Cornell Woolrich has been called the Poe of the 20th century. Many of his stories are undistilled studies of paranoia and psychological terror. For his wide array of work, fans of crime fiction tend to return his Black novels, six books with "black" in their titles,all of them bound by similar themes such as death, despair, the innocent being hunted by the law or by the lawless, and destruction of the soul. These novels of suspense helped pave the way for noir fiction and occasionally fall into the realm of horror. I decided to review all 6 books and since Woolrich has been filmed so often, I decided to comment on a corresponding adaptation of each book. There are some spoilers ahead.

The Bride Wore Black (1940): his crime novel and commonly regarded as one of his best. A women's husband gets killed on her wedding day and she tracks down the men she holds responsible and kills them. This book was written in a detached third person point of view and succeeded wonderfully. A stunning, if imperfect debut with an unlikely twist at the end. The bride finds out at the end that she killed the wrong group of men, a fact that she accepts with grim resignation. Some people would say the effect of the book is ruined by this but if you read Woolrich's work through the lens of a Kafkaesque nightmare, his point of view makes more sense. Noir fiction doesn't focus on logic, it focuses on worst case scenarios and Woolrich invented them in spades. Francois Trauffant filmed the book in 1968, aping Hitchcock and leaving out the final twist. Although he cuts Woolrich's vision short, he follows most of the book meticulously and it is an entertaining and relentless film.

Black Curtain (1941): a man has an accident on the street, recovering a memory of his past life that he lost three years before. He has to find what he was doing with his life during his hiatus from his normal life because now he is a murder suspect. The amnesiac fugitive was a favorite trope of Woolrich's. This one didn't make a huge impression on my memory but I remember this one being an entertaining man-on-the-run story and less convoluted than Woolrich's other books. Once again, this story depends on nightmarish coincidence. The book was filmed as Street of Chance a year later and was highly watchable with Burgess Meredith as the main character. It's weird because I'm used to seeing him as an old man. This movie seemed to capture Woolrich's themes and the essence of the book fairly well.

Black Alibi (1942): a singer brings a leashed jaguar into public for a publicity stunt. The jaguar escapes and a series of savage deaths follow but the protagonists in this story begin to question whether the animal is really the killer. This one is my favorite Woolrich novel and falls into straight up horror with multiple scenes of unmitigated terror. This one was filmed as The Leopard Man in 1945 by Jacques Tourneur and producer by Val Lewton. This one is faithful to the book in a few aspects but definitely not with the ending. Two of the most terrifying scenes from the book were translated beautifully. The sequence leading to the first death is often commented as one of the scariest in film history. I personally love this movie

The Black Angel (1943): this one is another effective book although overwritten in some parts. A man is framed for his mistress' murder and his wife investigates a group of suspects, facing death multiple times, to prove his innocence. Paranoia plays into this novel often and Woolrich's depictions of the seedier side of city life are vivid. This movie was adapted into cleaner version of itself in 1946. It had a good cast and filmed the protagonists sympathetically but if not for a few elements, this would have come across as completely different than the novel. Peter Lorre plays a gangster role and his accent is at its most suppressed. Frankly, the man on death row doesn't deserve such an amazing wife.

The Black Path of Fear (1944): probably the most hardboiled Woolrich novel I've read. This is a disorienting story of a man who runs away with a gangster's wife to Havana only to be set up for her murder soon after. All odds are against him as he seeks to clear his name. Overall a solid book with well-sustained suspense and a gruesome climax. There's actually more logic to this tale than the others. I didn't expect the ending to be so bittersweet. Filmed as The Chase in 1946, the movie follows the book scrupulously to a point. All of the horrible stuff that happened in Havana turns out to be a dream and the protagonist and the gangster's wife live happily ever after. It's a decent movie but it takes the edge away from the story that made it so effective. Essentially, it takes the guts out of Woolrich's story. Woolrich's characters are meant to live nightmares not just dream them. 95% of it-was-all-a-dream stories stink.

Rendezvous in Black (1948): it has a similar plot to Bride. In this one, a man's girlfriend is killed in a freak accident and he tracks down the men he holds responsible and kills the people they love most to make experience his pain. This holds up as well as the first with an even bleaker vision because the main character's idea of justice is more skewed. It's a great book but not one to read if you're feeling particularly bummed out. According to IM DB, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids was inspired by Woolrich's novel. Filmed in 1972, this is definitely a giallo. If the poetic title didn't give it away, the two scenes of murder and nudity in the first 15 minutes will. Accompanied with the obligatory blood and sleaze, this movie bears no resemblance to Woolrich's book except that a series of deaths is brought about by a vengeful man. This one featured some outlandish 70s clothing and the ugliest pair of sunglasses I have ever seen.

Woolrich oeuvre may be best labeled as dark suspense, but the heart of it is true horror where the most unlikely calamity is bound to strike when least expected. He may have been the Poe of the 20th century but his sense of despair matches Lovecraft without the godlike monsters. He remains one of the greats.

Written by Nicholas Montelongo

No comments

The author does not allow comments to this entry