That Old Feeling: Fear Noir

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(3 of 6)

No Man of Her Own, 1950
Screenplay by Sally Benson and Catherine Tunney, from the 1948 novel “I Married a Dead Man” by William Irish (CW)
Directed by Mitchell Leisen

Helen (Barbara Stanwyck), a penniless pregnant woman who has been spurned by Steve (Lyle Bettger), the rotter she once loved, boards a train heading west. On the train she is befriended by a Hugh (Richard Denning) and Patrice (Phyllis Thaxter), a nice young couple are on their way to see his parents, she for the first time; Patrice, also pregnant, gives the hopeless woman her wedding ring to try on. Train crashes. Hugh and Patrice die. In a hospital, Helen gives birth to her baby. She is mistaken for Patrice and, quickly, accepted as her by the bereaving, loving parents (Henry O’Neill and Jane Cowl). For the sake of her child, she presses the charade and soon attracts the affections of the dead man’s decent, handsome brother (John Lund). Helen allows herself to be loved, to accompany him to a local society dance. Then a finger taps on the shoulder: “May I have this dance?” It’s Steve.

Even for Woolrich, that’s a pile-up, a virtual train wreck of coincidences. But it works, at least in this movie version (the first of at least four), because of the passion of the playing, the acuity of Leisen’s mood-setting and the power of a narrative suffused with dream and doom. The dream is that there’s a perfect world waiting to embrace the loneliest among us. The doom (cued in the first, sepulchral moments that introduce the film-long flashback) is that we’re charlatans, that people wouldn’t accept us if they knew who were really were, and that, any day now, we’ll be unmasked, caught, taken away from the dream we don’t deserve.

Stanwyck, one of the smartest actors to find stardom in Hollywood, played femmes fatales with sandpaper souls through most of the 40s. This time she must seem the forlorn victim, with no resources of sinew or cunning to save her — only the kindness of strangers. At 42, Stanwyck was 15 or 20 years too old for the part, yet in the first scenes she fairly glows with the misery of someone young enough to expect better of the world. She pounds Steve’s door but he won’t open it. He’s inside with another woman (Carole Mathews), who looks quite like the young, tough, blond Stanwyck. “Don’t ever try to brush me off like that,” she snarls.

Patrice and Hugh’s easy generosity stuns Helen, because the way they treat her is the opposite of the way life has. When she has her baby after the train wreck, she has her cause. It’s not a terrible deceit to take advantage of the family’s good nature; their idyllic town, Caulfield, is blessedly unreal, a dream, and who would arrest her for lying in a dream? What shakes her from this sweet sleepwalk is an anonymous telegram: “Who are you — where did you come from — what are you doing there —” Steve’s calling card.

The rotter, Steve, proposes an elaborate blackmail scheme: she has to marry him so he’ll inherit a third of the family wealth when the old folks die. Stanwyck’s face during the wedding ceremony, when she is asked if she’ll take Steve “as long as we both shall live,” is a marvel of malign conviction; the wedding vow is a death threat. Later, going to Steve’s place to kill him, she [SPOILER] finds him already dead. The brother has been tracking her; he dumps the body on a flatbed train chugging out of town, and the couple, now married, wait numbly for the knell of doom: a policeman’s knock on the door.

The movie is often fanatically faithful to the book, including the family’s phone number and the scene where the train pulls into Caulfield and through the window we see a sign with the town’s name revealed one letter at a time (D-L-E-I...). But the screenwriters had to devise an ending different from the book’s, where [SPOILER] Helen, her beau and his mother each takes blame for Steve’s murder, and all must be lying. So Benson and Tunney went to the short story (“They Call Me Patrice”) that Woolrich had expanded into his novel. There they found a more plausible, if less prominent killer: Steve’s baby-Stanwyck blond.

This solution was also used in the most recent version of the novel, the 1996 “Mrs. Winterbourne.” All you need to know is that, there, they play it for laffs. And that the role once taken by Barbara Stanwyck now falls to talk-show host Ricki Lake. To use a noir novel as the basis for a “While You Were Sleeping” wannabe comedy takes big steel balls, I guess, but there’s more nerve than verve here. The whole enterprise is suffocatingly sunny.

Rear Window, 1954
Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the 1942 story “It Had to Be Murder” / “Rear Window” by CW
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

“I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices... Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.”

From the start of “It Had to Be Murder” (available in the excellent collection of stories, most of them made into films or TV dramas, called “Rear Window”), Woolrich establishes his protagonist, Hal Jeffries, as a reluctant voyeur. He doesn’t want to sit in darkness watching people eat, argue. dance, dress, undress... but his leg’s in a cast, he’s not much of a reader, it’s a hot Manhattan summer with a breeze by the window, and if he leaves lights on they’ll attract insects. “Well, what should I do, sit there with my eyes tightly shuttered?” So he looks, and catches clues to what he thinks is a murder. Then the murderer pays a call on Jeff.

Adapting the story, Hayes and Hitchcock expanded its few snapshots of neighbors into a Woolrichian paranoia panorama: the songwriter from “Black Angel,” the dancer from “Phantom Lady,” the impish kid and fire-escape snoozers from “The Window,” the lovestruck newlyweds from “I Married a Dead Man” and, to be sure, the killer and killee from the entire canon. (As well as the hero who noses his way into fatal peril.) Those neighbors, bit players to Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff, are stars of their own silent movies; they mime love, flirtation, frustration, hatred, violence, all in long shot. And Jeff is the viewer, stuck in his chair like a moviegoer in his seat, watching (it was Woolrich’s original title:) murder from a fixed perspective. Since this Jeff is a professional photographer, he is also Hitchcock, choosing the shots, deciding what parts of the mystery are pertinent.

The film gives the crippled man “legs” — a support staff that can carry Jeff’s part of the story out of his Greenwich Village apartment and across the courtyard to the murderer’s flat, where they become characters in the movie Jeff is both watching and creating. This extended family comprises not just the standard skeptical cop friend (Wendell Corey) but a sassy maid (Thelma Ritter) who acts as the movie’s tut-tutting conscience: “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” Most important is Lisa (Grace Kelly), the sexy society girlfriend who engages him in some of the more mature and unresolved romantic debates in Hollywood movies.

Lisa’s main function is to snoop around and get in trouble, thus [SPOILER] leaving Jeff alone when the killer Thorwald (young Raymond Burr) appears in the dark. In trademark Hitchcock fashion, Jeff uses his props as weapons — he snaps blinding flashbulbs at Thorwald. Just two things. 1. In a small apartment, those flashes wouldn’t blunt the killer’s sense of direction; he knows pretty much where Jeff is. And 2. Jeff frequently gets a closeup look at Thorwald through his camera’s telephoto lens. Why didn’t he ever take photos of the incriminating evidence?

In a rehearsal for “Vertigo,” Stewart ends up dangling from a high ledge; and in the last shot we realize that the Stewart-Kelly romance is also still dangling. The movie is a smoothly-told fable of the pleasures and pitfalls of voyeurism — how watching something can shorten your life. It was also, in 1954, an instant anachronism. Neither “Rear Window” nor “The Window” could not have existed in the age of air conditioning.

The Bride Wore Black, 1968
Screenplay by François Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard, from the 1940 novel by CW
Directed by Truffaut

A woman tracks down five men, one by one, determined to kill them for the crime she believes they committed: the murder of her husband on their wedding day. Julie, the crepe-draped bride of Woolrich’s first real crime novel, has a majestic grief. This avenging angel earns the reader’s sympathy as she locates her victims, plays the role of each man’s dream woman and dispatches them with brutal elegance. Her obsession is attractive but [SPOILER] murderously misguided, since the men were not her husband’s killers. A sniper across the street was. And her husband wasn’t the paragon she believed him to be; he’d been in a shady business deal with the man who killed him.

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