Sunday, June 9, 2024

"It's Dark as Pitch Out There": Cornell Woolrich and Dark City (1998/2021), by Eddie Muller

Note from the Passing Tramp: I reviewed Eddie Muller's revised edition of Dark City for an academic journal, Crime Fiction Studies, in 2023. Below you will find the original, uncut version of the review.  

Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, originally published in 1998, was reissued in revised and expanded form in 2021 by Running Press in association with Turner Classic Movies.  Described in the book’s author blurb as “the world’s foremost authority on film noir,” Eddie Muller also hosts Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies and is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and restoring “orphaned” noir films.  

Two of these rescued films, The Guilty (1947) and Never Open That Door (1952), are based on the work of Cornell Woolrich and have been released by Flicker Alley and the Film Noir Association as beautifully restored DVDs. 

scene from The Guilty

Over several pages of Dark City, Woolrich, who is mentioned more times in the book than any other crime writer aside from hard-boiled master Raymond Chandler, receives his just due from Muller as the “Bard of the Blind Alley”: that dark dead end where dreams go drearily to die, betrayed by the beckoning finger of fate.  However, Muller’s account of Woolrich’s life and work is not without some factual inaccuracy and erroneous interpretation.

somebody on the phone (Don Castle in The Guilty)

Although original films based on Cornell Woolrich’s crime works mysteriously vanished into thin air in the twenty-first century, over one hundred cinematic films and television series episodes were adapted from the author’s crime novels and short fiction between 1938 and 2001.  It is no exaggeration to say that Woolrich was one of the primary creative wellsprings of film noir.  As Bruce Crowther put it in his book Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror (1988), among American crime writers “Cornell Woolrich is closest to the bleak mood and distorted vision of film noir.”  The best-known of these many films surely remains the classic Fifties suspense flick Rear Window (1954), director Alfred Hitchcock’s slick, big-budget, color film version of Woolrich’s short story “It Had to be Murder.”

Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window

Yet looking beyond Rear Window, Cornell Woolrich’s crime fiction was a staple of more downscale and gritty Forties and Fifties black-and-white noir films, such as the seventeen flicks which follow:

Cornell Woolrich and his wife, who had their marriage
annulled on grounds of nonconsummation
(see below)
Street of Chance (1942, based on the novel The Black Curtain)

The Leopard Man (1943, based on the novel Black Alibi)

Phantom Lady (1944, based on the novel of the same title)

Deadline at Dawn (1946, based on the novel of the same title)

Black Angel (1946, based on the novel The Black Angel)

The Chase (1946, based on the novel The Black Path of Fear)

Fear in the Night (1946, based on the novelette “And So to Murder” aka “Nightmare”)

Fall Guy (1947, based on the novelette “C-Jag” aka “Cocaine”)

The Guilty (1947, based on the novelette “He Looked Like Murder” aka “Two Fellows in a Furnished Room”)

The Window (1949) was a critical and box
office success, in 1950 winning the Edgar
for best mystery film and earning child star
Bobby Driscoll an honorary juvenile Oscar.

I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948, based on the novelette of the same title)

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, based on the novel of the same title)

The Window (1949, based on the novelette “The Boy Cried Murder,” aka “Fire Escape”)

No Man of Her Own (1950, based on the novelette “They Call Me Patrice,” later expanded as the novel I Married a Dead Man)

If I Should Die Before I Wake (1952, Argentina, based on the novelette of the same title)

Never Open That Door (1952, Argentina, adaptations of the short story "Somebody on the Phone" and the novelette "The Hummingbird Comes Home")

Obsession (1954, France, based on the novelette “Silent as the Grave”) 

Nightmare (1956, a remake of the film Fear in the Night)

Woolrich works were also adapted for acclaimed Forties, Fifties and Sixties radio and television series like Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Thriller.

scene from "Momentum," based on the Cornell Woolrich novelette
(Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
During his lifetime Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) published nearly two hundred crime short stories and novelettes as well as sixteen crime novels and a like number of short fiction collections.  Woolrich attended Columbia University for a short time, leaving after the publication of a couple of successful mainstream novels to become a film screenwriter in Hollywood, where his dreams quickly died.  

The product of an estranged marriage who endured physical and emotional neglect during a lonely, solitary childhood in Mexico and New York City, Woolrich turned to writing crime fiction for the pulps after the failure of both his mainstream writing career and his brief, ill-advised marriage in California to Gloria “Bill” Blackton, who amid much embarrassing national publicity had their marriage annulled in 1933 on the grounds of her husband’s apparent inability to consummate it.

Resembling the proverbial ninety-eight-pound weakling from Charles Atlas’s famous fitness ads, which ran in comic books from the Forties into the Seventies (I personally remember these), Woolrich may have suffered from such maladies as anemia and agoraphobia, crippling his inability to lead a normal life.  He had great difficulty making and maintaining social connections with others and lived unhappily in a codependent relationship for twenty-five years with his mother in a New York apartment, carrying on alone, after her death in 1957, in another apartment in the city until his own lonely demise from a massive stroke at the age of sixty-four.

Based on his miserable experiences Woolrich developed a profoundly pessimistic view of the world, believing himself hindered at every twist and turn by malign fate.  This belief found memorable artistic expression in his crime writing, some of the bleakest in the genre, as over and over men and women due to cruel twists of malign chance lose their stakes in the desperate game of life (and death).

Peter Lorre in The Chase
Eddie Muller discusses the life and work of Cornell Woolrich, whom he rightly deems the “preeminent scribe of noir suspense,” in Dark City’s chapter “Blind Alley,” wherein he relies heavily for details of the crime writer’s life on Francis Nevins’ award-winning yet deeply problematical 1988 biography of the author, First You Dream, Then You Die.  

Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own
Like Nevins, Muller can be overly dramatic in his pronouncements, as when he declares that Woolrich was “a pathological liar” and “a guy who’d fit any serial killer profile,” and he sometimes gets details wrong.  For example, he states flatly that Woolrich’s parents divorced, although it is doubtful that they ever actually did so, and he asserts that Woolrich’s father took to him as a boy to a performance in Mexico City of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly (a pivotal event in his life by his telling), when in fact Woolrich states that the man who took him was his wealthy maternal grandfather.

modern production of tragic death scene in Madama Butterfly
Drawing on Nevins, Muller confusingly asserts that Woolrich’s “reverence” for his wife “precluded physical confirmation” of his marriage while simultaneously contending that Woolrich, a supposedly gay man, mockingly “married her as a joke.”  These motivations are flatly contradictory.  

Following Nevins’ interpretation of Woolrich’s late crime tale “Story to be Whispered,” about a man’s brutal “panic” murder of a transgender woman, Muller pronounces it an example of the author’s supposed homosexual “self-loathing,” although Nevins clumsily misinterpreted the story to reach this conclusion.  Contrary to Nevins’ and Muller’s contentions, the exact nature of the ambiguous author’s sexuality remains elusive today and it is by no means clear that the crime writer ever had what Muller terms “homosexual encounters” or, indeed, that he ever experienced sexual intimacy with anyone.

Ella Raines in Phantom Lady
Muller mentions fourteen films based on Woolrich’s work.  His most substantive discussions are of these five films 

Phantom Lady (1944), a “classic Blind Alley thriller” produced by Hitchcock protégé Joan Harrison, whom Muller discusses separately in a section of the book entitled “the mistress of suspense”

Deadline at Dawn (1946), dismissed by Muller as a “stilted adaptation” of a novel drenched with “sweaty frenzy”

the critically divisive film The Chase (1946), which Muller argues anticipates the mind bending meta-noir works of director David Lynch

The Guilty (1947), an interesting Poverty Row production that Muller believes compellingly evokes the “fetid milieu” of Woolrich’s crime fiction 

The Window (1949), a low-budget smash hit in which, anticipating Rear Window, an imaginative boy witnesses a murder but cannot get anyone, including his parents, to believe him.

Bobby Driscoll in The Window
No Man of Her Own (1950), a reasonably effective though watered-down version of Woolrich’s novel I Married a Dead Man that starred noir icon Barbara Stanwyck, is briefly discussed in the section devoted to that actress.  
Oddly Black Angel (1946), which features a rare, sensitive turn by noir baddie Dan Duryea (“a serviceable good guy, but a delectable bastard,” pithily observes Muller) and which Francis Nevins deemed the best of the myriad Woolrich film adaptations, goes unheralded.

Dan Duryea in Black Angel
In discussing The Window, Muller notes that two decades later the film’s young star, Bobby Driscoll, who was awarded a special miniature Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his performance, was tragically discovered dead at the age of thirty-one from drug-related causes by two boys playing in an abandoned New York tenement.  His remains were not positively identified until the next year and his death was not reported in the press until 1971.  
former child star Bobby Driscoll. who died tragically at age 31

The former child star, who once poignantly complained “I was carried on a silver platter—and then dumped into a garbage can,” predeceased by just six months Cornell Woolrich himself, who expired in his New York apartment from a massive stroke at the age of sixty-four in nearly as wretched circumstances, despite the relative fortune he had accumulated from film, television and radio adaptations of his work.  

In Bobby Driscoll, who passed away anonymously and miserably alone, his childhood dreams cruelly dashed, Woolrich surely would have discerned another ill-starred brother in misfortune.

Although not without serious purpose, Dark City is primarily an engagingly written and artfully designed coffee table book lavishly illustrated with eye-catching film stills.  It should send the popular audience for whom it is intended eagerly venturing down mean streets and around dark counters in search of these fascinating films--many of which can, of course, be seen on Turner Classic Movies.


  1. I'm sure I've seen an Argentinian version of Waltz into Darkness. Made early 80s, there's a lot of dancing, including a tango in an abbatoir.

    1. I found a Japanese version from the Eighties: Kamen no hanayome - Kurayami e no waltz

    2. So cool CW was popular around the world. Anxiety is the international language.