The Nightmare World of Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die

A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Mystery Review, Winter, 1996.

To read Cornell Woolrich is to enter the nightmare mind of a man whose life story was as bizarre as anything he wrote. Born Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich in December 1903, this son of an engineer father and socialite mother would become one of the most prolific and popular of the pulp fiction writers of the 1930s and 40s. When his parents divorced, the young Cornell spent most of his childhood in Mexico with his father but by adolescence he was living with his mother in a love-hate relationship that would dominate the rest of his life and provide the emotional wellspring for his claustrophobic tales of paranoia and fear. He left her briefly in 1930 to marry the daughter of a Hollywood producer, but the marriage was soon over, most likely because of his homosexuality - she discovered a diary detailing his affairs with men - and he was soon back in Manhattan with his mother.

By this time he had written two novels, both heavily influenced by his authorial idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first was Cover Charge (1926) and the second, Children of the Ritz (1927), won him a $10,000 prize and a contract for movie rights from First National Pictures (it was made into a film in 1929). By 1934 he had written three more novels but had gone through most of his money. He began writing mystery-suspense fiction, easily selling his stories to pulp magazines and quickly establishing himself on the pages of Black Mask, Detective Fiction and Dime Detective. He sold more than 100 stories and novelettes to the pulps during the 1930s and developed the themes that would forever be associated with his name. Claustrophobia. Entrapment. Paranoia. Menace. Doom. With titles that aptly reflected those themes: Speak to Me of Death, Men Must Die, If I Should Die Before I Wake and You'll Never See Me Again.

His heroes were victims, often accused of crimes they didn't commit (Phantom Lady, The Black Angel), or driven to commit crimes because of grief, despair and injustice (The Bride Wore Black, I Married a Dead Man). In The Black Curtain, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Deadline at Dawn, fear of the unknown, a sense of menacing doom, and the race against time and destiny send his characters down paths of ever-increasing desperation until they are either consumed by it or released from it by some equally inexplicable force. His heroes are often society's most defenceless members, children, women and the unemployed. They frequently suffer from blackouts or amnesia, are subject to mistaken identity or are, quite simply, not believed.

According to Woolrich's biographer, Francis Nevins (Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, New York: The Mysterious Press, 1988):

"Woolrich has no peers when it comes to putting us inside the life of a frightened little guy in a tiny apartment with no money, no job, a hungry wife and children, and anxiety consuming him like a cancer. If a Woolrich protagonist is in love, the beloved is likely to vanish in such a way that the protagonist not only can't find her but can't convince anyone that she ever existed."

In 1940, Woolrich wrote The Bride Wore Black, his first suspense novel and the first in a series of books with "black" in the title. These early novels were a primary influence on the French roman noir genre and their film adaptations were seminal works in the development of film noir, the bleak Hollywood crime movies of the 1940s. A number of Woolrich's stories and novels have been made into films and radio and television plays - by the end of the 1940s, thirteen of his novels and short stories had been adapted into films - a fact perhaps not widely known because some of his books appeared under his two pseudonyms, William Irish and George Hopley.

The William Irish imprint first appeared on Phantom Lady (1942), considered by some to be Woolrich's masterpiece. It is the story of a man awaiting execution for the murder of his wife. In a race against time, his secretary and his best friend search desperately for an apparently non-existent woman who can provide him with an alibi. The book was made into a film in 1944, starring Franchot Tone and Ella Raines. The movie follows Woolrich half the way, creating an atmosphere of menace and doom, but then changes direction and becomes clichéd. The murderer is portrayed as a caricature of a "mad artist" complete with overdone gestures and melodramatic delusions of grandeur. Only the visual style of the film stays true to the noir spirit of Woolrich's story.

Director Robert Siodmak was praised (by critic Tom Milne) for "creating a somber world of wet streets, dingy offices, low-ceilinged bars, crowded lunch counters and deserted railroad platforms, all unified in an atmosphere of heightened realism in which the expressive quality of the image is due entirely to lighting and composition." The film was a breakthrough for both Woolrich's haunting noir style and Robert Siodmak's reputation as a director of film noir.

Deadline at Dawn appeared in 1944 and was made into a film of the same name in 1946, starring a swell young Susan Hayward and Bill Williams who later became television's Kit Carson. The film is less successful than the novel, taking a wonderfully taut suspense story of two young people in a race against time and layering it with invented characters who accumulate and clutter the story like a ten-car pileup clutters the highway. Directed by Harold Clurman and written by Clifford Odets (better known for their work in New York's Group Theater), it tries to have meaning where there is none, to make sense of a senseless world.

One of the better films made from a Woolrich story is The Window (1949), based on a 1947 novelette called "The Boy Cried Murder," about a young boy who witnesses a murder but can't get anyone to believe him. Although considered a "B" movie, The Window has a vivid performance by Bobby Driscoll as the boy who is prone to telling tall tales and has "cried wolf" once too often. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff (cinematographer on Hitchcock's Notorious) and starring Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy as the parents, the film makes us experience the helplessness of the child as we witness his complete lack of control over events. The child is terrified he will be killed. What Woolrich is telling us is that no one can protect us, the world is an evil place and we are right to be afraid.

Child actor Bobby Driscoll, who received an Academy Juvenile Award for his role, could not sustain his career into adulthood. On March 30, 1968, two young boys found his body in an East Village tenement where he had died from heart failure after years of drug abuse. He remained unidentified for more than a year after his death when a fingerprint match was finally made.

I Married a Dead Man (1948) is another William Irish novel that was made into a film. The book was Woolrich's last major novel and one of the many he wrote from a female perspective. (These include The Bride Wore Black, Phantom Lady, The Black Angel, Deadline at Dawn, Night Has a Thousand Eyes and a number of short stories.) A pregnant woman fleeing her sadistic lover switches identities with another pregnant woman after she and her husband have been killed in a train wreck. She makes a new life for herself when she and her child are taken in by the dead husband's family and even falls in love with his brother. But in Woolrich's senseless and cruel universe, things don't always work out. What seems like a one-in-a-million second chance turns into a nightmare when the woman's lover returns and is murdered. The spectre of the unsolved murder hangs over the couple's happiness like a Los Angeles smog and they begin to sink into paranoia, mutual suspicion and mistrust.

"I don't know what the game was. I'm not sure how it should be played. No one ever tells you. I only know we must have played it wrong, somewhere along the way. I don't even know what the stakes are. I only know they're not for us."

By the time Paramount pictures got through making the movie, it had become a "woman's weepie," in the jargon of the day. Released in 1950 as No Man of Her Own starring Barbara Stanwyck and John Lund, the movie begins with a pervasive sense of anxiety but, in the end, has all the blackness of Woolrich's novel wrung out of it and is hung out to dry in the sunshine like newly laundered sheets. The novel ends with the woman's quiet despair: "We've lost. That's all I know. We've lost. And now the game is through." But Stanwyck and Lund are saved from a future of torment by a last-minute confession from a minor character - a cop-out ending from Mitchell Leisen, one of Hollywood's most sophisticated directors.

In 1983 a French version, J'ai épousé une ombre (I Married a Shadow) starring Nathalie Baye and directed by Robin Davis, transforms the novel - a story of blackmail and deception - into a tale of love and redemption. All is revealed in the film and all is forgiven. The victims of Woolrich's gloomy desperation are allowed a happy ending, something the author would never have envisioned.

In perhaps the most famous film from Woolrich's work, Rear Window (1954), based on a 1942 novella, "It Had To Be Murder," and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart is confined to his apartment with a broken leg and spends his idle hours spying on his neighbors with a pair of binoculars and a telephoto lens. When he believes he has witnessed a murder, he is unable to convince anyone and, like Tommy in The Window, he begins to fear for his own life and discovers just how vulnerable he is to the forces of evil.

In Rear Window Hitchcock stayed true to the details of Woolrich's story but expanded the characters and relationships, adding color and personality where Woolrich has none. He shot the film in color, added a roster of oddball neighbors, a luscious and willing girlfriend played by Grace Kelly, a wisecracking nurse / housekeeper played by Thelma Ritter, and an ineffectual, disbelieving cop friend played by Wendell Cory. Instead of a faceless cipher without a history, Hal Jeffries (Stewart) becomes a complex individual who's a professional photographer, thereby justifying his use of a telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors. The film is cinematic and satisfying and according to Nevins, "richer, lighter, deeper, less obsessive and claustrophobic but no less suspenseful."

François Truffaut paid homage to Hitchcock in his 1967 film adaptation of The Bride Wore Black (1940) in which a young bride sets out to avenge her bridegroom's seemingly senseless murder on their wedding day. She tracks down the five men she believes were responsible and destroys them one by one. The book's characterizations are limited and plot driven, and the ending piles irony upon irony in a less than credible resolution. But Truffaut has used techniques similar to Hitchcock, shooting in color, fleshing out the characters, using a lush score composed by one of Hitchcock's favorites, Bernard Herrman, and achieving the same end as Woolrich intended. A woman's obsessed and fanatical crusade ultimately leads to her destruction.

A similar fate befalls the character in The Black Angel (1943), the story of a woman's desperate attempt to prove her husband's innocence after he has been sentenced to death for the murder of his mistress. She tracks down four men in the victim's life, one of whom she suspects may be the real murderer, and systematically destroys them. In the end, her obsession becomes madness and she has ruined her own life along with her victims' lives to save her philandering husband.

Black Angel is considered by many to be a film noir classic, one of the best of the genre. Directed by Roy William Neill in 1946, the film attempts to remain true to the noir spirit of the book but changes a number of story points, drops a character, and combines two others. In a poignant and un-Woolrich twist, the real killer falls in love with the avenging wife and tries to save her wrongly accused husband. Richard Corliss of Time magazine (Dec. 16, 2003) wrote:

"Black Angel the movie uses only the situation, not the soul, of the original. It de-kinks the novel's plot - just who is the black angel here anyway? - and the result is a B-minus remake of Phantom Lady."

 

Woolrich saw the film at the urging of Mark Van Doren, a Columbia University professor, and hated it. He wrote to Van Doren in 1947:

"I was so ashamed when I came out of there ... it took me two or three days to get over it. All I could keep thinking of in the dark was: Is that what I wasted my whole life at?"

Despite the fact that the film adaptations of his work fell short of the mark thematically, Woolrich gave film noir its ironic detachment, narrow emotional range, character manipulation, grim urban settings and almost unbearable tension. According to movie reviewer Richard Corliss (Time, Dec. 08, 2003):

"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 noircinematography, just as Woolrich's tilt of perspective was mirrored in the movies' oblique camera angles and paranoid worldview."

If Woolrich's body of work gave Hollywood's noir films of the 1940s their stylish visual language, then the Black Mask style of pulp writing most vividly illustrated his themes. That writing was picturesque yet colloquial, a kind of casual speech that was real and immediate. According to Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir (Oak Tree Publications, May 1981):

"The use of language in these crime stories was part of a larger revolution in written language, with its roots in the 19thcentury, in the work particularly of Mark Twain, Henry James and Walt Whitman who ... sought to introduce the sounds and rhythms of vernacular American speech into literature."

Hirsch considers Woolrich to be a better storyteller than either Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler and "a master in building and sustaining tension." Woolrich could slow the narrative to a crawl by piling detail upon detail and obsessively describing every aspect of the physical reality confronting both character and reader, thus postponing the inevitable until the maximum degree of suspense had been achieved. Hirsch goes on to say:

"Woolrich was enormously popular in the 40s, and though he continues to have a loyal following, he has not received his full recognition as a skilful popular artist ... a writer with a distinct moral vision, dark and unsettling, and streaked with flashes of mordant comedy."

 

When he died in 1968 from the effects of a stroke, diabetes and alcoholism, Cornell Woolrich left behind a million dollars and a body of work that surely spoke as much of the man himself as it did of his talent. The writer, who lived in a terrifying world of paranoia, shadowed always by a sense of menacing doom, referred to his writing as a "form of subconscious self-expression ... I don't bother trying to find out what causes it."

Novels (as listed on wikipedia.org)

Cover Charge (1926)

Children of the Ritz (1927)

Times Square (1929)

A Young Man's Heart (1930)

The Time of Her Life (1931)

Manhattan Love Song (1932)

The Bride Wore Black (1940)

The Black Curtain (1941)

The Black Alibi (1942)

Phantom Lady (1942, as William Irish)

The Black Angel (1943)

The Black Path of Fear (1944)

Deadline at Dawn (1944, as William Irish)

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945, as George Hopley)

Waltz into Darkness (1947, as William Irish)

Rendezvous in Black (1948)

I Married a Dead Man (1948, as William Irish)

Savage Bride (1950)

Fright (1950, as George Hopley)

Marihuana (1951)

You'll Never See Me Again (1951)

Strangler's Serenade (1951, as William Irish)

Hotel Room (1958)

Death is My Dancing Partner (1959)

The Doom Stone (1960, previously serialized in Argosy 1939)

Into the Night (1987, an unfinished manuscript finished by Lawrence Block)

Selected films based on Woolrich stories (wikipedia.org)

Original Sin (2001) (novel Waltz into Darkness)

Union City (1980) (short story "The Corpse Next Door")

Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972) (novel Rendezvous in Black)

Mississippi Mermaid (1969) (novel Waltz into Darkness)

The Bride Wore Black (1968) (novel)

Nightmare (1956) (novel)

Rear Window (1954) (story "It Had to Be Murder")

No Man of Her Own (1950) (novel I Married a Dead Man)

The Window (1949) (story "The Boy Who Cried Murder")

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) (novel)

I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948) (novel)

The Return of the Whistler (1948) (story)

Fear in the Night (1948) (story "Nightmare," as William Irish)

The Guilty (1947) (story "He Looked Like Murder")

Fall Guy (1947) (story "Cocaine")

The Chase (1946) (novel The Black Path of Fear)

Black Angel (1946 film) (novel)

Deadline at Dawn (1946) (novel, as William Irish)

The Mark of the Whistler (1944) (story)

Phantom Lady (1944) (novel, as William Irish)

The Leopard Man (1943) (novel Black Alibi)