October 21, 2017
Woolrich NoirOn this day in 1903 the crime writer Cornell Woolrich was born. Woolrich (sometimes as "William Irish" or "George Hopley") wrote two dozen novels and over two hundred stories, most of them so dark that he has been called "the Poe of the 20th century." Looking at the many movies made from his work -- most famously, Hitchcock's Rear Window and Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black -- many have also dubbed him the "Father of Film Noir." After examining every book, story and movie (and cataloguing over 120 television and radio adaptations), Francis Nevins Jr. titles his biography of Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die -- a story title that Woolrich proposed to himself but never used, and that all too appropriately captures his odd, obscure and sometimes creepy life.
Woolrich joined the pulp boom in the mid-1930s when his mainstream fiction, many of them Jazz Age tales with a F. Scott Fitzgerald ring, did not sell. By this time, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and even late-comer Raymond Chandler -- the three which Nevins ranks ahead of Woolrich on his Top Ten Crime Writers list -- were well-known. Woolrich was softer-boiled than most of the penny-a-worders, and better at suspense -- so good in some stories, says Harlan Ellison, that "you hear your spine crack with tension." It is this, along with his visual sense, which makes Woolrich "the Hitchcock of the written word." (It also salvages prose that can get too purple or prolix or just bad: "His face was an unbaked cruller of rage" (The Black Curtain) tops Nevins's personal list of howlers.)
If there is a Hitchcock connection to Woolrich's personal life it is through Psycho. He was reclusive, and so sexually and socially maladjusted that many of the few people who knew him casually did not want to know any more. Early on he married, for three weeks; when he abruptly left the relationship, he left behind, perhaps by way of tortured explanation, a locked suitcase containing his sailor's uniform and a diary detailing his homosexual adventures. He lived with his mother in a squalid Harlem hotel for twenty-five years. For several weeks he broke free of their love-hate relationship to live in his own room in the same hotel, recording the event by way of this dedication notice in Phantom Lady:
In unmitigated thankfulness
(at not being in it any more)
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