CORNELL WOOLRICH – The Black Path of Fear. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1944. Reprint editions include: Detective Novel Magazine, April 1945; Avon #106, paperback, 1946; Ace H-66, paperback, circa 1968; Ballantine, paperback, 1982.

THE CHASE. United Artists, 1946. Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan, Steve Cochran and Peter Lorre. Screenplay by Philip Yordan, from the novel The Black Path of Fear, by Cornell Woolrich. Directed by Arthur Ripley.

   Woolrich at his pulpiest turned in to film noir at its weirdest. Such a treat!

   As the book opens, Bill Scott and Eve Roman are just arriving in Havana, fleeing from her husband, gangster Eddie Roman. By the end of the first chapter, she will be dead and he’ll be framed for her murder, which is a lot to pack into one chapter, but Woolrich doesn’t skimp on atmosphere or color as the plot rushes on. He writes about a crowded bar in a way that had me tucking my elbows in, and there’s a very atmospheric chase scene from the fugitive’s POV up a darkened stairway, lit only by the flashlights of his pursuers.

   In a typical Woolrichian coincidence, Bill hooks up with a street-smart Cuban Miss named Midnight with a grudge against cops that impels her to help him track down the real killers. And once again we get that superb atmosphere of darkened doorways, twisted streets, and even into the bowels of an opium den, painted in fevered but fast-paced prose. And for a conclusion there’s a knock-down drag-out fight scene, and a bitter, romantic coda Chandler might have envied.

   Black Path was filmed in 1946, and before I go into it, perhaps a word about the film’s creators might be helpful:

   Producer Seymour Nebenzal was a big name in the early German cinema, with films like M and 3-Penny Opera on his resumé . After he fled Germany to the U.S. his films went into a “cheap-but-interesting” period of things like Hitler’s Madman, but he did produce remakes of his German films Mistress of Atlantis and M.

   I have heard passing references to director Arthur Ripley before; UImer referred to him as “a sick man, mentally & physically” and his output was meager, with a few films that had to be finished by other hands. He was apparently a man of ill health and gloomy outlook, who worked most of his early career in comedy for Mack Sennett, Harry Langdon and W.C. Fields (he directed Fields’ classic short Barber Shop.)

   After many years as a gag man for Capra and others, Ripley directed Voice in the Wind, The Chase, and part of Siren of Atlantis, then nothing till Robert Mitchum asked him to direct Thunder Road. Damn Strange if you ask me.

   Together Nebenzal and Ripley make The Chase something unique, aided by photographer Franz Planer (who sent on to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and a choice cast that includes Steve Cochran as an acquisitive gangster and Peter Lorre as his matter-of-fact executioner, who gripes about sending flowers to the funeral of their late competitor (“A hundred and fifty bucks. I don’t care what you say, that’s inflation.”)

   Narrative-wise, The Chase is something else again. It follows the book pretty faithfully for the first half, then Ripley and writer Philip Yordan apparently decided to leave off and make another movie about the same characters. There’s a scene of shocking surprise, followed by a trite “cheat,” and all at once we’re into a movie where Bob Cummings is a disturbed vet with fits of amnesia.

   It’s to the credit of all concerned that this works as well as it does. As I watched, I found myself going from “Aw c’mon!” to “Come on, snap out of it, Bob – and hurry!” as the characters from the first half of the film move toward and away from what looks like predestined fate.

   The Chase can’t be called a complete success, but it has its moments, and I guarantee it’s one of the strangest you’ll ever see.