That Old Feeling: Woolrich’s World

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You know him, if you know him, from the movies that Hitchcock and Truffaut and Fassbinder and others made from his novels and short stories. Though some of his books were best-sellers when first published, he has not been the subject of a passionate posthumous cult like hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson or s-f visionary Phillip K. Dick. Not long ago, when I called the two most comprehensive mystery book stores in New York City, I learned that neither had his most important collections in stock. His centenary was two weeks away.

Cornell Woolrich died in 1968, but if he had put up with the world — and vice versa — for a few more decades, he would have turned 100 last Thursday. Some of his admirers threw a memorial tribute Friday, at the Mercantile Library of New York on East 47th Street, in the white rage of a Manhattan blizzard. But even if the weather had been balmy, and he had been alive and physically capable, the guest of honor wouldn’t have showed up.

Woolrich was a shy-arrogant man who, on the few occasions when he went to a party, would rudely dismiss people who praised his work. He allowed some acquaintances to call him “Con” — an apt nickname, considering the sable of mystification he wrapped himself in. A furtive homosexual, he pocked his fiction with scathing descriptions of effeminate men. A loner with so few friends he rarely put dedications on his novels — and when he did, they were to his Remington Portable typewriter (“The Bridge Wore Black”) and to a hotel room he hated (“Phantom Lady”). He married a movie mogul’s daughter on a vicious whim, then lived with his mother for the rest of his life. He shaved three, sometimes seven years off his age, volunteered no details of his early or private life. Every item of autobiography offered him the opportunity for deception, misdirection, lies.

Woolrich’s life was as twisted and compelling as his work, and that’s saying something. The first six mature crime novels he wrote under his own name all had “Black” in their titles. “I Married a Dead Man” is either a necrophiliac love story or the plaint of a disappointed bride about her lump of a husband. To choose titles just from the three short-story collections available on alibris.com, Woolrich World was a tenement building where death groaned under the floorboards (“The Corpse Next Door,” “The Body Upstairs,” “The Kid and the Corpse”). It was a land of derangement (“Walls That Hear You,” “The Screaming Laugh,” “Dark Melody of Madness”), where the body count piled up like garbage bags on weekends (“Graves for the Living,” “Preview of Death,” “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair,” “Death in the Air,” “Dead on Her Feet”), and where the deceased could be you or I (“Through a Dead Man’s Eye,” “The Death of Me”) — or the author.



CORNELL WHO-RICH?

Woolrich isn’t in the league of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler as a weaver of mood through the precise or voluptuous phrase. "Purely on its merits as prose, it's dreadful," writes Francis M. Nevins, Woolrich’s literary executor and keeper of the flame. Nevins wrote an exhaustive, invaluable critical biography, “First You Dream, Then You Dream,” as well as editing or co-editing all three of the Woolrich short story collections — “Nightwebs,” “Darkness at Dawn” and “Night & Fear” — published in the past 20 years. (“Night & Fear,” with 20 prime Woolrich tales, comes out in January.) Even the author’s number one fan can’t stomach a lot of Woolrich writing. Of one early work, he opines, “I pity anyone who feels compelled to read it.”

That’s not true of Woolrich’s prime-time crime fiction; his great decade was the 40s, with 11 novels and dozens of powerful short pieces. But you don’t read Woolrich for the writing, exactly. You read it for the atmosphere, the smoky, urban settings that enshroud his helpless or conscienceless characters. (For a sturdy starter set, pick up “The Cornell Woolrich Omnibus,” with “I Married a Dead Man,” “Waltz into Darkness” and five short stories, including “Rear Window.”) Woolrich deals in moral ambiguity on its way to becoming moral invisibility. In Woolrich, love and death — the act of love and the act of death — can be the same thing. The author’s triumph is to make the subjects and stories so varied (and thus suspenseful) while the tone is constantly dark, menacing, inescapable. This world-view is so consistent, it must be personal. In his fiction, the mystery man wrote his own autobiography, one page at a time.

And, one frame at a time, Hollywood put it in the minds of the mass audience. Woolrich fiction inspired three near-classics of the 40s: “Phantom Lady,” “The Window” and “No Man of Her Own.” Alfred Hitchcock expanded one Woolrich story, originally called “Murder from a Fixed Perspective,” into “Rear Window.” The most recent adaptation: the 2001 “Original Sin,” another version of “Waltz into Darkness,” with Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie. (I’ll address the Woolrich film oeuvre in my next column.)

The Woolrich mood translated into other languages. Francois Truffaut made two Woolrich films, “The Bride Wore Black” and (from “Waltz into Darkness”) “Mississippi Mermaid,” in consecutive years. German wunderbrat Rainer Werner Fassbinder turned another Woolrich story into the sadomasterpiece “Martha.” Japanese melodramas and Italian “gialli” have turned his fevered words into hot images. Since the 1940s, his prime crime time, not a decade has passed without at least one Woolrich movie.

None of this made Woolrich famous, or rich. Nothing could make him happy. But then, who said that life was going to be fair? The most one could hope for, in the Woolrich world, was to find meaning in misery. In his 1943 novel “Black Angel,” the heroine, whose quest for justice turns her into an avenging angel, meets a sensitive drunk who falls in love with her. For that love, he kills himself. The woman feels no guilt, only satisfaction. “I gave him something to die for,” she says. “It’s better to die for something than to live for nothing.”



LIFE

[Angela, as Wilder pins a corsage on her bodice:] “Must beautiful things like this ever die?”
[Wilder:] “Always.”

—Woolrich’s “Children of the Ritz,” 1927

Cornell George Hopley Woolrich was born December 4, 1903, of English, Spanish and Jewish blood. His father, Gennaro Hopley-Woolrich, was “a civil engineer or a metallurgist,” according to Nevins, and who separated from his wife, Claire Attalie Tarler, when Cornell was four or five. Gennaro was in Mexico on business, and the boy stayed there until his teen years, when he returned to live with his mother on New York’s Upper West Side. He stayed with her, excepting one bizarre interval, for the rest of his life.

Cornell went to Columbia University, a few blocks from his home, leaving school when his first novel, “Cover Charge,” was published in 1926. His second, “Children of the Ritz,” was popular enough to be bought for films and to bring Woolrich to Hollywood for a screenwriting gig, though he acquired no screen credits. (First National, the studio that hired Woolrich and turned “Children of the Ritz” into a movie, also employed a writer named William Irish. Woolrich would later use that name as a pseudonym on “Phantom Lady,” “Deadline at Dawn,” “Waltz into Darkness” and “I Married a Dead Man.”)

In 1930, while still in Los Angeles, Woolrich wed Gloria Blackton, a daughter of movie pioneer J. Stuart Blackton. The marriage was doomed from the start. In a 1933 story, the Cleveland Plain Dealer described the groom as “a precocious, sensitive and strange young man ... who rarely before had been known to seek the companionship of women.” (Can you read the smirks between the lines and across the decades?) According to Gloria, Cornell kept his distance at even the most intimate moments: “He sat two feet away from me on a couch and asked me to be his wife.” The marriage was not consummated; as the Plain Dealer judiciously put it, “He loved his wife too well to kiss her.”

After two years he walked out, going back to New York and mother Claire. He left behind a diary, which Gloria discovered. Woolrich may not have robbed Gloria of her virginity, but he was not celibate himself. The diary itemized his many homosexual pickups “in sordid and dreadful detail,” as Blackton’s sister Marian told Nevins. Woolrich also wrote that “it might be a really good joke to marry this Gloria Blackton.” Humbert Humbert’s diary, detailing his loveless wedlock with Charlotte Haze and his lust for her daughter Lolita, was no crueler than Woolrich’s nasty punch line to this prank of a marriage. “The Bride Wore Black” was seven years ahead of him, but the discarded diary was Woolrich’s first (as the French would say) roman noir — black novel.

If Woolrich was brutally indifferent to his wife’s feelings, in his fiction he could instantly bond with those in desperate need — perhaps because there was such a person in his own life, one whose hold on him he could not, would not break. “I tried to move out,” he recalled late in his life. “ In 1942, I lived in a hotel room for three weeks and then one night she called me and said, ‘I can’t live without you, I must live with you, I need you,’ and I put down the phone and I packed and I went back to that place for the rest of my life, I never spent a night away from her, not one. I don’t care what they thought of me, what they said about me but I just didn’t care. I don’t regret it and I’ll never regret it as long as I live.”

No surprise ending here. That person, of course, was Claire Woolrich, his mother. He lived with her until her death in 1957. Most of him died with her.



UNIQUE

His voice seemed to come from his stomach, through rolling drums of smothered agony — that were the weeping of a grown man.
“I want her back. I want her back. I’ll never rest until I find her.”
“What do you want her back again for?” she demanded.
He turned slowly.
“To kill her,” he said through his clenched teeth.
—“Waltz into Darkness,” 1947

The distinguished British film critic Philip French writes admiringly about “the hard-boiled novels of writers such as Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis who never got between hard covers and who went unrecognised in America until long after they'd appeared in Gallimard’s Serie Noire and been adapted by the directors of the Nouvelle Vague.”

This is true of Thompson but not of Goodis, whose early novels (like “Dark Passage,” made into a Bogart film) were published by Dutton and Morrow. It is certainly not of Woolrich. Simon & Schuster issued the first three “Black” novels. (He left that house when his sympathetic editor suggested he might want to work on one paragraph.) So prolific that he needed pseudonyms, he wrote under William Irish for Lippincott (“Phantom Lady,” “Deadline at Dawn”) and George Hopley, his middle names, for Farrar Rinehart (“Night Has a Thousand Eyes”). His six early “straight” novels had also been published by reputable firms. It’s one thing that sets him apart from Hammett, Cain and Chandler; they came up through the pulp magazines.

And unlike Hammett with the Continental Op, Chandler with Philip Marlowe and, for that matter, Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Woolrich had no continuing characters, no detective-hero whose adventures must end with him alive. Woolrich’s stand-alone stories necessarily left the reader in suspense about the ending, which could be happy, tragic or just plain perplexing. If there was one constant, it was that the anvil of Doom could crush the hero at any time. To a Woolrich protagonist, then, paranoia is just common sense.

The flip side of paranoia is persecution, sadism. Woolrich, after all, thought this stuff up and wrote it down. He devised and used those instruments of psychological torture — his stories.



NOIR

“Oh, it was so dark along this street. Just that hooded, half-dimmed light on the other side, too far behind me to do any good any more. Looking downward into the little pool of its own reflection, like a discreetly retiring eye refusing to see what happened to me.... A car passed once in a while, but even that was nothing, just a swift black shape hastening along on the black tide with a glint of silver at its prow.” —Woolrich’s “Black Angel,” 1943

In a review of Woolrich’s first identifiable crime novel, a critic for the Pittsburgh Press wrote: “If you can imagine Alfred Hitchcock writing a novel the way he directs a movie, then you have some idea of the drama and breathless suspense of ‘The Bride Wore Black.’” This was in 1940, the year of Hitchcock’s American debut film, “Rebecca.” Nevins cites this comment as the first connection of two masters of suspense, who would collaborate, by remote control, in 1954 with “Rear Window.”

More important than suspense to Woolrich, though, was his characters’ gnawing anguish. Hitchcock dealt in the “transference of guilt” that allowed an innocent man to be thought culpable. Woolrich dealt in the escalation of guilt, where the not-quite-innocent stumbled into traps that punished guilty and innocent alike. This sounds less like Hitchcock’s thrillers of unease and more like an even darker Hollywood genre.

Is Cornell Woolrich the godfather of film noir? Some piquant arguments can be made in support of that proposition. Consider:

1. Woolrich’s first true crime novel, “The Bride Wore Black,” was published in 1940. Thirteen of his novels and short stories had been adapted for films by the end of the 40s, the decade when the bleak moral and visual tone of crime melodramas were codified into what eventually became known as film noir. (But not in Hollywood. Not then. As critic Richard T. Jameson has noted, if Nicholas Ray ran into Joseph Losey on the RKO lot at the time, he wouldn’t have said, “So, you’re working on a film noir?”) No 40s masterpieces were spun from Woolrich’s s oeuvre, but at least three B+ suspensers were: “Phantom Lady,” “No Man of Her Own” (based on the novel “I Married a Dead Man”) and “The Window” (from his story “Fire Escape,” also known as “The Boy Cried Murder”).

2. “The Bride Wore Black” does have a detective-hero on a traditional quest. He tracks the righteous, serial-killing heroine of the title, who goes about eliminating five men she blames for the death of her husband on their wedding day. And, like Hercule Poirot (or Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe), he not only nabs the murderess but reveals a plot twist that surprises her and the reader. After that, Woolrich started breaking rules. The detectives or cops in ”Phantom Lady,” “Fire Escape,” “I Married a Dead Man” and “Nightmare” and “Black Angel” (two more Woolrich tales filmed in the 40s) usually serve only two minor functions: to deride or try to block the hero’s quest and, when the mystery is finally solved, to validate the hero’s initial intuition. In “Rear Window,” the police lieutenant played by Wendell Corey has this same drab task. He’s nothing more than the cop on the beat, telling the hero to move along, then congratulating him for successfully completing a job the cop should have done.

3. Woolrich not only dislodged the detective from his traditional pedestal — as the solver of the puzzle, the good guy who nabs the bad guy, the knight on the mean streets, the arbiter of ethics, the reader’s surrogate whose very presence is a guarantee of narrative clarity and the restoration of order in the chaotic world of crime — but challenged the very notions of hero and quest. Now the hero could be the villain, or the dupe; the quest itself could prove to be deranged, as the moral moorings of standard detective fiction fall away. That dark view was reflected in the humid nightscapes of film noir cinematography, just as Woolrich’s tilt of perspective was mirrored in the movies’ oblique camera angles and paranoid worldview.

4. Who done it? Who cares? (Nevins decides that it’s finally impossible to know who the murderer is in “I Married a Dead Man.”) Granted, the identity of killers was not something every crime writer paid attention to; Raymond Chandler acknowledged that even he didn’t know who killed the chauffeur in “The Big Sleep.” But Woolrich pretty much dispensed altogether with the ratiocination of traditional crime fiction. The point was to show a web of doom enfolding the fly. The identity of the spider — best friend? bitter woman? Fate? blind chance? — didn’t matter to him. It did matter to the film adapters of his work; they often invented other murderers, different motivations.

5. The thriller novels that Woolrich published under his own name beginning in 1940 and continuing through the decade — “The Bride Wore Black,” “The Black Curtain,” “Black Alibi,” “Black Angel,” “The Black Path of Fear” and “Rendezvous in Black” — were known informally as the black series. In French, serie noire. In 1945 the Paris publisher Gallimard introduced a thriller line, including many translations of U.S. tough-guy fiction, and dubbed it Serie Noire. Some Woolrich novels were among the titles issued. The following year, as Lee Horsley notes in his book “The Noir Thriller,” “the French critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier wrote the two earliest essays to identify a departure in film-making, the American ‘film noir.’”

6. From that bleak soil sprang many of the impulses used by French filmmakers of the 40s and their wayward children, the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who became New Wave directors. They revered Hitchcock (Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer all did books on the director) and plundered American pulp for their movies. Chabrol, who would build a career on elegant domestic crime films, adapted Stanley Ellin’s “The Key to Nicholas Street” into “A Double Tour” / “Web of Passion” in 1960. Jean-Luc Godard said he was trying to make “a normal gangster film” with his spiky debut feature “Breathless,” which he dedicated to Monogram, the defunct U.S. cheapie studio. Godard based “Band à Part” on a Dolores Hitchens crime novel, and “Pierrot le Fou” on a Lionel White. Truffaut’s “Hitchcockian” films were really esoteric pulp films, from his second feature “Shoot the Piano Player” (from the David Goodis novel “Down There”) to his last, “Confidentially Yours” (from Charles Williams’ “The Long Saturday Night”). In 1968-69 he did his two Woolrich adaptations.

But did the film-noir moniker come from Woolrich’s favorite word for his novel titles? Not really. Gallimard launched its Serie Noire as a complement to its earlier Serie Blanche; and the black series didn’t publish a Woolrich translation until after the film-noir phrase was coined. But there was certainly a strong family resemblance between these haunted movies and the Woolrich novels’ notion of fate — as a pair of strong hands choosing victims nearly at random and tightening its grip around their windpipes.



ODDS

Even Woolrich’s fans complained about his novels’ impossible set-ups and implausible resolutions. They were like a cocktail party full of double martinis, or an night of wild illicit sex: it’s great while it’s going on, but in the morning you feel sick, confused or angry. The premise of “I Married a Dead Man” is that, on a train, a hapless pregnant woman meets another woman, also pregnant but happily in love, who is traveling with her new husband to meet his parents for the first time; and that, just as the first woman has put the second woman’s wedding ring on her finger, the train crashes, killing the happy bride and her husband; and further that the survivor is mistakenly identified as the dead woman and warmly embraced by the bereaved family. What are the odds all that would occur?

The twist in “The Bride Wore Black” depends on what the novel’s detective calls “a freak of timing that wouldn’t have happened again in a hundred years” — that, at the exact moment a sniper was pulling the trigger of his rifle to shoot the bride’s husband as he left a church across the street, a car would career past and backfire to muffle the sound of the fire rifle; and that the bride would then mistake the five innocent men in the car for her husband’s murderer, and track them down, without being informed by the detective that he was on the track of the real killer. What are the freakin’ odds?

Fredric Dannay, the crime writer (he was half of Ellery Queen) and editor, and a Woolrich supporter who generously reprinted many of his early stories and published his later, lamer ones, was obliged to remark on the “long march of implausibility” in his friend’s novels. Nevins agrees that, “As a technical plot craftsman he is sloppy beyond endurance.” But, trying harder, he works up a labyrinthine rationale for these strings of coincidences and lapses of reason. He says that, in the Woolrich universe, life is unfair, death comes without knocking to the innocent and guilty and alike. Does life outside fairy tales and detective fiction have happy or even sensible endings? No. Woolrich’s nightscape is not paranoid; it’s realistic. It’s a place, just like ours, where, Nevins says, “logic doesn’t exist.”

Chandler took a middle position. In a letter to his publisher Blanche Knopf, he declared of “Phantom Lady” that it “has one of those artificial trick plots and is full of small but excessive demands on the Goddess of Chance.” But that ultimately wasn’t crucial to Chandler. He called the book “a swell job of writing, one that gives everything to every character, ever scene and never, like so many of our overrated novelists, just flushes the highlights and then gets scared and runs. I happen to admire this kind of writing very much.... it is the pace that counts, not the logic or the plausibility or the style.”

Woolrich, for all his ingenuity, often dealt from a standard deck of mystery-novel tropes, like the fatal ace of spades that cues doom in “Black Alibi” and “Waltz into Darkness.” Threatening or dishonest telegrams, or anonymous notes pushed under the door, set several plots pinwheeling. Innocent men are convicted and condemned to die with such regularity, you’d think they were black.

Then there’s the leg-injury motif, which stretched the length of Woolrich’s career. Alan Walker, the metaphorically-surnamed hero of Woolrich’s first novel, “Cover Charge,” is crippled in a car accident on his wedding night. Pauline Foy, heroine of the 1931 “The Time of Her Life,” is injured in a car crash and (Nevins notes) “undergoes a leg operation with only a cigarette as an anesthetic.” Jeff Jeffries, hero of the story later known as “Rear Window,” has broken a leg and is defenseless against the murderer he has spotted across the courtyard and who is just this moment entered Jeff’s apartment. I haven’t read “For the Rest of Her Life,” the last Woolrich story to be published in his lifetime, but in Fassbinder’s film version, “Martha,” the main character is injured in a car accident. In the hospital someone says, “She’ll never walk again.”

And now, a last vignette from Woolrich’s gnarled, noirish life...

In 1967, because of “an ill-fitting shoe,” he developed gangrene in one leg. Instead of having it treated, he bore the pain by drinking himself into a stupor. When he finally sought medical advice, it was too late: the leg had to be amputated above the knee. He died within the year.

Honestly, what are the odds?


NEXT TIME: Woolrich on screen