Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Portrait in Smoke by Bill Ballinger (1950)

Bill Ballinger is one of those writers who slipped through the cracks. Not good enough to remain perpetually in print, not hip enough for cult rediscovery, he nonetheless churned out a surprising number of excellent noir novels that beat the tar out of many of his far-more-celebrated contemporaries. Portrait in Smoke, the basis for the 1956 British noir Wicked as the Come, is a case in point. Ballinger uses his trademark clever plotting and multiple-point of view narrative to paint a suspenseful portrait of a femme fatal guaranteed to get a rise out of even the jaded.

It all sounds pretty Laura. Danny April is a cheap little collection agent working Chicago's crummier neighborhoods who stumbles across a 10-year old photo of Krassy Almauniski winning the Stockyard Weekly News beauty contest. Instantly smitten, he sets out to run her down. He's so obsessed at one point he calls up 367 moving companies looking for the one with blue trucks with a white stripe. Ultimately, he traces her from the stockyards through secretarial school, stints as ad agency secretary, executive mistress, war hero widow, and ultimately runs her down as the very bored wife of a very old, very wealthy banker.

But the kicker is that the story of Danny's search alternates with sections telling Krassy's real story. The scrappy little striver of Danny's delusion is a hardboiled schemer climbing the socioeconomic ladder on her back, legs spread, teeth gritted, and claws fully extended. Her first fiancee found himself bankrupt and almost indicted as Krassy siphoned off his life's savings. From the ad executive, she extracted a 45 G settlement. And Danny stumbles into her life just when she needs a fall guy for her ultimate scheme.

No fool, Danny poses as a white shoe bookie to worm his way into Krassy's life (and bed!). But the joke turns out to be on him when she shoots her Daddy Browning and leaves Danny holding the bag (figuratively) and the gun (literally). Danny's no dope, and he does get away, but he now knows the score. Krassy's cavorting on the French Rivera while he waits for the cops to knock on his door.

Wicked as They Come screens Saturday, January 24th at the Castro Theater with Arlene Dahl (who played you-know-who) in person.


aimeemarieeee said...

Yeow! Seems like well-matched characters and she sounds fabulous (if you're not on the smoking end of the gun). Can hardly wait...the anticipation!

sexy said...


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