a “v” into the brown chest. I claimed I’d never seen such a bird before, until he took flight and I saw the luscious blue. Bluebirds! A good-sized flock of them! I noted in my Peterson’s that Bluebirds are usually found year round in New England mainly on the Cape. How appropriate! The Bluebird was one of my “must see” birds for the year. I still need to see an Indigo Bunting, a Piliated Woodpecker, and a Scarlet Tanager. It’s probably too late in the year for the first and last, but I’m holding onto hope for that Pterodactyl-sized woodpecker. The Bluebird photos are courtesy of Andrea Krammer.
Today, when we took a morning walk (about 7:00) on the Blackstone River Trail, we saw some interesting birds. A Great Blue Heron and a black Cormorant were fishing in the same part of the river. Then, atop a tall dead tree, we saw a bald eagle. We watched as he sat there majestically for some time before he soared off away from us and the river. We didn’t have the means to get a picture, so I’m borrowing this one below.
I can’t wait to see what the remainder of the year brings!
Source eagle image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eagle_on_roots_-_crop_3_(430008061).jpg