Lipstick is a wonderfully versatile cosmetic.  For many women it is the one beauty item they’d take with them if stranded on a desert island. I know that it would be my choice.

William Heirens

But, as we’ve seen over the past couple of posts, lipstick can be a trouble maker. It casts a spell on some men which lures them into liaisons with women other than their wives. It leaves tell-tale traces on clothing and skin, and lingers provocatively on cigarettes smoldering in an ashtray, or imprinted on a cocktail glass – so much power in such a little tube.  Is it possible that lipstick may drive men’s passions with a force so great that it may culminate in murder?

Take the 1946 case of William Heirens. It was alleged that between June 1945 and January 1946 the 17 year old had murdered two women, and murdered and dismembered a little girl. At the scene of the second murder, that of Frances Brown a former U.S. Navy WAV, there was message  from the killer scrawled in the victim’s lipstick. 

The Chicago press dubbed the fiend “The Lipstick Killer”, and residents of the city spent several nerve jangling months until William Heirens was arrested and they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But did Heirens commit the murders, or was the teenager coerced into confessing by hard nosed Chicago cops desperate to make an arrest?

Sixty-four years later Bill Heirens is still alive, and still in prison.  At 81 years of age he is considered to be the longest serving prisoner in Illinois state history, and it seems that he may die there.  Death in an Illinois prison would be justice if he is guilty, but if he is innocent…

There have been many other crimes in which lipstick was used to scrawl a message on a nearby surface, or even on the body of the victim.  It doesn’t matter what words are used, or if the message consists only of cryptic symbols – there is something about the act of using lipstick that makes a compelling and strangely intimate statement.

My favorite lipstick as a portent of evil  moment comes in a scene from the 1946 film noir “The Postman Always Rings Twice” .  Frank (John Garfield) has just arrived at a small cafe. He’s a drifter and is considering responding to the “Man Wanted” sign outside when he’s greeted by the cafe’s owner, Nick (Cecil Kellaway), and urged to come in for a burger. Nick tosses a burger on the grill behind the counter, but is called away for a minute to pump gas at the station outside.

As Frank waits at the counter he hears something drop to the floor, and observes a tube of lipstick rolling toward him. As he stoops to pick it up he notices white open-toed pumps at the ends of two extremely shapely legs.  The dame wearing the pumps is also wearing white shorts, a white cropped top, and is a blonde. The blonde  is holding a compact and powdering her nose.  Frank has just met Nick’s young wife Cora (Lana Turner).  The tension between the two  is palpable.  Their eyes meet and they immediately engage in a power play.  It’s obvious from Cora’s demeanor that she is a woman who is accustomed to getting the attention of men, and having them do her bidding. She waits for Frank to bring her lipstick to her, but he doesn’t budge. Which of them will acquiesce to the other?

As you’ve seen, Cora finally gives in.  But that’s just in the short run – in the long run the breathtaking blonde convinces the drifter to commit murder. It is a perfect noir moment, made all the better in my book because a tube of lipstick is the catalyst.

A  lipstick tube introduced Frank and Cora, and it comes full circle with Cora’s death – just as Cora is promising Frank that they’ll share many kisses that “come from life”.

Ladies, when you apply your lipstick the next time  you may wish to pause and to reflect upon the power implicit in such a simple act.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

Rita Hayworth in "Gilda"

So many noir events in November — where do we begin?

Esotouric kicked off the month with the Real Black Dahlia tour on November 1st. What’s next on the agenda?  How about The Birth of Noir: James M. Cain’s Southern California Nightmare on Saturday, November 8, 2008? Among the sites we’ll visit: Mildred Pierce’s home, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and the Glendale Train Station.

We’re inviting everyone to dress in their favorite 1940s attire. So ladies, channel your inner Joan Crawford and slip into something with wicked huge shoulder pads. And gentlemen, this is an opportunity to become your favorite noir tough guy, so don a trenchcoat and a battered fedora (but leave your snub-nosed .38 at home, please). The tour departs from Phillippe’s The Original – be sure to order a slice of pie, won’t you? 

The Los Angeles Conservancy (for which I volunteer as a docent) is hosting a one day Noir-chitecture event on Sunday, November 9, 2008.  I’ve heard that it is sold out, so I hope that you have signed up! Each site on the self-guided tour is a gem and all have a connection to noir literature and/or film. You’ll find me at the Glendale Train Station (twice in two days — I love it!) from 12:45 to 4:00 on tour day.  The lovely old station was built in the 1920s and served as a location in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity.

I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman - Walter Neff in Double Indemnity

"From the Moment they met it was Murder!"

Check out Barbara Stanwyck (left). Isn’t she the epitome of 1940s style? Her classic pageboy ‘do (which was a wig), red lipstick (doesn’t it just HAVE to be red?!) and her sunglasses! Absolutely wonderful. You can’t see it in the photograph, but Barbara wears an anklet in the film. Delicate and lovely, the chain will come to symbolize the noose which will grow tighter and tighter around the necks of the murderous lovers.

Double Indemnity, written by James M. Cain, was inspired by an infamous murder case. On March 20, 1927, housewife Ruth Snyder of Queens, New York and Nelson Gray, a corset salesman, garroted Ruth’s husband Albert, stuffed his nose with choloformed rags, then staged the scene as a burglarly gone wrong.  Snyder and Gray murdered Albert so that they could collect a nice fat insurance policy and live happily ever after.  

The couple turned out to be hopelessly inept at crime and was quickly busted for the murder. They were subsequently convicted and both were sentenced to death by electrocution.  

The crime had nothing to distinguish it — lust and greed are hardly unique motives for murder; and the case would likely have faded into obscurity if not for the efforts of innovative newspaper photographer Thomas Howard of the New York Daily News. He was a witness to Ruth’s execution and he was determined to get a scoop.

The wiley shutterbug strapped a miniature camera to his leg, and at the moment that “state electrician” Robert C. Elliott flipped the fatal switch Howard captured Ruth’s death throes for posterity.

Welcome to the dawn of modern tabloid journalism.