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FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins

   

   Let’s begin with the unfinished business from last month, in other words with the final four uncollected Cornell Woolrich stories from 1936. During that year the steadiest publisher of his tales was Detective Fiction Weekly but the second steadiest was Argosy with six contributions in twelve months, three of them never reprinted in hardcover or paperback collections.

   “Gun for a Gringo” from the September 5 issue is the earliest of several Woolrich stories about various macho Americans in one or another banana republic. The local color obviously stems from his memories of growing up in Mexico, and more likely than not the adventurous protagonists are based however loosely on his father Genaro Hopley-Woolrich. In “Gun for a Gringo” the narrator-hero is Steve Willoughby, a former Chicago gangster now residing in the land of Costamala and bodyguarding the country’s dictator, one- armed Presidente Savinas.

   A band of scruffy revolutionaries approach Steve and offer mucho dinero if he’ll assassinate Savinas during an official banquet. Steve goes along in order to catch the conspirators red-handed but is caught playing double agent and railroaded into the state insane asylum. After enough time in the madhouse for Woolrich to take full advantage of the place’s noir potential, Willoughby escapes and, in a blaze of action, tears back to the capital trying to save El Presidente’s life.

   The story works well on a simple cliffhanger level except that Woolrich gives us no reason to care whether or not the one set of corrupt politicos is ousted by the other. As usual in these Gallant Yank Abroad sagas, the racism is thicker than the heat and stronger than the plot.

   “Public Toothache Number One” from the November 7 issue is a semi-hardboiled comedy about a bill collector, obviously modeled on Jimmy Cagney, who makes a dunning call on a certain dentist just in time to be mistaken for that fellow by henchmen of the country’s most wanted criminal, who’s in hiding and suffering from a ferocious ulcerated tooth.    These gangsters are so stupid they let our hero fill their hideout with carbon monoxide fumes from an auto on the pretext that it’s a form of anesthesia. Enough said.

   Woolrich closed out his sales to Argosy that year with the kind of exotic adventure yarn with which the magazine was identified. “Holocaust” from the December 12 number takes place on the island of Santo Domingo during the French Revolution and deals with a bloody slave revolt.

   The female lead is 18-year old Aurelie Blanchard, daughter of a plantation owner, a girl who admires Voltaire and opposes the whipping of slaves and says of blacks, echoing Shylock’s words in The Merchant of Venice about Jews, “Do they not laugh as we do, weep as we do, bleed when cut, draw breath as we do?”

   In this story the answer is No. They are a savage tide, a horde of repulsive brutes in loincloths and Jacobin caps, screaming for victims to torture, shouting Robespierre slogans and war cries and voodoo chants all in the same breath, all except Aurelie’s faithful old nurse Marthe who saves her life.

   In the first and most vividly conjured-up sequences, Mon Repos is besieged. Aurelie’s mother kills herself, Aurelie herself is buried alive, and her fiancé Robert Lemaitre and the sadistic but cowardly plantation overseer Picard are taken prisoner and tortured until Aurelie turns the tables by rising from her open grave and masquerading as a zombie.

   She and the two Frenchmen boil the rebel leader in a vat of wax and escape into the jungle where more terror awaits them. It’s a long and ultra-lurid tale, worthy of appearance in Thrilling Mystery alongside “Baal’s Daughter” which we dissected last month, but nowhere near as vividly written as the noir classics Woolrich set on his home turf.

   One of the least popular of the Popular Publications pulps was Ace-High Detective, which lasted just seven issues, from August 1936 through February-March 1937. Its November 1936 number included “Evil Eye,” the earliest of several stories Woolrich was to write about the encounters of various plucky and mischievous young boys with death and terror, but this one unlike its successors is played almost entirely for comedy.

   Bronx plainclothesman Dan Kieran takes his 8-year-old son Danny to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a newly unearthed mummy with a priceless emerald eye. The orb is supposedly protected by an ancient curse that whoever tries to steal it will be blinded by the god Osiris. Danny slips away from his dad at closing time and is locked in the museum, as are two dimwits nicknamed Jojo and Donkey Mouth who plan to steal the eye during the night.

   Woolrich tells almost none of this story from the viewpoint of the boy as he would in later tales of this sort. Instead he concentrates first on making us laugh as we watch the thieves’ comic interplay (which may remind sufficiently aged readers of the scenes between Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on TV’s The Honeymoners) and the bungling efforts of Danny’s father and a helpful traffic cop to break into the museum and rescue the brat, and then on making us shudder as the gory curse is fulfilled. The setting shows that Woolrich intended “Evil Eye” to be included in his book of New York Landmarks stories- — a book that for unknown reasons never came into being.

***

   
   For the rest of this column let’s delve into a topic as far removed from Woolrich as possible, a trio of traditional detective novels from the Golden Age of that noble genre in England between World Wars. The authors I usually discuss when I’m on that subject are John Rhode and Christopher Bush, whom I’ve been reading intermittently since my teens. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a word about this month’s author. Isn’t it about time I did?

   Cyril Hare was the writing byline of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, who was born in the county of Surrey on 4 September 1900 and, in the interstices of a legal career, produced nine highly regarded novels and more than forty short stories. His earliest novel, Tenant for Death  (1937), written while he was still practicing law and before he migrated to the judicial side of the system, introduced Scotland Yard’s Inspector Mallett, a tall stout man with a taste for sumptuous lunches, not as memorable a protagonist as, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse who debuted almost forty years later but far more vivid than the all but characterless sleuths who were commonplace in British detective fiction of the Golden Age.

   Lionel Ballantine, a crooked financier on the brink of exposure and arrest, is found strangled to death with a Venetian blind cord in a house in Kensington, recently rented by a paunchy full-bearded man calling himself Colin James who seems to have vanished. The murder took place shortly after the release from prison of a banker who had been innocently caught up in Ballantine’s crimes and had sworn revenge in open court after his conviction but was still behind bars when the mysterious Mr. James made his first appearance.

   The banker however is hardly the sole suspect. Mallett also has to consider Ballantine’s equally corrupt secretary (who today would probably have a title like Executive Administrative Assistant), the bigamous husband of Ballantine’s mistress, a dotty nobleman who served on the crooked company’s board of directors, and several more. The traditional clues are few and far between — notably the riddles of why Ballantine was found wearing a sloppily tied green bow tie with an elegant gray suit and what happened to the umbrella with which he was last seen — but Mallett connects the dots with rare ingenuity and Hare succeeds in keeping us puzzled while playing fair all the way.

   Barzun and Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime  (2nd ed. 1989) called this book “a very engaging debut,” distinguished by “sound yet uncommon philosophizing….” Readers who aren’t interested in legal issues or jargon may rest assured that Tenant for Death  is free of both.

***

   

   Except for a brief colloquy in Chapter 1 on whether fishing rights are a covenant running with the land or an easement — terms which for attorneys will evoke fond or bitter memories of their Property course as first-year law students — legalisms are also absent in Hare’s second book.

   I’m sure there are other detective novels in which anglers and angling are central to the plot but I can’t recall any in which the pursuit of fish figures so prominently as in Death Is No Sportsman (1938). An elaborate map of a three-mile stretch of the river Didder and its surroundings, which most readers will have to consult again and again as various characters traipse through the area, portrays footpaths, a ford, a cart track, a bridge across the river, and assorted copses and trout pools, with stately Didford Manor at the map’s northern edge and the village of Didford Magna (which is dwarfed by its companion village Didford Parva) at its southern end.

   Each summer weekend the village’s only pub is taken over by four Londoners, the members of a fishing syndicate which owns the exclusive right to cast reels along this stretch of the river. All four have reasons to despise Sir Peter Packer, the wealthy owner of Didford Manor, who late one hot Saturday afternoon in June is found on a tiny piece of solid ground known as the Tump with a bullet through his eye that took most of his brains with it when it exited. Suspects besides the four fishermen include the young wife of the syndicate’s senior member, the even younger wife of odious Sir Peter, a young man from the village whose fiancée Sir Peter had (as we used to say) knocked up, and — perhaps — the rector’s unspeakable wife and the local doctor.

   Almost halfway through the novel Scotland Yard in the person of Inspector Mallett is called into the case, which is labyrinthine to the max and brim-full of fishing lore. Dare I venture to suggest that most if not all of the dramatis personae must be Anglicans?

   Whether Hare plays completely fair with the reader is uncertain. At the denouement Mallett offers several reconstructions of what happened, each positing a different killer, but it’s all a charade to pressure the real murderer into a confession without which, as Mallett freely admits to his local colleagues, there’s no real evidence against the culprit.

   The authors of A Catalogue of Crime couldn’t agree on a    verdict, with Wendell Hertig Taylor calling it the second best of the nine Hare novels while Jacques Barzun disliked it “because of the long windup and fumbling detection.” One can see his point: without real evidence how could Mallett reasonably identify the guilty party? But I remain uncertain about my own verdict. Who can decide when doctors disagree?

***

   
   In Hare’s third book, the last he completed before the outbreak of World War II, Mallett appears only in the early and final chapters, but for my money it’s the finest detective novel of the trio. Suicide Exceptted (1939) opens on the last evening of the Inspector’s holiday, which he’s spending in a stately Georgian house turned mediocre country hotel, 42 miles from London.

   That evening in the hotel lounge, after an indigestible meal, Mallett is approached by a fellow guest, a rather eccentric old bloke named Leonard Dickinson, who hints that he may take his own life before morning. As any whodunit devotee might have guessed, he’s found dead in his bed by the maid bringing him his breakfast. The physical evidence plus Mallett’s statement convinces the coroner’s jury that Dickinson deliberately took a fatal overdose of a sleeping potion called Medinal (which I gather Hare invented out of whole cloth), and a verdict of suicide is reached.

   Shortly thereafter it develops that less than a year before his death the old man had put most of his money into a life insurance policy on himself — a policy which offers a huge payout but becomes null and void if he should kill himself within a year of its inception. Faced with the prospect of destitution, Dickinson’s son Stephen and his daughter Mary, assisted by Mary’s fiancé Martin Johnson, set out to prove to the insurance company that the old gentleman was murdered by one of his fellow guests at the country hotel.

   A rum assortment of guests indeed! An antiquarian parson and his wife, a young couple spending an illicit night, a mystery man who stayed confined to his room, a Lincolnshire dowager and her mentally challenged son, a gas company executive rendezvousing with a blackmailer, and of course Mallett himself and the decedent.

   Most of the novel follows various combinations of the three amateur detectives, whose sleuthing soon establishes that an incredible number of the hotel’s guests that night had motives for killing the old man. Mallett comes back into the picture and exposes the murderer, whose identity is a stunning surprise (at least to me), although later I discovered that Hare had planted all sorts of subtle pointers to the truth which aren’t apparent except on a second reading.

   For some reason Barzun and Taylor weren’t impressed by this novel, calling it “one-third good, two-thirds fumbling.” Long after the end of the war, when it was first published in the U.S., Anthony Boucher in the New York Times Book Review (7 November 1954) found it “more conventional and less witty” than Hare’s postwar novels but “adroit in its manipulation of [the] three amateur detectives” and “distinguished by a plot-twist” worthy of Agatha Christie. With the last point I agree completely.

***

   
   Hare spent the WWII years first as a judge’s marshal (somebody who sits with and performs various chores for a judicial officer), then with the Department of Public Prosecutions and finally with the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Apparently he was kept quite busy, so much so that during the war he published only one novel, Tragedy at Law  (1942), which many consider his masterpiece.

   With the defeat of Hitler he resumed writing a book every few years. In 1950 he was appointed a County Court judge for his native Surrey, a position he held until he died, at the all too early age of 57, on 25 August 1958. Whether he chose the title himself or his publisher came up with it when he was no longer with us, it’s equally fitting that his last novel is called Untimely Death.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins

   

   A few weeks ago I received an email from bookseller Lynn Munroe, asking me a question about the uncollected short stories of Cornell Woolrich. The result was that I got interested in how many uncollected stories there were and how many might be worth collecting. It will take more than one column to explore these questions but let’s start here.

***

   For the first two years in which Woolrich published crime-suspense stories, the number of uncollected tales is zero. Why? Because I brought together all three of the tales that first came out in 1934 and all ten of those that appeared in ‘35 in the collection DARKNESS AT DAWN (1985). Woolrich’s output grew exponentially in 1936: a total of 26 crime stories, earning him a total of $4,300, which was a respectable annual salary back then.

   Some of them—for example “The Night Reveals” (Story, April 1936), “Johnny on the Spot” (Detective Fiction Weekly, May 2, 1936), “The Night I Died” (from the same magazine’s August 8 issue) and “You Pays Your Nickel” (Argosy, August 22, 1936), which is usually reprinted as “Subway”—rank among his most powerful short stories. Others from that year—including, I fear, most of the dozen that remain uncollected—are pretty terrible.

   The year kicked off with one of the worst tales he ever perpetrated; perhaps the worst of his career. The mild success of the Popular Publications pulp chain with weird-menace magazines like Dime Mystery inspired rival entrepreneur Ned Pines of Thrilling Publications to launch a competing monthly called Thrilling Mystery, which debuted in October 1935 under editorial director Leo Margulies (1900-1975).

   During its 50 issues the magazine offered a parade of strange cults, diabolic rituals, gruesome murders, sadistic villains, slavering beasts and (of course) beautiful young women shivering in peril. Woolrich dipped his toes into these weird waters just once. Like the 1935 classic “Dark Melody of Madness” (better known as “Papa Benjamin”) and the 1937 classic “Graves for the Living,” “Baal’s Daughter” (Thrilling Mystery, January 1936) is about hapless innocents falling into the clutches of repulsive religions.

   But this version of the story is so sloppily and luridly written, so overloaded with stupid inconsistencies and grotesque twaddle, that to claw one’s way through its pages is an act of masochism. Narrator Bob Collins visits his psychiatrist friend Dr. Dessaw to ask for help in freeing his fiancée Gloria’s dotty aunt from a Westchester cult.

   As Woolrich Coincidence would have it, the head of the cult is Dessaw, who drugs Bob and spirits him to the religion’s headquarters mansion on the banks of the Hudson, where in rapid order our hero is stripped to his shorts, flogged by a tongueless black giant, menaced by a man-eating panther, tortured with boiling oil injected into his veins, forced to kneel before a woman calling herself the reincarnated goddess Ishtar, forced to help lure Gloria to the mansion for ritual sex with with the god Baal who of course is Dr. Dessaw, and so on and on long past our endurance.

   The narrative throbs with clunkers like “The fiend on the throne stood up and turned to me as I quivered there, ashen-faced” and “I was prone there, at the mercy of the he-devil and the she-devil….” How desperate must Woolrich have been to have cranked out this garbage?

***

   Of the dozen uncollected Woolrich stories from 1936, Detective Fiction Weekly was the original home of seven, including two that might well deserve collection. Not, though, the first pair we consider here. “Blood in Your Eye” from the March 21 issue is an insanely bad cop story set in an anonymous city on which Woolrich sticks the label Los Angeles.

   Mitchell, a rambunctious young homicide dick, is the only one who sees the truth when a murder victim is found in a rooming house with the image of his killer apparently imprinted on his eyes. Instead of sharing his insight, Mitchell throws down his badge in disgust at his colleagues’ willingness to believe medieval superstition and goes out to solve the crime lone-wolf style.

   The hunt takes him to two venues that Woolrich was to use over and over, a manicurist’s booth and a dance hall. For this one you have to accept that neither a roomful of cops nor the medical examiner can tell the difference between genuine and glass eyes, but the climax is violent and the central gimmick Guignol-gruesome.

   Just two weeks later, in the magazine’s April 4 issue, came “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” which Woolrich submitted as “Death in Three-Quarter Time.” In a lifetime of reading whodunits I’ve never come across an alibi gimmick as wacko as this one. Homicide cop Dennis Small happens to be in the Curfew Club on the night when the specialty dancer Emilio is shot to death in his dressing room just a few minutes after he and his partner Lolita have finished performing a bizarre new number.

   All the evidence points to chorus line dancer Mary Jackson, for whom Emilio was about to dump Lolita. This tale too is never likely to be reprinted or collected so I might as well give away the solution: Lolita herself killed Emilio before the dance, then rigged herself in a crazy costume and went out into the spotlight and convinced a clubful of people that she was both herself and her partner! The story becomes interesting only in the final scenes when Woolrich makes us empathize with her for two crucial noir reasons: she had lost her love and she’s about to die.

   For the next uncollected story we jump into the summer months. “Nine Lives” from the June 20 number is set in the waterfront district around New York’s South Street. Demon newshawk Wheeler stumbles onto the story of an old bum who’s been treated by three sinister strangers to booze, food, clothes, and to an insurance policy on his life. The best scene finds Wheeler bound, gagged and left for dead at the bottom of an old-fashioned bathtub filling with water, but even in this serial-like incident there’s nothing terribly urgent.

   Later that summer, in the August 15 issue, came “Murder on My Mind,” the earliest appearance in Woolrich and perhaps the earliest in crime fiction of a plotline which was a staple of film noir classics like SO DARK THE NIGHT (1946, directed by Joseph H. Lewis) but ultimately goes back to the Greek tragedy OEDIPUS TYRANNUS.

   Marquis, the detective narrator, is assigned with his partner Beecher to the brutal murder of a harmless cigar-store clerk, but as the investigation goes forward, countless tiny details push Marquis and the reader closer and closer to becoming convinced that the murderer is Marquis himself.

   This tale has never been reprinted or collected as it first appeared but a heavily revised and less crudely written version was included as “Morning After Murder” in the paperback collection BLUEBEARD’S SEVENTH WIFE (Popular Library pb #473, 1952, as by William Irish).

   The trademark Woolrich combination of breathless urgency and plot flubs permeates the long story which he submitted as “Right in the Middle of New York,” but it’s so packed with action and tension that one barely notices that nothing in it makes sense, not even the published title, since no murder is committed at all in “Murder in the Middle of New York” from the September 26 issue.

   Tony Shugrue, a relatively honest protégé of mobster Chuck Morgan, is set up by his mentor with phony references and gets hired by wealthy Cole Harrison as chauffeur for his beautiful and spoiled daughter Evelyn. Unaware that he’s married, Evelyn makes several passes at her driver, and for a while we’re reminded of the romance between another flighty heiress and her chauffeur in Woolrich’s 1927 pre-crime novel CHILDREN OF THE RITZ.

   Finally Tony realizes that Morgan plans to kidnap Evelyn, hold her for ransom, kill her and leave him to take the fall. From this point on the story morphs into a wild roller-coaster ride crammed with thrills, anguish and suspense as Tony fights to save himself and his wife and Evelyn from the gang. Some of the dialogue creaks—“‘Rats!” he hissed viciously through his teeth. ‘Lower than rats, even!’”—and the crucial scene requires Tony literally not to recognize his wife at close quarters.

   But the irresistible Woolrich urgency sweeps away all nitpicking into the ash heap and suggests that this one of the uncollected dozen may deserve being revived.

   I feel the same way about “Afternoon of a Phony” from the November 14 issue—so much so that it was reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (June 2012) at my recommendation and with a new introduction by me.

   The story is something of a departure for Woolrich, a charming, clever and bizarre whodunit where the detective role is played by a con man. Clip Rogers steps off the train at the Jersey seaside resort of Wildmore and is instantly mistaken by the brainless local cops for Griswold, the supersleuth from Trenton, whom they’d sent for to help solve the bludgeon murder of a woman in one of the town’s vacation hotels.

   What complicates the case beyond the local yokels’ power to unravel is that the woman’s eight-year-old son, who witnessed the crime in the middle of the night but is too young to understand its meaning, has identified as the murderer a man with a perfect alibi. Rogers exposes the real killer rather neatly, but the story becomes distinctively a Woolrich tale only afterward when, as in “The Mystery of the Blue Spot,” a criminal motivated by lost love takes center stage and, for a page or two, becomes a deeply sympathetic character. His comment that the impostor Rogers is more humane than any cop he’d ever met is evidence that when Woolrich drew genuine cops as brutal thugs he wasn’t doing it inadvertently.

   His final 1936 appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly was one of his weakest, but for anyone with a little knowledge of law, it’s a coffee-out-the-nose classic. The year’s last issue, dated December 26, included “The Two Deaths of Barney Slabaugh,” in which Woolrich dusted off his favorite James M. Cain plot twist, backdated it forty years, and threw in so much of the tinny insult humor and gangster stereotypes from the current James Cagney movies that the illusion we’re in the New York of the 1890s isn’t sustained for a microsecond.

   Manhattan racket boss Emerald Eddie Danberry is persuaded by his shyster lawyer Horace Lipscomb that the proper way to kill rival mobster Barney Slabaugh is to take the man prisoner, frame himself for Barney’s murder beforehand, and get himself acquitted in court. Then, Lipscomb explains—foreshadowing an infamous recent comment by Donald Trump?—even if Danberry were to murder him in full view of a thousand people he could never be prosecuted for it.

   Danberry asks for the name of this marvelous rule of law. Lipscomb replies: Why, it’s the Statute of Limitations! (Cue the coffee.) Fighting DA Barry McCoy, one of the city’s few uncorrupt officials, tries to snooker the plot, and fate works another Cain trick to help him out in this super-pulpy tale, which is full of police brutality, casual racism and enough Woolrich-style wisecracks to sink an aircraft carrier.

***

   So much for eight out of the dozen, and quite enough for one column. I’ll finish the tabulation next month. With perhaps a bonus thrown in to boot.

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Crime on St. Catherine Street.” Novelette. First published in Argosy 25 January 1936; reprinted as “All It Takes Is Brains” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 1966. Woolrich’s original title: “Murder on St. Catherine Street.”

   Woolrich was the kind of writer that could start with the screwiest kind of idea, get his protagonist to go along with it, and make the reader swallow it down whole, enjoying the whole rest of the story without hesitation and with no holds barred.

   Case in point. On a drunken whim, a man named Hewitt, one of Manhattan’s idle rich, agrees to a wager that he can go to a strange town — Montreal, say — with only six bits in his pocket, and manage to survive for a whole week without knowing a single soul. Which he manages to do, of course, and in fact he comes out ahead by several thousand dollars, not including the money he wins on the bet.

   It all begins with him picking up a girl as he starts the first night of his stay, or rather, as it turns out, she thinks she’s picking him up. But when she quarrels with his boy friend and accomplice in crime, a man known only as Louie, she ends up dead and Hewitt ends up on run from the law, with only a salt shaker in his pocket that he can use to pretend he has a gun.

   Coincidences always played large roles in any story that Cornell Woolrich wrote, and this one is no exception. But this is no tale of gloom and doom. In spite of all the odds against him, Hewitt maintains an upbeat attitude throughout, making this a lot of fun to read.

THOUGHTS ON CORNELL WOOLRICH
by Dan Stumpf


   Just finished re-reading Mike Nevins’ Woolrich bio: First You Dream, Then You Die, an excellent work and one I recommend highly.

   It was Nevins who reminded me, almost 50 years ago, how fine a writer Woolrich was. I had read and been very impressed by Rendezvous in Black, back in the 60s, but Nevin’s well-edited collection of Woolrich short stories, Nightwebs, got me seriously into collecting him, and turned me on to a lot of very fine tales.

   There’s one point, though, where I disagree with Nevins seriously, and I’m afraid it’s a point that he insists on over and over:

   The Police in Woolrich books are always out there. Everywhere. Vaguely menacing, impossibly vigilant, and unconscionably brutal. They do things in Woolrich stories that would make LAPD look like Quakers. Naturally, Attorney Nevins is appalled by all these shenanigans, and he says so. But he also implies that Woolrich himself condemns such tactics, and that he means for his readers to be horrified by them as well.

   But unfortunately for Woolrich’s reputation with those of a progressive nature, I have never seen any sign in any of his books that he regarded the Cops as anything Other than a Fact of Life, and their fantastically hard-nosed tactics as other than necessary. This, by the way, is not just a problem for Nevins; It’s a question that invariably confronts any fan of Woolrich — How can such a sensitive, romantic stylist condone such brutality and facism?

   The answer, I think, is in Woolrich himself. Woolrich was Homosexual, but he could hardly be called Gay; By all accounts he despised himself for his attraction to men, and there are several passages in his books where he seems to positively lavish self-hatred on characters who are in any way less than manly.

   It’s worth remembering, then, that homosexual conduct was against the law in Woolrich’s day, and that the Police were notoriously rough on Gays. There was a phrase still current in my childhood, “Smear the Queer,” whose frightening implications were not apparent to me until much later, but it pretty much describes the treatment a Gay could expect in those days at the hands of the Law.

   Think, then, of that tormented mind when Woolrich knew that at any time, he might be caught by the slimiest of dodges and subjected to legal torture — and probably thought he deserved it — writing of crime and necessarily of Police.

   For an apt contrast, look at the obsessive detective Ed Cornell in Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming. Visually based on Woolrich himself, the bent cop does all the things a Woolrich cop might do, and comes off as purely evil. But in the view of Woolrich himself, nothing the Police did was as corrosive to Society as evil the Evil they were trying (literally) to stamp out, and hence the most outrageous conduct on the part of Cops throughout his canon gets casually shrugged off, if not defended.

   This aside, First You Dream, Then You Die, is a model of what a Literary Biography should be: Informative, Analytical and compulsively readable. Go out and buy a copy. And tell ’em Stumpf sent ya.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Two weeks or so after this column is posted I’ll be traveling by Amtrak to the east coast, where on the evening of March 29 I’m giving a talk in New York City at Columbia University’s second annual Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival. Anyone who wants to learn more about this festival should visit its website. (Follow the link.)

   Why was I asked to take part in the program? Because this year the theme is Cornell Woolrich, and in certain quarters I’m rumored to know a bit about that haunted recluse. Just before my talk there will be a screening of BLACK ANGEL (Universal, 1946), which was based on Woolrich’s novel of the same name, and I expect to be concentrating on the relation between the novel and the movie. For the benefit of readers who won’t be able to attend the festival, I’ll cover the same subject here.

   THE BLACK ANGEL (1943) is one of the strongest, strangest and most wrenching of all Woolrich’s novels and the only one narrated throughout in first person by a woman. Superficially it’s a conventional Woman Menaced suspenser but once we crack its thin surface we’re in the jolting nightworld that is Woolrich’s private domain, and locked inside the mind and heart of one of his most twisted people.

   Like most Woolrich novels, it reminds us of other novels of his. It shares with PHANTOM LADY (1942) the race against the clock to save an innocent man convicted of murder, but this time it’s the man’s girlfriend not his wife who’s been killed, and it’s his wife who risks everything to save him from the chair.

   Like THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1940) it consists of a series of disconnected episodes with a tormented psychotic woman entering the lives of various men and devastating each in a different way. The angel of the title is Alberta French Murray, whose husband Kirk has taken up with nightclub entertainer Mia Mercer. Finding Kirk’s packed suitcase hidden in a closet, and knowing what until now she had only feared, she forces herself to go to Mia’s lavish Sutton Place apartment and beg for her man back.

   She finds the entrance door unlocked and Mia on the bedroom floor, smothered to death with a pillow. At that moment Mia’s phone rings. Alberta in a panic lifts the receiver to shut off the sound, hears Kirk’s voice on the other end, and hangs up without a word. Convinced that Kirk is innocent and frantic to protect him, Alberta steals Mia’s address book from the apartment. On the way out she notices and also takes with her a match folder, monogrammed with the letter M, which she finds wedged in the seam of the entrance door, apparently by the real murderer, who visited Mia openly once and then sneaked back to kill her.

   Alberta doesn’t report the murder to the police and doesn’t even think to call Kirk at his office and tell him Mia’s dead until it’s too late and he’s on his way to her place. The next time she sees her husband he’s handcuffed to a cynical cop named Flood and under arrest for Mia’s murder.

   A few pages later, thanks to the legally challenged Woolrich having wisely spared us a trial scene, he’s awaiting execution. While he’s sitting in the death house, she goes through his belongings, which the police have returned to her, and discovers that the monogrammed match folder she took from Mia’s apartment doesn’t belong to Mia herself. Therefore she concludes at once — and the intensity of Woolrich’s prose makes it easy for us to forget that her reasoning is ridiculous — that the real murderer must be one of the four names on the M page of Mia’s address book.

   She goes to Flood, who doesn’t send out underlings to check whether any of the four M’s uses monogrammed match folders but agrees to backstop Alberta’s crazy and time-intensive plan: to enter the life of each M in turn and try to pin the murder on him.

   For the rest of the novel we are with her and inside her as she carries out her mission. The first M is Martin Blair, a hopeless alcoholic into whose wretched life she insinuates herself until he commits suicide. Does she blame herself? “No, I was kind to him. I gave him something to die for…. It is better to die for something than to live for nothing.”

   The second M is Mordaunt, a foul-smelling doctor with a sideline of pushing narcotics, who soon takes her into his operation as a delivery person. This episode is full of suspense and anguish but Mordaunt never rises above the pulp monster level.

   Alberta emerges from the nightmare intact and with proof that the doctor isn’t the man she’s after. M3 is wealthy bon vivant Ladd Mason, whom Alberta entices into a relationship, then has Flood set up a hidden dictaphone device in her apartment to preserve any damning admission Mason might let slip. Eventually he admits that he’d visited Mia on the day of her death and found her body on the floor.

   She leaves him asleep in her apartment and goes on to her fourth quest, a man named McKee, a gambler-gangster-nightclub owner of a sort familiar from many pulp stories by Woolrich and countless others.

   Auditioning for and landing a spot in his club’s chorus line, she is soon installed in his Central Park West penthouse. She induces him to give her the combination to his safe and, at the earliest opportunity, opens it to hunt for evidence of his connection with Mia Mercer, but is caught by his goons and taken out to be executed.

   There’s no need to describe the rest of the novel, which ends with our black angel torn by love for one who is dead, shattered inside as she had shattered others, executioner and victim in one flesh.

***

   Fred Dannay once said of Woolrich that his “driving narrative power…carries readers on the crest of a tidal wave, and they are equally oblivious of the long arm of coincidence and the long arm of incredibility” when immersed in his fiction even though there “might be a hole in the plot structure that would destroy an ordinary story.”

   That is an inspired description of the raw material that the makers of the movie BLACK ANGEL (Universal, 1946) had to contend with: a wrenching, bizarre episodic novel whose protagonist’s obsessions grow to madness as she ruins others and herself to save her man from Mister Death.

   The film was directed and co-produced by British-born Roy William Neill (1886-1946), an industry old-timer fondly remembered for his Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He and screenwriter Roy Chanslor took on the jobs of tightening the novel’s structure, reducing the number of male characters, making the female lead more sympathetic, and at the same time preserving the Woolrich qualities of suspense and emotional anguish. A tall order!

   June Vincent starred as Catherine Bennett and Dan Duryea as the alcoholic pianist Martin Blair, who is an amalgam of Woolrich’s Martin Blair and his haunted socialite Ladd Mason. The Dr. Mordaunt episode was scrapped, and in the movie the M-monogrammed matchbook leads the black angel not to several men as in the book but only one, nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre), who more or less corresponds to Woolrich’s love-struck gambler McKee.

   Vincent’s Catherine Bennett doesn’t carry out her quest alone as Woolrich’s black angel did but is joined by Duryea’s Marty Blair character. Although Woolrich’s Marty kills himself after his brief encounter with the angel, Duryea not only lives through the movie but is recovering from his alcoholism by the fadeout. Duryea falls in love with Vincent somewhat as Ladd Mason had with Woolrich’s protagonist but in the movie she doesn’t return his love but stays loyal to her convicted and unfaithful husband.

   Yet despite these changes and many more, every frame of this fine film noir is permeated with the Woolrich spirit, Neill and his cinematographer Paul Ivano investing every shot with a visual style that translates the novel into film with total fidelity to its soul and precious little to its literal text. It was Roy William Neill’s finest film, and his last.

***

   In November 1965, less than two years before his own death, Basil Rathbone in a talk before a group of Sherlock Holmes fans described how the director of so many Holmes movies and of BLACK ANGEL had died. Late in 1946, Rathbone said, he was appearing on Broadway in a production of THE HEIRESS.

   “One night to the theatre came dear little Roy Neill. We loved him. We called him Mousie. He was a little guy and as sweet as they come, though a damn good disciplinarian….[W]e didn’t disobey orders and we were always on time and we always knew our lines….There came to my dressing room, in a gray flannel suit and a white carnation, little Roy Neill. And he was going home, which was Maidenhead on the Thames, in England, for the first time in…something like fifteen-odd years….[He] took the keys out of his pocket, and he showed me one and said to me: ‘….That opens the door to my home at Maidenhead on the Thames.’ And he had had a housekeeper stay there for all this time, waiting for this wonderful moment when, after making substantial money, he was able now to go home and enjoy his life on the river Thames. And he boarded the ship, and—I only learned this later—and he arrived, and he went to Maidenhead, and he put the key into the front door, he turned it, and walked into the hall of his home, and dropped dead.”

   According to the brief New York Times obituary on Neill, the 59-year-old director had died of a heart attack in the London home of a nephew. But if Rathbone wasn’t embellishing the facts for the sake of a good anecdote, what a Woolrich-like death for the man who had just made what up to that time was the finest Woolrich-based film!

***

   Woolrich himself thought the picture a disaster. Early in 1947 he received a letter in which the poet and scholar Mark Van Doren, who had been one of his professors when he was an undergraduate at Columbia, mentioned having recently seen the movie.

   Woolrich then went to see the picture at a neighborhood theater. “I was so ashamed when I came out of there,” he wrote Van Doren on February 2. “All I could keep thinking of in the dark was: Is that what I wasted my whole life at?”

   Keeping in mind how radically the movie altered his novel, one can understand Woolrich’s point of view. Perhaps those who are there for the screening and my comments later this month will understand too.

   But that doesn’t mean he was right. For my money, if a single theatrical feature based on a Woolrich novel (as opposed to the features based on shorter work like Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW) could be preserved for future generations and all the rest had to be destroyed, BLACK ANGEL is the one I would opt to keep.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Vampire’s Honeymoon.” Lead story in the collection Vampire’s Honeymoon, Carroll & Graf, paperback original, 1985. First published in Horror Stories, August-September 1939.

   First of all, there’s a reason why this story wasn’t reprinted until the C&G paperback collection came along, almost 50 years after its first appearance in a what’s called a weird menace or “shudder pulp.” It really isn’t very good.

   The title tells it all, or nearly so. A man, a well-educated fellow, goes to a party engaged to one girl, and leaves with another — a beautiful woman who he meets on a fourth-floor terrace as she seems about to jump — or float? — off. No one knows who she is, nor did anyone see her enter.

   They are engaged the next day and are soon married. The husband, as it turns out, is not the brightest bulb in the box. He cannot figure out why is suddenly afflicted with anemia, with small bites in his neck. Large mosquitoes, he tells the doctor. We the reader know better.

   All of the standard tropes about vampires are part and parcel of this tale: his new wife cannot be seen in mirrors, she stays inside in bed all day, is immune to bullets, and I’m sure I’m not giving anything away by telling you that a wooden stake is part of how the story ends.

   The story isn’t totally simplistic — Woolrich was too good a writer for that to be true — but it only hints at creepiness and once read, I doubt that anyone will remember it more than a day later. The other stories in the collection, all fairly long, may be better, and you may find me talking about them on this blog as time goes on.

   For the record, though, in case I don’t, their titles are “Graves for the Living,” “I’m Dangerous Tonight,” and “The Street of Jungle Death.” I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe that any of these are vampire stories.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:



CORNELL WOOLRICH
“I’m Dangerous Tonight.” All American Fiction, November 1937 (Volume 1, Number 1). Collected in (among others): The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich Southern Illinois University Press, hardcover, 1981; Vampire’s Honeymoon, Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1985. Available as a free download (various options) from www.archives.org.

    — “Señor Flatfoot.” Argosy Weekly, February 03, 1940. Collected as “One Night in Zacamoras” in Six Nights of Mystery, Popular Library #258, paperback 1950, as by William Irish. Readable online at www.unz.org.


   THE thing, whatever it was — and no one was ever sure afterwards whether it was a dream or a fit or what — happened at that peculiar hour before dawn when human vitality is at its lowest ebb. The Blue Hour they sometimes call it, l’heure bleue — the ribbon of darkness between the false dawn and the true, always blacker than all the rest of the night has been before it.

   “I’m Dangerous Tonight” is one of those stories that edge the fringe of the supernatural, hint, snap, and pull back from going too far, but only just. It’s almost a Janus Solution story (term coined by Frank McSherry) save the supernatural has a bit more weight than the natural.

   Like many of Woolrich’s plots, it doesn’t bear too much thinking about. The setting is Paris, where a disgraced FBI agent, Frank Fisher, is out to find Fed killer Belden, head of a dope-smuggling ring. Swirling around those events is a cursed dress that seems to make women go mad with evil, and acts as a catalyst to the events that end Fisher’s quest. Fate looms heavy, and every woman who wears the gown feels its siren’s call, “I’m dangerous tonight…”

   Fisher is bitter, guilt-ridden, and -driven. Belden is a back-shooting murderer and dope pusher, and the dress itself is simply evil. It is Gothic noir out of the Weird Menace pulps with just a hint of madness.

   There is always a rational explanation for everything in this world — whether it’s the true one or not. Maybe it is better so.

   If not in the front rank of the master’s work, this is nonetheless a fine example of the kind of power and control Woolrich could exert, grabbing the reader by the lapels and whispering of unkind and uncaring blind fate, here stalking from the fine shops of Paris to the smoky Apache haunted nightclubs, with doomed people briefly finding love and even bad men finding something worse than them moving just beyond the lights.

   No one ever wrote more convincingly of what lurked just beyond the light than Woolrich.

   I chose these two stories, not only because I read them recently, but because they could not be less alike, save the voice for both is distinctly that of Woolrich.

   Where “I’m Dangerous Tonight” suggests something ancient and evil, “Señor Flatfoot” is a straight forward action tale that was well suited to Argosy, and an example of something of the variety of Woolrich’s work, which encompassed, not only suspense and the weird, but also adventure, a hint of science fiction (“Jane Brown’s Body”),international intrigue (“Tokyo 1941”), and romance, as might be expected of anyone successful in a pulp career.

   O’ROURKE was enjoying a gin-and-lime under the arcade fronting the Plaza when the government changed on him. Or around him, whichever way you care to put it.

   “Flatfoot,” which incidentally was the cover story for that issue of the famous pulp, opens with the New York cop of the title in Latin America on a matter or extradition (waiting for his prisoner to get over typhoid in the local hospital), but before he can accomplish that job, he’ll find himself in the middle of a revolution amid beautiful dark eyed and passionate young women, ambitious generals with an eye for wristwatches, and up to his neck in murder.

   While fully in the Woolrich vein, the hero of “Flatfoot” could as easily have come out of Black Mask or one of those Warner Brothers movies about tough New York types in exotic locales. It’s hard not to wonder reading it if maybe you didn’t see Pat O’Brien in the film somewhere and have it stored in your memory palace as half a dozen other films.

   At times you can nearly hear O’Brien narrating.

   Things get more complicated when O’Rourke is recruited to display his skills as a detective to solve a murder that arises, not that you would think it would matter much with all the dead piling up around him.

   Of course O’Rourke ties it up all neatly:

   “I don’t want thanks,” remonstrated O’Rourke, wrinkling his forehead at her. “You don’t thank a duck for swimming or a bird for flying, do you? I just don’t know any different, that’s all. That’s my job; that’s why they call me flatfoot.”

   Neither story is a lost masterpiece by Woolrich (neither is reprinted much either, especially “Señor Flatfoot.”). Both are solid and entertaining pulp tales though, and each in its way shows just how much in control of the material he was as a professional. O’Rourke’s little coda could almost be Woolrich speaking. Writing was his job, and even in a lesser mode he did it well, and with an economy and skill that was admirable.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CORNELL WOOLRICH – Savage Bride. Gold Medal #138, paperback original; reprinted at least three times.

   So I was watching Black Moon, reviewed here a few years ago, a crackerjack little film taking place in the tropics and the priestess of a local voodoo cult, and it got me to thinking: Had I seen something like this before? No … but I’d read it; I was a Cornell Woolrich fan long before Mike Nevins made it respectable, and back in High School, when I haunted seedy used book stores in crummy neighborhoods, I picked up a copy of Savage Bride which, if I remembered correctly, had the same plot or something very much like it.

   I dug out my copy of the book, intending to skim through it and confirm my suspicions, but the Woolrich prose grabbed me right at the start, and I found myself reading (or re-reading after 40 years) this thing all the way through. And I was right: there are some changes, but this is basically the premise of Black Moon formatted for a two-bit -paperback.

   Larry Jones, naïve young hero, opens the story by eloping with Mitty, a young woman raised in seclusion by two scientists, her upbringing like some soda! experiment. The honeymooning couple miss their boat and get stuck on s Central American island where Mitty seems drawn Irresistibly towards the jungle … and the primitive tribes with their drums, those incessant drums pounding-in-my-head-night-and-day-Oh-why-won’t-they-stop?

   Yes, it’s Black Moon all right, complete with the wife turning into a creature of evil, the good folks on a plantation besieged and taken captive by natives, and the perky young love interest for our hero after his wife proves socially embarrassing.

   But there’s more here. Surprisingly more. Savage Bride is a novel with layers, only the first of which is Woolrich’s prose, colorful as a movie poster and just as effective. Woolrich evokes the feel of a scene by emphasizing its look: he describes conversations in silhouette, cigarette smoke drifting aimlessly as the pointless talk. He conveys the suspense of a car chase with the surrounding night-scape, and there’s a very neat bit late in the book with Larry darting from shadow to shadow in a moonlit night, which Woolrich likens to a chess piece maneuvering from black-square-to-white-to-black to avoid capture. Good stuff, that.

   There’s also some subtle foreshadowing which escaped me back in my teens: early on, Mitty describes her upbringing by the scientists: “He’d hand me something to drink and he’d say ‘Water.’ Then when ! wanted it again rd say ‘water’ and he’d bring it to me . . ..” And this is reprised later in the book to chilling effect. Mitty goes on to describe learning about love by reading Romeo and Juliet, and this is also echoed, very movingly, as the tale concludes. Sharp stuff for a two-bit paper-back.

   More layers? Well, like I said before, Mitty, the ostensible heroine of the book, quickly loses our sympathy and becomes the villain of the piece toward the end (“She doesn’t know what mercy is.”) but Woolrich very casually demonstrates that her cruelty is no worse than that of the heartless men who spirited her away as a child in the name of Science, and maybe not as bad as the slow, deliberate meanness of the corrupt officials of “civilization.”

   And come to that, all of these are just expressions of the malignant universe that was Woolrich’s world.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   Anyone remember a Cornell Woolrich story called “The Fatal Footlights”? It first appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly for June 14, 1941 and finally found a hardcover home when I included it in my Woolrich collection NIGHT & FEAR (2004). The setting is a cheap burlesque house on New York’s 42nd Street and the plot kicks off when the featured dancer, who performs with her body painted gold all over, collapses on the runway during a show and dies.

   We soon learn that it was the gold paint that killed her, and that someone had stolen the paint remover from her dressing room precisely in order to cause her death without laying a finger on her. Of course, what death by gilding conjures up for most of us is not this obscure Woolrich story but the James Bond movie GOLDFINGER (1964) and Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel of the same name. Fred Dannay had reprinted Woolrich’s story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for June 1955 under the new title “Death at the Burlesque,” and if the tale came to Fleming’s attention it was probably by this route.

***

   For the media the megadeath of April 2016 was that of pop icon Prince. But just one day earlier, on the 20th of the month, death claimed the director of GOLDFINGER — and of several other Bond films. Guy Hamilton was born in Paris of English parents in 1922 and entered the British film industry after service in World War II. In 1952, having put in a few years as an assistant director, he made his first film, THE RINGER, based on something — whether a novel, a story, a play or just the character is unclear — by Edgar Wallace.

   It wasn’t until his involvement with Sean Connery and GOLDFINGER that he came to prominence, and in later years he directed three other Bond films: DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971), again with Connery, and LIVE AND LET DIE (1973) and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), both starring Roger Moore. He also contributed to the more serious type of espionage film as director of FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966), based on the novel by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine.

   Near the end of his career he helmed two pictures based on Agatha Christie novels and filmed in the manner of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, with a huge budget and tons of guest stars. THE MIRROR CRACK’D (1980) starred Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple, with guest stars including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor, while Peter Ustinov took the lead as Hercule Poirot in EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982), with Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, James Mason and Diana Rigg among the guest stars.

***

   The actress in GOLDFINGER who met her death by gilding was Shirley Eaton (1937- ). As chance would have it, I met Ms. Eaton twenty-odd years ago, at the Memphis Film Festival. We both happened to pick the same time to have lunch in the convention hotel restaurant and out of the blue she asked if she could sit with me, saying she didn’t like eating alone.

   Was I a hot dude in those days or what? No, I didn’t make a pass at her, nor she at me, but in her middle fifties she was still quite lovely. I was interested in Guy Hamilton, GOLDFINGER’s director, and asked if she knew how I could get in touch with him. She told me that she understood he’d retired and moved to Majorca. With no more to go on than that, I wasn’t able to track him down. Now he’s gone for good. Obituaries indicate that Majorca was indeed his final home.

***

   So why was I interested in Hamilton? Not because of GOLDFINGER, or any other Bond film, and not because of the Christie-based pictures either. Just before GOLDFINGER, Hamilton had directed a picture that fascinated me: a commercial failure, not even mentioned in the New York Times obituary, but one that I was using in my Law and Film seminar at St. Louis University and wanted to write about. Odds are that no reader of this column has seen or heard of it.

   The literary source of the film was the 1959 novel THE WINSTON AFFAIR by Howard Fast (1914-2003), a super-prolific author who was a Communist and, back in the Red Menace era, served a prison term for contempt of Congress. Among general readers he’s best known as the author of SPARTACUS (1951), source of the blockbuster movie with Kirk Douglas; among mystery fans he’s remembered for the whodunits he wrote as E.V. Cunningham.

   No one would call THE WINSTON AFFAIR a mystery but it might be considered a legal thriller. The time is late in World War II and the place is India, which Fast knew well from his work as a war correspondent. Large numbers of British and American troops are serving in the area side by side and tension between the two armies is running high.

   Barney Adams, a West Point graduate and wounded combat veteran, is assigned as defense counsel at a court martial. The defendant, Lieutenant Charles Winston, is a middle-aged misfit who at a military outpost in the boondocks cold-bloodedly shot to death a British sergeant in full view of several witnesses.

   In order to restore unity with their British allies, the American commanders are determined that Winston be tried promptly and hanged. But since Winston happens to have a Congressman as his brother-in-law, the court-martial must be conducted not in the drumhead style but with the facade of due process preserved. It’s made clear to Adams, however, that he is not to raise the only defense available: insanity.

   Everyone with professional expertise admits privately to Adams that Winston was and still is insane but a “lunacy board” with no psychiatric experience has ruled to the contrary. At a press conference before the trial, Adams responds to an Indian journalist’s question with the statement that might does not make right and justice can only exist apart from power. Once the court-martial begins, he jumps the reservation and goes all out to establish an insanity defense, clearly destroying his own military career in the process.

   The biggest problem with THE WINSTON AFFAIR is that, like so much “socially conscious” fiction, it’s heavy on earnest rhetoric and light on drama. In MAN IN THE MIDDLE (1963), the movie based on Fast’s novel, the Debate on Great Issues tone is either scrapped or, where kept, is made subordinate to story and character.

   Let’s compare the first few paragraphs of WINSTON and the first minute or so of the movie. Fast begins with a banal exchange of dialogue between the area’s commanding general and his sergeant. Guy Hamilton opens the movie with a stunning pre-credits sequence as we watch Winston (Keenan Wynn) stride from his quarters to the tent barracks, walk into the British sergeant’s canvas cubicle, take out a pistol and pump four bullets into him. In the novel we never see the murder.

   Barney Adams is the protagonist of both works but his biography differs sharply from one to the other. Fast’s character is a captain, 28 years old, six years out of West Point and an honors graduate of Harvard Law School. The Adams of the movie looks to be in his mid-forties, as Robert Mitchum was when he played the role, and accordingly holds the higher rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

   This version of the character knows next to nothing about military law and certainly never went to a civilian law school. He’s invested much more of himself in his career as a soldier than has Fast’s Adams, and if he sacrifices that career trying to save his pathetic and disgusting client, the stakes are much higher than they are for his novelistic counterpart.

   The ultimate evil in Fast’s novel is anti-Semitism. Winston is a paranoiac who believes he’s being plotted against by “international Jewry, the Elders of Zion, the whole kit and kaboodle of Nazi filth.” A Jewish officer calls him “a decaying cesspool of every vile chauvinism and hatred ever invented…, who spat in my face and called me a kike and a sheeny….”

   Guy Hamilton and his collaborators drop the anti-Semitism theme, a decision which displeased Fast mightily, and anachronistically replace it with what in the early 1960s was much more timely. You guessed it. Racism. The British sergeant he killed, Wynn tells Mitchum, “was altogether an evil man. He’d sit and spout democracy, then he’d go out….Up into the hills, one of these native villages. He had women up there. Black women. I saw him!….I used to follow him up that hill and watch him with those black witches up there. He was defiling the race, Colonel….He wasn’t fit to live in a white man’s world.”

   As Mitchum is leaving the guardhouse, Wynn is taken out for his daily exercise. Guy Hamilton places us with Mitchum, looking down into the sunken prison yard, watching Wynn pace back and forth in an enclosed stone cube that is a perfect visual correlative for his racism.

   I could go on for many more pages — and did just that in a chapter on the movie and Fast’s novel that was first published in the University of San Francisco Law Review and is included in my Edgar-nominated JUDGES AND JUSTICE AND LAWYERS AND LAW (2014) — but space compels me to cut to the bottom line.

   The key to understanding the differences between novel and film is that, during the four years between them, two monumental events occurred: the publication of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1960) and the release of the classic film version (1962) with Gregory Peck. Hamilton’s movie does what Fast’s novel couldn’t have done.

   Robert Mitchum’s version of Barney Adams creates a new type of Atticus Finch figure: tough and laconic, almost a Philip Marlowe in khaki, where Atticus was loving and compassionate; representing not a sympathetic and clearly innocent black man in the South of the 1930s but a guilty white racist of the worst sort. “It’s easy to fight for the innocent,” Mitchum says, perhaps referring subtly to Atticus. “But when you fight for the sick, for the warped, for the lost, then you’ve got justice.”

   His (and Guy Hamilton’s) Barney Adams doesn’t have a license to practice law but, as I see it, offers a more challenging and less reassuring incarnation of the lawyerly ethos that is permanently linked in the public mind with the years of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren.

***

   We’ve come a long way from Cornell Woolrich and death by gilding and it would be hard to end this column neatly by going back. Since many readers of this column are movie buffs, I’ll close by quoting a letter about MAN IN THE MIDDLE sent to me by Howard Fast early in 1996.

   Most of the shooting, he said, took place “on Lord Somethingorother’s estate about ten miles out of London. I was in London with my family and I watched a good bit of the filming. Bob Mitchum was wonderful. For me he was the best film actor of his time. Each day he sat quietly on the set, putting away a quart of whisky. When his scene came he never flubbed a word, while the British actors were flubbing all over the place. They never had to do a second take because of Mitchum… I was awed by the ability of the British film makers to reproduce an Indian setting there near London.”