Cornell George Hopley Woolrich (1903-1968) was among the most prolific of noir crime writers and as far as I can determine the most adapted for film, radio, and TV. His admirers regret that wasn’t given the literary respect accorded to Hammett or Chandler, but this is probably because his language is unremarkable and his plots, which are his strength, test plausibility. He owes something to Edgar Allan Poe’s terror tales, although most of his doom-ridden, twist-of-fate narratives are set in twentieth-century New York, where the inhabitants suffer guilt, anxiety, paranoia, and claustrophobic entrapment. The titles of the novels and stories convey their fraught, doomed atmosphere: The Black Path of Fear, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes,” “The Corpse Next Door,” “The Living Lie Down with the Dead,” etc.
At its most effective, Woolrich’s prose has the repetitive quality of an anxiously beating heart or the incessant drip of water torture. Consider the opening of The Black Curtain: “Then he could feel hands fumbling around him. They weren’t actually touching him; they were touching things that touched him.” Or this, from The Black Angel: “He looked at the wall opposite him, and it wasn’t to be found there. He looked at the ceiling, and it wasn’t there. He looked at his empty hands, and it wasn’t there.” Or the first chapter of I Married a Dead Man, which keeps repeating “but not for us.” It’s a language of bewildered suspense or anxiety verging on hysteria, and the plots frequently duplicate the repetitive effect. In The Bride Wore Black, the victims of a vengeful widow are disposed of like ducks in a shooting gallery. In Black Alibi, a serial killer brutally murders people at random. In The Black Angel, a woman tries to save her husband from a murder charge by questioning four suspects whose names begin with the letter M; one of them refuses to talk until she goes on a frightening late-night errand involving four locations--a low-rent cafeteria, a bar, a dance hall, and an all-night movie theater--where she has to ritually repeat the same actions.
The serial events or repetitions are appropriate to Woolrich’s obsessive characters, who suffer from amnesia, disability, and alcoholic blackouts, or who fall into situations in which nobody believes them. Many of the plots border on the fantastic and have an is-this-happening-or-am-I-crazy quality. In the short story “All at Once, No Alice,” for example, circumstances force a husband and wife to spend their wedding night apart from one another in an unfamiliar town where the hotel has only one extremely tiny available room; when the husband returns the next day, every trace of the wife is gone and everyone who saw her--the manager and staff of the hotel and even the Justice of the Peace who married her--says she never existed.
Like Dickens, the Surrealists, and Hitchcock, Woolrich is also a master of chance and ironic coincidence. A rule of thumb for most writers is that a dramatic accident ought to come at the beginning rather than the end of the tale, where it can seem like a Deus ex Machina. But the rule can be broken, as it is in Romeo and Juliet. For his part, Woolrich salts accidental happenings throughout and usually reserves violent ones for the openings: A man walking down the street is knocked out by bricks falling from a building, and when he regains consciousness he realizes that he’s been suffering from amnesia and may have killed someone; two pregnant women who’ve never met share a seat on a train, and when the train suddenly crashes, the woman who survives changes identity with the one who is killed.
It’s a world in which arbitrary events or strange meetings create shock, reveal hidden social connections, and suggest a malign fatality. In the Woolrich story “Borrowed Crime,” for example, an impoverished man confesses to a murder he didn’t commit in order to collect a thousand-dollar reward from a newspaper; his plan is to use the money so that his wife can take their extremely ill son to Arizona, where the boy’s weakened lungs can benefit from the dry, sunny climate. The plan works, but while in jail the man discovers that his wife has been killed in an Arizona traffic accident. The stories sometimes end happily, as this one more or less does, but even when they do, they leave an aftertaste of dread.
Woolrich specialized in mystery, suspense, and fear, but the sense of dread made his pulp fiction distinctive. In certain respects, dread was also symptomatic of cultural modernism. Freud, for example, makes an important distinction between fear and “Angst,” which is the German word for dread. Fearful emotion, Freud says, is a fight-or-flight response to a specific danger, such as a snarling tiger or a man with a gun. Suspense is also a fearful response, but it has a longer temporal span, arising from our awareness of an actual imminent danger that may or may not happen but has a deadline. Angst, or dread, is more like a free-floating, global anxiety, and it pervades post-World-War I psychology, art, and philosophy. It can be found in Kafka, in German expressionism, and above all in Heidegger, who describes dread/Angst as an existential condition arising from knowledge that one’s death is inevitable. Heidegger, in turn, was an influence on French existentialism during and after World War II, when Sartre developed his ideas of being and nothingness, and when writers like Woolrich became important for both the French cinema and the popular media.
I don’t mean that Woolrich was an existentialist or that he was interested in any of the figures I’ve mentioned; the effect of dread in his work goes hand in hand with the kind of murder stories he wrote, and is an ambiance rather than a philosophy. But Woolrich’s life was certainly dreadful, even tragic. Born in New York early in the twentieth century, he was a child of divorce and lived with his father in Mexico before moving back to Manhattan to live with his mother. He attended Columbia University but was uninterested in English studies and took up writing imitations of Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-era novels. After a brief, unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, where he had a failed marriage and spent time cruising in a sailor suit, he returned to New York and began writing crime fiction, at which he became so speedy and proficient that he wrote under his own name and two pen names, William Irish and George Hopley. (In the discussion that follows, I’ll refer to Woolrich as the author of all the fiction, because there are no clear-cut distinctions between him, Irish, and Hopley.) He and his mother lived in hotels until her death in 1957, when he moved to another hotel and became an irascible recluse. A closeted homosexual, he was also alcoholic, emaciated, and diabetic. Because of an untreated foot infection (the delay in treatment ironically susceptible to pop-Freudian analysis), one of his legs was amputated and he spent his last years in a wheel chair.
During his early career Woolrich published a serialized novel in College Humor that was adapted by Hollywood in 1929, and when he turned to the pulps he authored romance stories and a vampire tale. The crime stories and novels he began to write around 1934 belonged to a genre known in the trade as “thrillers.” These differ from the whodunits of the inter-war years, most of which have a “what-will-have-happened” or future-perfect plot: a murder occurs, but we don’t get the full story of the killing until it’s reconstructed in the last chapter by a detective who has never been in personal danger. The hard-boiled thrillers of Hammett, Chandler, et. al. change the pattern by giving us detectives who are subject to gunfire and violent beatings; they retain the mystery element, but give primary attention to action and descriptions of an adventurous milieu. “Wrong man” thrillers, which often have a travelogue or chase structure and became a Hitchcock specialty, go a step further, upping suspense by making the protagonist a victim, an investigator, and in the eyes of the law a killer. The Woolrich thriller, in contrast with these, typically begins as a mystery but creates suspense and a vague atmosphere of dread because the protagonist tends to be an inexperienced and highly vulnerable investigator--a female secretary, a housewife, a pregnant single mother, a traumatized veteran, an unemployed father with a sick child, a pre-adolescent boy, or a man with a broken leg.
Francis M. Nevins, Jr.’s valuable bio-bibliography of Woolrich lists, by my count, twenty-three Hollywood adaptations of his work between 1929 and 1984, plus an incomplete list of adaptations from Argentina, France, Germany, Japan, and the USSR. He was adapted not only by such major Hollywood directors as Hitchcock, but also by such Europeans as François Truffaut and Rainer Fassbinder. In terms of frequency of adaptation, he isn’t in shouting distance of Shakespeare, Jane Austin, or Conan Doyle, but he’s accounted for more film noirs than anyone I can name. Why so many? Obviously he wrote a great deal, but the situations he created also appeared at the right moment.
Woolrich has been described by his publishers as the “father” of literary noir, which makes no more sense than the claim that The Maltese Falcon was the first film noir. Dashiell Hammett’s novel about the black bird was published in 1929, and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934, so that both writers have better claims to the dubious status of fatherhood. France’s Marcel Duhamel may have the best claim of all, because when he began editing the Gallimard publishing company’s Série noire in the mid-1940s, he gave American writers and filmmakers a designation that had been known to France since the 1930s and didn’t become widely known in America until the 1970s. Whatever the case, Woolrich is a key figure in a period we retrospectively know as America’s noir decades, which extend from roughly the mid-1930s until 1960. His fiction deals with urban life during and after the Depression and World War II, and he’s largely responsible for an especially dark strand of noir centering on vulnerable people in an apparently indifferent world whose lives are subject to events beyond their control.
As George Hutchinson has shown in his recent book, Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940’s, the wartime and post-war years in America were characterized by numerous literary evocations of dread.Starting in 1940, Woolrich, who isn’t discussed by Hutchinson but is typical of the period, wrote six novels with “black” in the title, four of which were soon adapted into movies; and beginning in 1937 he published twenty-two stories for Black Mask, three of which were very soon adapted. His work succeeded not only because it often centered on vulnerable characters, but also because it participated in a 1940s and 50s form of psychological suspense and macabre, almost darkly humorous situations. Edgar G. Ulmer’s celebrated B movie Detour (1945), based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith, is very close to the kind of desperation one finds in Woolrich; and the novels of Frederic Brown and Patricia Highsmith share in his bleak ironies (although Highsmith creates a sexually ambiguous world in which almost everybody is guilty).
One of the best places to find such fiction in the mass culture of the period was CBS radio’s highly popular Suspense, which featured a galaxy of Hollywood stars: James Stewart played a doctor who tries to escape his marriage by faking his death, Mickey Rooney played a murderous jazz musician who hears drums in his head, and Ida Lupino played a career woman whose ex-con husband threatens to shoot her. The show premiered in 1942 and eventuated in over 900 episodes, many introduced by “The Man in Black,” who was the basis for suave radio storyteller Claude Rains in Michael Curtiz’s film noir, The Unsuspected (1947). Its most successful broadcast was Lucille Fletcher’s 1943 drama “Sorry, Wrong Number,” starring Agnes Moorhead--a Woolrich-like plot, which in 1948 became a film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Woolrich was adapted over thirty times on Suspense, and more than once on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which resembled Suspense and was one of the most popular TV shows in America during the 1950s. In cinema, he’s been adapted so often and in so many countries that adequate discussion of even the most important films would require a book. Hollywood didn’t always do him justice, because the classic studios tried to alleviate the most brutal violence and darkest moods of his fiction. On a few of the occasions when Hollywood gave Woolrich upbeat or happy endings, however, they left an after effect of something unresolved, because the conditions that had given rise to an atmosphere of anxiety couldn’t be completely eliminated.Here, by way of illustration, and without the highly detailed criticism some of them deserve, are notes on seven of the best Woolrich-inspired Hollywood features of the noir decades, plus one TV show, arranged in chronological order:
One:Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s B-budget The Leopard Man (1943), based on Woolrich’s violent serial-killer novel Black Alibi, was produced at RKO, which abandoned Woolrich’s title in order to capitalize on the sleeper success of Lewton and Tourneur’s equally low-budget Cat People (1942), an innovative, supernatural horror picture that had earned significant profit for the studio. The Leopard Man isn’t supernatural, but it shows the family relation between film noir and a cinematic tradition of aestheticized, romantically poetic horror, mostly European in origin, to which Lewton and Tourneur made several contributions.
Produced at a cost of $150,000, the filmwas shot in roughly a month on sets representing New Mexico instead of the Latin-American locale of the Woolrich novel. Wikipedia describes it as the first serial killer movie, but the attempt to name the first film of any genre is a mug’s game; Fritz Lang’s M (1930) precedes The Leopard Man by over a decade, and other serial-killer films have been traced back as far as 1909. In any case, The Leopard Man involves three murders, the first of which, though treated indirectly, is the bloodiest violence in any of the Lewton productions: A young Mexican girl is sent out at night by her mother to buy flour. En route, she experiences what Lewton called a “bus” moment--a term derived from a famous scene in Cat People when the sound of an arriving bus gives the audience a jump scare. The girl sees a leopard, spills the flour, and runs home in terror, pounding and screaming on her locked door. Tourneur cuts to inside the house. The mother, irritated with the child, is slow to respond, and when she opens the door her daughter’s blood floods over the lentil.
Nothing in the film afterward is equally disturbing, but as Joel E. Siegel has pointed out, Lewton’s woman screenwriter Ardel Wray, inspired by the serial structure of Woolrich’s novel, achieved something unusual; The Leopard Man is a film without a strong central character, and it moves almost like an anthology from one murder to another. It also has an unusual climax, less spectacular than in Woolrich but haunting in the manner of Tourneur, involving a nocturnal chase through a bizarre procession of black-hooded mendicants who are walking along a studio-recreated desert.
Two:A more celebrated Woolrich adaptation is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), produced at Universal by Hitchcock’s talented associate Joan Harrison. Ella Raines stars as an intrepid secretary named Kansas (a character and name appropriate for Howard Hawks) who sets out to prove that her boss, on whom she has a crush, isn’t guilty of murdering his wife.
The film gives this character more importance than she had in the novel; it not only changes her name and makes her a working woman, but also transforms her into a tough, relatively independent agent. Her search for a mysterious female in a flamboyant hat leads her through a studio-created, hallucinated New York and a series of dangerous encounters with men, but she never shrinks. The most cinematically effective episode, filled with shadows and heels clicking on wet pavement, begins when Kansas goes to a crowded bar, stares down the bartender until the place closes, and then tracks him through the night until they’re alone on an elevated train platform. Later, she impersonates a floozie in order to gain information from Elisha Cook, Jr., the quintessential noir character actor, who plays a sex-crazed jazz drummer. A midnight jam session featuring Cook’s drumming is a delirious montage of low angles and lens distortions, creating the impression of libidinal jungle music. Cook leers, Ella Rains smacks gum and shows her legs, and they exit together into the night. In the end, however, he’s no match for her.
In another of Phantom Lady’s departures from Woolrich, we learn the identity of the killer before he’s discovered by any of the characters--a change of plot that turns the final third of the film from a whodunit into a pure suspense story. The culprit is revealed as a handsome, charming friend of Kansas’s boss who has periodic migraines that turn his artistic hands into weapons. Suspense mounts when he assists Kansas with the investigation. The concluding scenes, however, are relatively disappointing because the villainy is overplayed and the happy ending is a bit too cute, out of key with the rest of the film.
Three: Black Angel (1946), also from Universal, is given high praise from Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins, Jr., who declares, “If a single theatrical feature based on a Woolrich book could be preserved for future generations, Black Angel is the one I would opt to keep.” But as Nevins explains, the film is different from the novel and Woolrich disliked it. When Columbia University’s distinguished professor Mark Van Doren wrote Woolrich to say how much he enjoyed seeing the author’s name in the credits, Woolrich went out to see the picture and confessed to Van Doren that he felt nothing but shame and embarrassment.
Black Angel is nevertheless skillfully directed by unsung auteur Roy William Neil, who was known chiefly for his modernized pictures about Sherlock Holmes. (One of these, The Woman in Green , has canted camera angles before Carol Reed ever thought of them, and could easily be termed a film noir.) Black Angel also preserves several distinctive qualities of the Woolrich imagination. June Vincent plays a woman whose husband is sentenced to death for the murder of his mistress; again we have a female searching for a killer, but she’s aided throughout by an alcoholic pianist played by Dan Duryea, who was once married to the murder victim and is subject to drunken blackouts. By fortuitous coincidence, Vincent was a professional singer before her marriage. Duryea stops drinking, Vincent forms an act with him, and they take a job in a nightclub where they can investigate the sinister, suspicious Peter Lorre, who plays his every scene with louche poses and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Suspense ensues during the investigation, and, as with Phantom Lady, the true killer is eventually discovered with a little help from a police detective. But Black Angel differs from Phantom Lady because the killer isn’t a cliched madman. The conclusion satisfies the demands of the Hollywood production code by punishing the guilty, rescuing the innocent, and preserving a marriage, but it has an ironically downbeat quality. June Vincent might have been happier with the murderer than with her philandering husband.
Four: Arthur Ripley’s The Chase (1946), based on Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear, separates mystery addicts from Surrealists. Many viewers find it laughably absurd, but to me it’s fascinating. Eddie Muller, quoted on the jacket of the current DVD edition, is correct when he says it’sis the closest thing in the classic studio era to a David Lynch movie. Much like Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it achieves what French Surrealists Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton might have regarded as the ideal noir-ness. Lynch converts familiar plots, characters, and iconography into pure dreamwork; The Chase is less sophisticated and vanguard, but in a decade when Hollywood was influenced by surrealist design and oneiric effects were fashionable, it has not only surrealist décor but also the second longest dream sequence in all of noir, surpassed only by Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944).
While in Germany, Lang had a chance to direct another lengthy dream: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). He was unable to take the job, but suggested that the film should be given a framing narrative, or what the Germans call a Rahmenhandlung, motivating expressionist distortions by explaining them as the dream of a madman in a mental institution. His suggestion was followed, and in some quarters has been severely criticized, most notably by Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler, who regards it as a concession to authoritarianism. The Woman in the Window and The Chase employ deceptive varieties of Rahmenhandlung, and they, too, have been criticized, for cheating their way to happy endings. But all three films can be defended because the framing scenes don’t contradict larger aims or thematic elements. In The Chase, the strategy is particularly effective because there’s almost no clue indicating the start of the dream, and waking life is just as surreal as sleeping life.
Produced by Seymour Nebenzal (the producer of both Lang’s M and Joseph Losey’s 1950 remake), The Chase has a Philip Yordan screenplay that turns Woolrich’s novel into a strange mix of waking and sleeping. The film stars Robert Cummings, usually more effective in light comedy than in drama, as a newly discharged, unemployed veteran who suffers from bouts of wartime fever. At first sight, he seems comic. Standing outside a Miami café wearing an old suit with a ruptured duck in the lapel, he smiles as he watches a cook at work. Then he leans forward in hunger, mashing his hat brim against the window. Suddenly, in one of those coincidences that happen only in Hollywood and Woolrich, he notices an expensive wallet on the sidewalk at his feet.
After purchasing a big breakfast, Cummings returns the wallet to its owner, a Miami gangster played by Steve Cochran, who lives in a mansion that looks as if it were decorated by Salvador Dali. Cochran is a moody sadist who beats up his female manicurist for nicking his finger and at every opportunity abuses his beautiful wife (Michele Morgan). His equally sadistic assistant is played by Peter Lorre, once again with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Amused by Cummings’ honesty, Cochran gives him a job as his chauffeur. Hidden on the back-seat floor of the gangster’s big Cadillac is a gizmo that belongs in a Saturday-afternoon serial: an extra gas pedal and break, with a switch enabling Cochran to take control of the car and almost bust the speedometer.
Cummings puts up with Cochran’s dangerous practical joking, but feels concern for Morgan, who pleads with him to escape with her to Havana. They take a boat to Cuba, but danger awaits. Franz Planer’s black-and-white photography is wonderfully shadowy and Cummings wears the most glamourous white fedora in the history of film noir. For the sake of those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t say what happens, nor will I say when the dreaming begins or ends. But at the conclusion, which you may or may not consider happy, Cummings and Morgan repeat their history; a doomed, Woolrich-like atmosphere persists because the two lovers are in the same place and in the same costumes as when prior deadly events began.
Five: Two impressive films were derived from Woolrich stories about characters who claim they’ve seen a murder and can’t find anyone to believe them.
The first, The Window, a modestly budgeted picture directed by Ted Tetzlaff and scripted by Mel Dinelli, is the only screen adaptation of Woolrich that gives documentary evidence of what areas of New York City looked like when he was writing. It’s symptomatic of Hollywood’s turn toward location shooting after World War II, and belongs in company with an increasing number of thrillers filmed documentary style in the city. Producer Frederick Ullman, who had previously worked with Pathe News, arranged for exteriors to be shot mainly along East 67th, 103rd, 106th, and the 3rd Avenue El. The film was completed in 1947 but not released until 1949, probably because RKO thought the unglamorous setting, lack of stars, and relatively simple boy-who-cried wolf story would have little commercial appeal. It turned out to be an award-winning hit, popular with both critics and audiences. Bobby Driscoll, the child actor who plays the central role, was so effective that the Motion Picture Academy awarded him a miniature Oscar.
The boy played by Driscoll lives with working-class parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale) in a tenement where everything is in disrepair. There’s no air conditioning, and the city is in the midst of a heat wave. Kids improvise summer activity: they play stick-ball in the crowded streets, shoot marbles in the dirt at the bottom of abandoned buildings, and occasionally chase fire trucks. No girls are in sight. Mothers string wet laundry outside their windows and boys create imaginary adventure by scampering across rooftops and up and down fire escapes. (One title under which the Woolrich novelette appeared was “Fire Escape.”) The film’s only significant inaccuracy is that the neighborhood seems all white, on the bottom edge of the proletariat but with no ethnic diversity.
The boy at the center of the action has a vivid imagination but a habit of telling tall tales. His father works nights, and one evening, when he and his mother are sweltering, he gets her permission to take a pillow onto the fire escape so he can sleep in the night air. Searching for a breeze, he goes up to the next level, where, through a half open window, he sees the upstairs neighbors (Ruth Roman and the always excellent Paul Stewart) commit murder. He rushes back to tell his mother, but she’s exasperated with his fantastic stories and tells him he’s had a nightmare.
The murder is less violent than in the Woolrich story, the boy’s parents are more sympathetic, and the film as a whole is less centered on the boy’s point of view. As in Woolrich, however, one of the chief ironies and engines of suspense is that when the boy keeps insisting that he’s telling the truth, his parents’ efforts to discipline him put him in increasing danger of being killed by the neighbors. At one point the frustrated father puts the boy in his room and nails the door shut to keep him out of mischief, thus making him easy prey. As tension mounts, another irony develops: the mean streets seem liberating, and the interiors of the tenement become a barred, caged trap--an effect heightened by Robert De Grasse’s photography, which emphasizes slatted shadows and barriers. At the end, all is redeemed and the boy’s parents are made proud. But only a moment of reflection should leave us uneasy about the cheerfulness: the father still works nights, the mother is still burdened by chores, and the neighborhood is still dangerous. As the boy complains at an earlier point, “There’s no place to go.”
Six: No Man of Her Own (1950), an expensive Paramount production directed by Mitchell Leisen and starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a blend of noir and family melodrama. Screenwriters Catherine Turney and Sally Benson (the latter was author of the stories that became MGM’s Meet Me in St. Louis) remain true to Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man, except at the closing.
Near the beginning of the film, we see a visibly pregnant Stanwyck struggling with luggage up several flights of a shabby apartment building. She pounds on an unanswered door, cries, and pleads with the man inside--he’s handsome Lyle Bettger, the father of her child, who has a new girlfriend. Ignoring Stanwyck’s pleas, Bettger shoves a train ticket out of town and five dollars under the door. The humiliated Stanwyck accidentally drops the money in the hallway but takes the train, which is so crowded she has no seat. Another pregnant woman notices her, nudges her husband to make room, and strikes up a friendship. In the most jaw-dropping accident and coup de théâtre in all of Woolrich, the two women are in the toilet and Stanwyck is for a moment wearing her new friend’s wedding ring as the train crashes, killing both the newlyweds, who were on their way to introduce the husband’s wife to his family.
To save her child, who is born immediately after the accident, Stanwyck assumes the dead wife’s identity. She arrives in an idyllic Midwestern town and is welcomed into the arms of a wealthy, loving family who treat her as their daughter. As time goes by, a romance develops between her and the dead husband’s brother (John Lund). Everything is perfect, but one evening at a country-club dance, just as Stanwyck and Lund are planning marriage, the smarmy Bettger appears from out of the past with blackmail on his mind. Eventually, Stanwyck finds herself seated at the wheel of a car on a dark night as Lund disposes of a body; it’s an ironic echo of a scene in Double Indemnity, in which a cold-blooded Barbara sits behind the wheel while Fred MacMurray does the dirty work. Billy Wilder, who wrote screenplays at Paramount under Mitchell Leisen and intensely disliked him, probably wasn’t amused.
The Woolrich novel ended with a nest of complications that left the Stanwyck and Lund characters free of the law but mutually suspicious of one another, in a state of perpetual guilt and dread. No Man of Her Own simplifies the plot and heightens suspense by introducing a sequence in which Lund races against the clock to save Stanwyck from a forced marriage to Bettger. At the end, it also invents a clever way out of Stanwyck’s problem. The witty conclusion allows some in the audience to believe that she and Lund will live happily ever after. But of course everything depends on exactly where you choose to end a story. Personally, I doubt that as time passes either character can escape the memory of what they’ve experienced.
Seven: The best film based on Woolrich, and indeed one of the best films in history, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), which is derived from a novella originally published under the title “It Had to Be Murder.” (The novella was subsequently published as “Murder from a Fixed Position,” and, after the film appeared, as “Rear Window.”)So much has been written about this picture that little needs to be said here. It should be noted, however, that not everyone thinks Rear Window is a film noir. In an interesting essay on Woolrich and urban space, David Reid and Jayne L. Walker declare flatly that it isn’t--in part, they argue, because no movie with Thelma Ritter could possibly be called noir. (One assumes they haven’t seen Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street.) But there are better reasons why Rear Window seems only marginally noir-like. The most amusing and glamourous of Woolrich adaptations, it has Robert Burks’ gorgeously colorful Vista-Vision photography; a gigantic, charmingly pretty, doll-house set representing a Greenwich-Village courtyard; a semi-bohemian but equally charming apartment; a series of open windows across the way framed almost like movie screens; and, to the delight of every voyeur, vignettes redolent of Hollywood movies--little “human
interest” stories played in the windows, some comic, some sad, but spiced with sex and murder.
Whether or not it’s noir, Rear Window has little of the characteristic Woolrich ambiance. In the original story, the protagonist, a lonely, bored man named Jeffries,
has a broken leg, no courtyard, no camera, no telephoto lens, and no amusement when he looks out his window. His only company is a black servant named Sam, who prepares meals and goes home every night. When Jeffries becomes convinced that a man in a nearby building has murdered his wife, he sends Sam to investigate and rewards him with a drink for completing the dangerous mission: “you’re as close to white as you’ll ever be,” Jeffries says.
Hitchcock eliminates Sam and adds Grace Kelly in designer dresses, plus Thelma Ritter, a specialist in working-class roles, as a wisecracking nurse from Brooklyn who gives James Stewart rubdowns. At the same time, Hitchcock achieves a cinematic tour-de-force--a sustained demonstration of the Kuleshov effect, a lesson in how to deploy several characters in a small room, and the elaboration of the Woolrich story into a fusion of romance, humor, and suspense. The last shot introduces a note of witty skepticism about the future of Kelly and Stuart, but doesn’t approach the moody pessimism typical of Woolrich.
Plus One: Hitchcock is much closer to Woolrich in “Four O’clock,” a 51-minute TV film broadcast in 1957 on NBC-TV’s Suspicion. Scripted by Francis Cockrell, it’s an adaptation of a Woolrich story called “Three O’clock.” E. G. Marshall plays a small businessman who repairs watches and clocks, and who believes his wife (Nancy Kelly) is having an affair. (A bit role is played by an actor named Dean Stanton, later famous as Harry Dean Stanton.) The result is a superb example of what Hitchcock termed “pure cinema.”
Hitchcock’s style had derived from his experience in silent film, and early in this picture we have a long, mesmerizing, dialog-free sequence in which Marshall methodically goes through the entire procedure of making and testing a time bomb. Later, we have a dramatization of Hitchcock’s famous distinction between surprise and suspense. In his interview with François Truffaut, he described a scene in which two characters sit at a table chatting for a several minutes about something innocuous, when suddenly a bomb goes off, blowing them to smithereens. The result, he said, is several minutes of boredom followed by an instant of surprise. But imagine the same scene, he added, if the audience is informed in advance that there’s a bomb under the table: the result is several minutes of suspense.
When he spoke with Truffaut, Hitchcock may have been thinking of “Four O’clock,” because it has exactly the second type of scene, with the suspense prolonged for a longer time. The film might have been even more like “pure cinema” if it had dispensed with most of E. G. Marshall’s unnecessary interior monologue in the last half. But as the clock on the time bomb reaches its deadline and the plot tilts toward madness, the imagery and editing are in their own small way as good as the shower scene in Psycho.
The Woolrich story that inspired “Four O’clock” was adapted three times on TV and twice on radio, and all the other Woolrich fiction I’ve discussed was adapted more than once, sometimes by other media or other national cinemas, occasionally in surprising forms. I Married a Dead Man, the source of No Man of Her Own, became a French thriller (I Married a Shadow ) a TV movie (She’s No Angel ), and--believe it or not--a romantic comedy (Mrs. Winterbourne ). Perhaps inevitably, however, a few of Woolrich’s many novels and stories have yet to be adapted, and some of the best have yet to become significant films. Among the latter group is the 1947 novel Waltz Into Darkness, which was the source of both François Truffaut’s un-Woolrich-like Mississippi Mermaid (1969) and Michael Cristofer’s somewhat underrated Original Sin (2001). The masochistic eroticism and period flavor of the novel were captured more accurately in the Cristofer film, which nevertheless failed at the box office. This failure, plus the major changes of the entertainment industry wrought by digital technology,may account for the fact that almost two decades have passed without a Woolrich-based theatrical picture.
But the suspenseful situations Woolrich imagined will likely continue to be adapted. He never developed a series character such as Spade or Marlowe, who figured in many radio and TV shows not directly based on Hammett or Chandler, yet he left behind many dark narratives that can be loosely adapted or reconfigured in a variety of ways. The sense of angst or existential dread he gave to popular fiction in the late 1930s and 40s has a perennial quality; old films based on him still have an audience, and he’ll remain a richer source of plots and characters than most writers of crime fiction. We haven’t seen the last of Woolrich.
Bassett, Mark T., Blues of a Lifetime: The Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press, 1991).
Hutchinson, George, Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).
Nevins, Francis M., Jr., Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1988).
Reid, David, and Jayne L. Walker, “Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the Abandoned City of the Forties,” in Joan Copjec, ed., Shades of Noir (London: Verso, 1993): 57-96.
Siegel, Joel E., Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror (New York: Viking Press, 1973).
Walker, Michael, “Robert Siodmak,” in Ian Cameron, ed., The Book of Film Noir (New York: Continuum, 1992): 110-151.