UN VOYAGE DANS LES TENEBRES: Week 4 – Woe is Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich is like one of those old friends from school who you run into on the street after thirty years and you stop for coffee and he looks like he hasn’t washed thoroughly in a year and there’s something horribly wrong with his leg and he tends to mutter and he literally creeps you out so much that you shiver and avert your eyes while he ravishes his bear claw and you think that you have done your duty and you never have to see this mug again and then you’re standing outside the Starbucks and he reaches out his spindly hand to shake yours and you’re trying to decide if you’ll catch something from touching his hand when a safe falls from the top floor of the building and he reaches out and pulls you out of the way so now you owe him a favor and he wants to go to dinner and what do you do?!?

When Francis Nevins wrote his biography of Woolrich, he titled it First You Dream, Then You Die. I mean, it sounds like the title of a film noir, doesn’t it, of which plenty were adapted from Woolrich’s stories and novels. Even a cursory look at Woolrich’s existence is the stuff that nightmares are made of: he was a man so full of inner demons that even at the height of success he lived a life of rot – and I mean rot, of the moral, emotional and physical kind. 

The reason I owe Cornell Woolrich at least a cup of good coffee and a bear claw is because of the short story he wrote in 1942, “It Had To Be Murder,” which was adapted in 1954 by Alfred Hitchcock into a little picture called Rear Window – which happens to be my favorite film of all time! Ironically, it’s one of the least Woolrich-like tales I’ve come across, (and admittedly I’ve read almost none). It’s very straightforward, for one thing, and it ends happily with no long-lasting ill effects. (Well, things don’t go so well for the neighbor’s wife . . . ) I would even hazard an opinion that when Hitchcock got his hands on it, he made it more Woolrich-ian, adding a passel of troubled neighbors to reflect the troubled relationship between the hero and his girl (a girl who’s not even in the story!)

Each window tells a story! (Watch the man in the bottom corner especially . . . )

Rear Window has more than a little significance to introducing the author because Woolrich’s extraordinary life was both instigated and sidetracked by his own pedal infirmities. As a college student at Columbia University in 1921, he contracted an illness that gave him a gangrenous foot; holed up in his lodging, he decided to write and came up with his first novel. Cut to the late 50’s-early 60’s, where Woolrich gives himself a foot infection due to his wearing too-tight shoes. The foot is amputated, and he spends the rest of his life sitting in the lobby of his hotel in a wheelchair (just like L. B. Jeffries) and watching the world go by. 

In between these incidents is a life of literary successes (although most of his novels remain out of print due to estate issues) and failures (he crashed badly when he went to Hollywood). Although success as a screenwriter eluded him, his work inspired others to craft a highly enjoyable list of film nightmares. And through it all, first the novels of 1920’s life that have been compared to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, then the meteoric rise in the world of pulps and mystery, then the fame of having his name associated with one successful film after another, Woolrich lived with his mother in New York dive hotels, drank himself into alcoholism and brooded about his homosexuality. And when Momma died, Cornell really let go. 

The 1940’s alone – which is the decade my film noir class is concerned with – produced a litany of mystery and horror classics, like The Leopard Man (1943), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Fear in the Night (1947), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), and The Window (1949), the last of which features perhaps the youngest suffering noir protagonist of all time. (He’s twelve and he was played by Bobby Driscoll, a child actor whose ultimate fate could make for another noir.) We didn’t watch any of these, although I plan to rectify that matter – but in small doses, either with other people present or on sunny mornings. 

What we did watch are two films adapted from Woolrich’s novels, Phantom Lady and Black Angel. The novels came out in 1942 and ’43, respectively, and the film versions appeared in ’44 and ’46. They are essentially the same story featuring the same sort of hero – except it’s that rare occasion in noir where the hero is a heroine, a woman trying to save the man she loves from the gallows. Like many prolific authors, Woolrich reworked the same basic ideas over and over again with varying results. 

I have read neither book, but after listening to our instructor, Elliot Lavine, talk about the novel Black Angel, I can only imagine how difficult it was for the prudes of Hollywood to handle Woolrich’s material. What’s fascinating to me here is how different these two films are in matters of style and tone, despite the similarities in their plots. As you may imagine, our class could not agree on which film we liked more: Phantom Lady may be a case of style more than substance, and Black Angel might have the better plot. But look at the pictures below: Phantom Lady is beautifully throughout, and every picture I found of Black Angel looks pretty ordinary. I have to say I preferred the former, although I can’t say either one ranks as a favorite after several weeks of immersing myself in the world of noir. Still, they are both highly watchable, interesting films, well worth checking out.

*.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Phantom Lady begins as a typical noir by surrounding a likeable innocent man with a chain of horrible circumstances that threaten to tighten a noose around his neck. Engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) has a fight with his wife on their anniversary and goes to a bar to console himself. He sits down next to a strikingly dressed, attractive woman (Ann Terry) who acts as forlorn as he feels. He tries to commiserate with her and buys a drink for her from the bartender. (Witness #1: THE BARTENDER) Scott has bought a pair of tickets to the hottest review in town, and he invites the woman to see it with him. Although she would rather nurse her drink and keep replaying “I’ll Remember April” on the jukebox, she agrees to go – provided they remain on an anonymous basic all evening. They grab a cab (Witness #2: THE CAB DRIVER) and sit down in their great seats, right in front of the stage, where Miss X attracts both the lecherous attention of the drummer (Witness #3, played by none other than Elisha Cook, Jr.) and the fury of the show’s star (Witness #4, played by Aurora Miranda) because Miss X happens to be wearing the exact same one-of-a-kind hat. They enjoy the show, and Scott walks Miss X back to the bar where they met then hurries home – where he finds his wife has been murdered. 

Of course, Scott is arrested for the crime, but he has an alibi. Unfortunately, Miss X is nowhere to be found. Even more mysterious is the fact that the bartender, the cab driver, the drummer and the play’s star are all interviewed and swear that Scott was alone all evening. Before you can say “set-up,” Scott finds himself on death row. The hapless defendant has only two real friends: his best pal Jack Marlow, who unfortunately set sail for South America before all this occurred, and his secretary Carol “Kansas” Richman, played by Ella Raines, whose star peaked and fell rapidly one of those women whose career fell through the cracks up against other, more successful actresses. 

That’s too bad because Raines is terrific here, first as one person loyal to Scott (who is too distracted to see how much she loves him), then as a daring undercover detective willing to face great danger to find Miss X, confront those who have borne false witness, and save her innocent boss, and then as a vulnerable heroine when faced up against the real killer. 

That killer is played by Franchot Tone, which isn’t a spoiler because the first time we meet him, nearly halfway through the film, he kills one of the witnesses. Tone’s presence in this mystery is explained soon after, and while I’m sure most of you can and will guess it, I’ll leave it unspoken here. 

The real joy of Phantom Lady isn’t necessarily its plot which, aside from the rarity of a female protagonist, is pretty standard. What’s most exciting is the way director Robert Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell film Kansas’ investigation. The ways she goes about facing against each witness are bold, to say the least. The first one takes place in shadowy bars and creepy streets (her tail of the witness is a joy from start to finish, filmed without music so that the tap of each footstep ratchets up the suspense), but the highlight is when she goes after Cook, Jr.’s drummer, Cliff Milburn. This might be my favorite performance by the actor because it isn’t creepy at all. Rather, Cliff, like the musicians in Blues in the Night is a jazz fiend trapped playing a gig in musical theatre; he’s also a horny cuss, and his lust for Kansas burns in his eyes and builds dramatically when he takes her to a private session with some of his jazz friends. Here Raines matches Cook’s energy frame for frame because she’s got to if she’s going to save her man! 

Death Row has never looked more haunting

I buy every extreme touch that the filmmakers add when they’re focused around Raines. I’m less convinced by Tone’s version of a psychopath: you would think somebody would notice the endless number of times he stares at his hands and flexes them like a strangler or the increasing number of headaches and eye spasms he evinces in front of Raines. It doesn’t ruin things for me at all; in fact, I always thought Tone was a sort of bland hero, usually the “other man” in a series of comedies or mild dramas pairing him with his former wife, Joan Crawford. 

Speaking of women named Joan, the great claim to fame of Phantom Lady is that it was the first film produced by Joan Harrison, who cut her teeth as a writer working for Alfred Hitchcock. She may have been the most important woman in the director’s life after Alma, returning to produce all the incarnations of Hitchcock’s TV series. He certainly had an influence on Harrison’s abilities to generate suspense, and she continued to produce (and sometimes write) some fine noirmysteries and TV series for the rest of her illustrious career. 

*.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Although Franchot Tone would get top billing as the biggest star, despite having a relatively small role as the villain, Ella Raines is the clear leading player of Phantom Lady. In Black Angel, June Vincent occupies the same place in the story, and yet she is perhaps the least interesting character. The film begins with the murder of Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), who feels like the kind of vicious nymph we wish we could have spent more time with. Before her death, we witness a small swarm of men circling around her apartment: her ex-husband, alcoholic pianist/composer Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) stands frustratedly outside, unable to get past the doorman. Nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) has no such trouble as we see him enter and go up the elevator. Finally, there is Kirk Bennett (John Phillips), one of Mavis’ shattered lovers who comes upon her dead body and then acts like a guilty man in every way possible, touching the weapon and running away in sight of Mavis’ loyal maid. 

While investigating Martin Blair, Catherine learns that after being kicked out of Mavis’ neighborhood, he went on a bender and was rescued by a friend who took him back to his rooming house and locked him in his room to sleep it off. (The guy actually has a padlock attached outside his door.) Convinced of his innocence, Catherine teams up with Martin, and they go undercover to investigate their Number One suspect, Marko. 

I confess that I love Peter Lorre in every non-horror film in which he appears. His Marko is so different from Joel Cairo (The Maltese Falcon) or Signor Ugarte (Casablanca) that you can’t help but be impressed with his range. Here he plays a womanizing gangster-ish club owner throwing his weight around with the guys and trying to trap Catherine into an affair with casual ease. He might be the best thing about Black Angel

Dan Duryea’s performance seemed to meet with more controversy among my classmates, but I really liked him here. He stares longingly at a bottle almost as many times as, say, Franchot Tone flexes his fingers, but he is sympathetic throughout, a rarity from an actor who almost always played the villain, no matter what the genre. Ultimately, the film belongs to him, as his willingness to help Catherine (and fall in love with her at the same time) causes the circle of noirish tragedy to tighten around him.  The most intriguingly filmed section of the movie occurs near the climax and centers around Duryea. We have cinematographer Paul Ivano and director Roy William Neill (who, in a lengthy career, made a great many mysteries, including eleven of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films) to thank for a nightmarish sequence that rivals the depiction of an alcoholic made the year before in The Lost Weekend

Maybe I was less enthused over June Vincent than I was for Ella Raines because Vincent has a more thankless task as a loyal wife defending her louse of a husband. More likely her portrayal of innate goodness simply couldn’t stand up to the far more interesting roles of the men she is up against. According to Elliot, the character in the book sinks to frighteningly low depths to save her husband, committing acts that the film censors of the time would have never allowed. Maybe we have the Hays Code to blame for it all. I don’t know Vincent’s work: she’s another actress who, like Raines, made a number of mostly “B” movies in the 40’s and 50’s and then disappeared. 

Dan Duryea, June Vincent and Peter Lorre

 I do find it interesting that here we have two of the rare noirs where the heroes are women, and yet the main interest is still in the male characters. The women aren’t brought down by circumstances like the men are. Whether this is due to the constraints of 1940’s morality is a matter of discussion. The end result is that here we have two women who rise above the nightmare and succeed, while the men in their orbit suffer and suffer, many of them to their own destruction. For good or evil, film noir seems to be a man’s world.

*.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Next week, we have three films tied together by the presence of one actress who doesn’t get enough credit. We’ll also view two performances by one of the screen’s great actors in a pair of films by one of the greatest film noir directors of them all. 

Come back for more fun, everybody!

Postscript

By coincidence, Turner Classic Movies played The Bride Wore Black a few weeks ago. I had recorded but not watched it, so I decided to check it out as part of this week’s homage to Woolrich. 

Written in 1940, Bride was the author’s debut into the world of pulp. It tells the story of Julie, who loses her beloved husband on their wedding day when he is shot coming out of the church and who then sets about enacting revenge against the men she holds responsible for his death, killing them one by one. The police become involved in this strange series of murders and yet always seem one step behind this avenging angel in black (or white). 

The movie came out in 1968, two years after the publication of Hitchcock/Truffaut, the culmination of several days of interviews between the iconic British/American director and the young French wunderkind. It’s a great interview, and it exemplified the shift in our perception of Hitchcock as an artist which had begun in France. Many people consider The Bride Wore Black to be Truffaut’s homage to Hitchcock; the film even has a score by Bernard Hermann. 

The Bride Wore Black

Unfortunately, the film is . . . weird. It’s very French, of course, and much of it feels “New Wave”-ish in the way it’s shot and performed. (There’s a shot of a scarf buffeted by the wind over a town that I think goes on for two minutes. True, it’s partly responsible for one man’s death, but how much significance can one man wring from one scrap of cloth?) Hermann’s score feels incredibly overwrought throughout, much like the work he did in Endless Night. Also, Bride was filmed in color, which supposedly gave the director trouble and caused a great deal of animosity on set with his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. The fine actress Jeanne Moreau plays Julie in an almost muted, dreamlike way. (I’m trying to imagine Liam Neeson applying this style in one of his numerous revenge fantasies! Or maybe Neeson could play Julie in a remake!) There’s a great deal of light humor throughout on the part of the victims before they are killed; this seems to me the most “Hitchcockian” element of the movie. 

The real problem for me – and it’s a big one – is the film’s ending. In the novel, Woolrich makes Julie’s life a tragedy from start to finish: with her happiness undone by a single gunshot, her life’s only purpose becomes revenge. Two years and four or five murders later, she is confronted with the brutal truth everything she thought she knew was wrong:  all the men she has killed were innocent. 

The movie, on the other hand, lets Julie off the hook  at least in terms of her sense of justice. These men certainly killed her husband; they did so carelessly and then went on with their lives. I suppose the final murder in the film makes for a nice little twist to show that justice will indeed be had for all the miscreants, but to me it dilutes unforgivably the noirish elements of the original plot. I mean, even if the producers of Black Angel cleaned up the wife’s development, the unraveling of the murderer makes up for it. 

I don’t know why Truffaut did this: it was the 60’s! It’s France, for God’s sake! I think audiences could have handled the original ending just fine. If anyone has information about this, I would be curious to know. 

4 thoughts on “UN VOYAGE DANS LES TENEBRES: Week 4 – Woe is Woolrich

  1. I continue to enjoy these forays into the noir realm immensely, Brad. I find myself adding new titles to my watchlist every week. I know PHANTOM LADY and BLACK ANGEL by reputation alone. In the wonderful book Universal Horrors by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas, both films are mentioned in their appendix of dark, mystery thrillers that didn’t quite make the cut when discussing the studio’s horror output of the ’30s and ’40s. I always assumed that both films were rather hard to come by, so I will have to seek them out now.

    The screenshot included from PHANTOM LADY is gorgeous! That is exactly what I think of when I think of film noir. Robert Siodmack’s work is unmistakable. Even when he was “slumming it” in the Universal horror department, his solid direction and keen eye for noir-like detail comes through. His SON OF DRACULA – not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination – is redeemed by its cinematography which is probably one of the best of any Universal monster movie. I am sure that BLACK ANGEL is good to look at too, knowing Roy William Neill’s output. Some of the filmmaking on display in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series is quite exemplary. I recently re-watched THE SCARLET CLAW and was blown away again by how moody and evocative it is. And the murder scene not only resembles Hitchcock’s PSYCHO in more ways than one, but makes for very powerful stuff for 1944.

    I’m intrigued by your teaser for next week!

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  2. Great double bill Brad. PHANTOM LADY has long been a favourite of mine (I even have it on Blu-ray) – the second half of the film departs quite heavily from the novel (which actually is much more of a whodunit) but the first half is pretty much undiluted Woolrich of the highest order. The gorgeous cinematography and the jazz sequence are incredible. I also think the sequence in which she stalks her prey and ends up at the train station (which involves a terrific matte painting by the way) is superb and really brings the equivalent pages from the novel to life. BLACK ANGEL is for me a lesser book and a lesser film but full of good things all the same and with a stronger cast (with the exception of the leading lady). I love Truffaut, and the nouvelle vague, but his three excursions into Noir are definitely hit and miss. Shoot the Pianist (loosely from David Goodis) and Finally Sunday (really loosely from Charles Williams) are in superb black and white and certainly work better than BRIDE, which is a shame as the book (while on the bonkers side) definitely deserved better. Really looking forward to seeing what you guys get up to next week!

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  3. I have read the book Phantom Lady and also seen the film. Both are quite good.
    Though the book and the film are more or less similar in the beginning, there are major variations afterwards. In the book, there is a whodunit mystery with a really surprising revelation at the end. In the film, the killer is virtually revealed in the middle and thus the whodunit element is removed and it becomes more of a thriller.
    In the book, Carol’s stalking of the bartender takes too many pages and one does feel sympathy for the bartender.
    I have one complaint. It is unbelievable that all the involved persons without any exception are easily bribed.

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