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The Pretty Big Town

Knoxville's forgotten film noir epic: Part 1

by Jack Neely

It was one of those sultry summer days that makes you want to crawl into a tray at the morgue just to cool off a little. As I walked down Church Street to the library, I could feel the heat of the sidewalk through my gumshoes.

Upstairs I nodded to Dale, my video supplier. Dale moonlights as a double bassist for the KSO, but by day he's in charge of the audiovisual room. Dale didn't say anything, but pointed toward the big wall. The concrete glowed like a movie screen with long rectangles of bright yellow light, separated by the shadows of Venetian blinds.

"We call it the Film Noir Effect," Dale said. "It happens nearly every day it's sunny, when the sun hits the Sunsphere just right and reflects back through the window."

It was swell, really swell, and I told him so. I wanted to stand in it, try it on for size, just to see my shadow. But it wasn't what I was looking for. "Do you have it, Dale?" I asked. He looked concerned.

"You know I don't, Jack. You know nobody does. Nobody has A Woman In Hiding. It's never been released on video."

I winced. I knew it was a long shot, just like I did when I asked for it yesterday and the day before. Sure, I'd seen other movies that have scenes from my home town. I'd seen All the Way Home. I'd seen Kissin' Cousins, the Elvis movie that has a few Knoxville scenes. I'd seen The FBI Story, which starts out noir, with a simmering Knoxville office full of G-men, but then Jimmy Stewart gets married to a Knoxville librarian and the whole thing dissolves into a TV-hero show. But I'd never seen the real film noir Knoxville movie, the one from 1949. With Howard Duff and Ida Lupino. I'd never seen A Woman In Hiding. I'd only met one person who'd ever seen it, and that was Wallace Baumann, who used to run Woodruff's Furniture on Gay Street.

There in the library, I pulled out some books and learned a few things. The movie was based on a serial novel by James R. Webb, printed in Saturday Evening Post earlier that year. I looked it up. Knoxville isn't in the story. Birmingham and Memphis are, but not Knoxville. I had to find that movie.

I walked out the door with this creepy feeling that I was being followed by a strange little man in a bowler hat. "Excuse me, mister," he said in a squeaky Romanian accent. "I couldn't help noticing. You're looking for A Woman In Hiding."

"Maybe, maybe not," I said, trying not to be surprised that anyone else had even heard of it. "Who wants to know?"

He handed me one of those rectangles of scrap paper you get free at the library. It smelled like gardenias. "Maybe she does," he whined, and before I could say anything, he disappeared into an alley. I looked at the paper. Scrawled with a leaky fountain pen was an address near the Old City. I didn't waste any time.

It was one of those Tudor walk-up bungalows you see in the free real-estate booklets, the kind people who don't like Metro Pulse look at when they eat lunch alone in a two-bit diner. I pulled up the knocker, but the door opened before I dropped it. "You Neely?" the blonde said slowly as if she didn't care much one way or another. She made me wonder if I cared much. I nodded anyway. She didn't budge. Her long hair fell over one eye, but she didn't bother to push it back. "Prove it," she said. I made up a story about a bloody gunfight at that address in 1893. "You're lying," she said. "But that's good enough for me. You got the dough?" I handed her a five spot. She handed me a brown-paper package.

Right there I ripped it open it and found a slick black block about the size of the first edition of The Maltese Falcon. With the butt of my .38, I chipped away the lacquer. Inside, as I suspected, was a videotape. One I'd heard of for years, but never seen.

The label was marked in ballpoint. A Woman In Hiding. She said she'd taped it off AMC this past spring. Illegally, of course, but the way I was feeling today, I didn't even care. I just wanted to see this movie, and fast.

"I owe you one, sister," I said. "What did you say your name was?"

"I didn't," she said. She hesitated for two seconds, and added, "But you can call me Vulvetta."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," I said, and started back toward my office in the third floor of the Arnstein.

"I've got a VCR, you know," she said, and gave me one of those looks that makes you feel like an Irish Setter rolling in something. I followed her inside and she closed the door behind me. Her place looked like a Moroccan brothel in a Hope-Crosby flick and smelled like a New Age incense boutique. I knew I was going to like this dame.

She opened her cabinet and poured me a two-olive martini as I plugged the videotape into her machine.

Only when she brought my drink did I notice she was wearing a chiffon negligee. "I'm going to change into something more comfortable," she said, and stepped through a screen of hanging wooden beads into another room.

As she changed, I picked up the phone, one of those old-time rotary jobs. I phoned the wife and kids and invited them over. They came in the Volvo wagon, and brought some microwave popcorn. The credits came up. A Woman In Hiding. I knew this was going to be something.

I don't know what happened to the dame.

Next week: The movie!

July 20, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 29
© 2000 Metro Pulse