That Old Feeling: Fear Noir

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In 1947 Cornell Woolrich, the famous mystery writer, received a fan letter from his old Columbia University professor Mark Van Doren, complimenting him on the movie adapted from his novel “Black Angel.” Woolrich replied that he’d seen the film in a Manhattan theater and added, “I was so ashamed when I came out of there. All I could keep thinking of in the dark was: Is that what I wasted my whole life at?”

Twenty years later, just before his death in 1968, Woolrich remembered one thing about “Rear Window,” the most famous movie made from his fiction (which his agent had sold to Hollywood, along with five other stories, for a measly $5,000). “Hitchcock wouldn’t even send me a ticket to the premiere in New York,” the writer told his young agent, Barry Malzberg. “He knew where I lived. He wouldn’t even send me a ticket.”

Woolrich knew he was trading power for solvency when he sold his work to other media. In many years, film, radio and later TV versions of his work brought in the bulk of his income. In the 1940s he wrote 11 novels; Hollywood filmed eight of them within three years of their publication. True, Woolrich was not consulted when screenwriters gave his plots different endings (“No Man of Her Own”), different murderers (“Black Angel”). Authors rarely were then. Shakespeare and the Bible got rewritten with the same blithe abandon.

The fact is that Woolrich’s rep rests largely on the movies, good or bad, made from his fiction. Here, then is a festival of Woolrich films spanning seven decades and five countries. Most of the movies are available for purchase online, or can be rented from I found all but two in three Manhattan video stores (World of Video, Kim’s and, for the Indian film, Naghma House). A Woolrich starter set would comprise “Phantom Lady,” “The Window,” “No Man of Her Own,” “Rear Window,” “The Bride Wore Black,” “Kati Patang,” “Martha” and “Original Sin.”

If you have the video resources, get different versions of the same novel: François Truffaut’s adaptation of “Waltz into Darkness” and Michael Cristofer’s. Or the four films made from “I Married a Dead Man”: the Hollywood “No Man of Her Own,” the Indian “Kati Patang,” the French “J’ai épousé une ombre” and the Canadian-U.S. “Mrs. Winterbourne.” Compare and contrast, class.

These movies will introduce the novice to all manner of Woolrich obsessions. The hero who sees things no one believes (“Phantom Lady,” “Fear Is the Night,” “Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” “The Window,” “Martha”). The heroine whom love drives to deception (“No Man of Her Own”), murder (“The Bride Wore Black,” “Mississippi Mermaid”) or near-death (“Martha”). The obtuse cop (“Phantom,” “Black Angel,” “Fear,” “Thousand Eyes,” “The Window,” “Rear Window”). The letter with ominous news (“No Man,” “Rear,” “Mermaid”). The murderous or suicidal impulses on an el platform or train overpass (“Phantom,” “Thousand,” “The Window,” “No Man”). The race to prevent an innocent person’s death (“Phantom,” “Angel,” “Thousand”) — which, Woolrich made clear, was only a reprieve from the irrevocable death sentence we all live under.

Get a few of these movies, settle into the easy chair of modest expectations, suspend disbelief at crucial moments and fall into the vicarious nightmare of Woolrich’s fear noir.

Phantom Lady, 1944
Screenplay by Bernard Schoenfeld, from the 1942 novel by William Irish (CW)
Directed by Robert Siodmak

Man walks into a bar, starts talking to a tense woman in a hat with an elaborate feather; invites her to a Broadway show because he’s been stood up by his wife and has an extra ticket; agrees to her condition of anonymity; leaves her at the bar after the show; arrives home to find his wife dead and himself the main suspect. Who’s his alibi? Dunno. Where does she live? Couldn’t say. Did anyone see them at the time of the murder? Sure, lots of people — but none of them seems to remember the phantom lady. Innocence betrayed meets the no-name sex of a million quickie assignations. When he’s convicted of the crime, only his secretary and his best friend are interested in solving the murder.

In the first eight mins., Siodmak and Schoenfeld efficiently construct a gallows due for our rancorous architect hero, Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis). The pickup, the revue they attend, the four people who noticed them — the bartender, the cab driver, the Carmen Miranda-style star of the show and her hepped-up drummer — are sharply sketched, with lots of oblique camera angles and warning shadows. The men waiting for Scott when he arrives home don’t bother to introduce themselves; are they thugs, or unknown suitors for Mrs. H.? They are detectives of the brutish sort Woolrich often painted: the menacing fatso (Thomas Gomez) and the wise-cracking sadist (Regis Toomey). Gomez: “Your wife was strangled with one of your ties.” Toomey: “Yeah. Knotted so tight it had to be cut loose with a knife.”

But Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines), the right-hand gal who’s obviously in love with her boss, has a deep Nancy Drew streak. She suspects that the people who saw Scott and the woman have been paid or intimidated to keep quiet; her mission is to try scaring or seducing them into talking. Her first mark is the bartender. She sits at the bar silently for several nights and spooks him into first planning to push her off the el platform and then fatally rushing into traffic.

The next one, the drummer Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), has a yen for hot jazz, fast women and funny cigarettes. Carol catches his wild eye with a perfunctory kiss or two and the promise that “I’m a hep kitten!” In a jam session with other sweating, hopped-up jazzmen — the film’s most famous scene — Cliff beats the skins in a masturbatory delirium. She accompanies him back to his seedy apartment, gives him another kiss and a brief lap-sit and ankles when he admits he was paid off.

The novel’s suspense came from its withholding of the news that [SPOILER ALERT] Scott’s upper-class friend Jack Marlow is the killer. You can’t obscure the star till the end of the movie, so Schoenfeld and Siodmak don’t waste time trying. From the moment Marlow (Franchot Tone) enters Cliff’s dingy digs and mutters, “What a place. You can feel the rats in the walls,” he has pearly psychopath written all over him. Especially his hands, which poke out of the shadows into harsh light. “How interesting a pair of hands can be,” Marlow muses, as Cliff sits petrified. “They can trick a melody out of a keyboard. They can mold beauty out of a piece of common clay... Yet the same pair of hands can do terrible evil. They can destroy, torture, even kill.” He glares at Cliff and takes off his scarf...

Tone spends the rest of the movie clenching, kneading, staring at his hands; he’s a nutso-virtuoso, an Ormandy or Orlac, conducting a symphony ... of Mur-der! It may be tough to keep from laughing at Tone’s aristo-path, and harder to wave away the plot idiocies. (How did Jack commit the murder and then track Scott into the bar and shadow his every move, so that he would be able to contact and bribe the witnesses?) Clear these hurdles and you’ll enjoy the climax, as Jack invites Carol back to his place, loosens his bow tie and twists it in his hands as he contemplates his most beautiful murder. Sure, it means his pal will be executed. But “What’s his life to mine? What’s any life to mine?” Tone is the vulture soaring over the carrion of Curtis’ loser-hero, but Raines is the film’s rock — pretty, plucky, blithely reckless. She plays a nice girl who’s a jeopardy freak.

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