SHERWOOD KING – If I Die Before I Wake. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1938. Mystery Novel of the Month #16, digest-sized paperback, [1940]. Ace Double D9, paperback, 1953 (published back-to-back with Decoy, by Michael Morgan). Curtis 7154, paperback, 1965.

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Columbia Pictures, 1947. Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders. Based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake, by Sherwood KIng. Director: Orson Welles.

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Befoer I Wake

   Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake offers an intriguing premise: Laurence Planter is something of a footloose jack-of-some-trades marking time, as the story starts, as a chauffeur to criminal attorney Mark Bannister and his trophy wife Elsa. He also spends a lot of time running Bannister’s partner Grisby back and forth from the Bannister house to the office.

   It’s on one of those runs that Grisby offers Laurence five thousand dollars to commit murder — the murder of Grisby himself.

   It’s a neat book, with an even neater twist to it: Grisby wants to fake his death by having witnesses see Laurence walk to the end of a dark pier with him, hear a shot and see Laurence come back alone. But no corpse will be found — Laurence can’t (he thinks) be charged with murder, but Grisby will (he thinks) be legally dead.

   And the scheme seems to work quite nicely until Laurence goes through with it and signs a confession,only to have Grisby’s body turn up after all — very very murdered.

   As I say, it’s a clever hook for a story, and Cornell Woolrich could have made a nightmarish classic of it, but Sherwood King just lets it lie there with the sharp end sticking up. There’s not much action in the story and very little movement at all, as if King were too lazy to describe new locations for us. Instead,he opens the tale with awkward dialogue, then gets bogged down in a lengthy trial scene capped off with a resolution that’s all talk. And so another good idea misfires.

   But wait….

   The story goes that in 1946 Orson Welles was trying to raise money from Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, and during a desperate conversation in a drugstore phone booth his eye fell upon a paperback book he’d never read and he suddenly convinced Cohn it would make a great movie, which he could direct and star in with his then-wife, Columbia’s leading lady Rita Hayworth.

   Well, it’s a nice story and it may even be true, despite reports that Columbia already owned If I Die Before I Wake and was planning to have contract director William Castle make it as a B movie. (It would have made a good entry in the Whistler series.)

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Before I Wake

   Whatever the case, Welles took the basic plot and most of the details and turned The Lady from Shanghai (its new title) into his most enjoyable film, a tricky, fast-moving, witty, careening ride form Central Park, through Acapulco (some of this was filmed on board Errol Flynn’s yacht) to San Francisco’s Chinatown, culminating in a visual tour-de-force: the shoot-out in a hall of mirrors where, as one critic noted, the characters have to come face-to-face with themselves before meeting their end.

   Welles plays the hero like a young Falstaff, lustful, charming, and all too aware of his own fecklessness. He’s abetted by Rita Hayworth as the duplicitous wife — though he doesn’t give his then-wife much to do. I’ve seen her more effective in the hands of lesser directors — but the films is helped along splendidly by Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders as lawyers Bannister and Grisby.

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Before I Wake

   Except for a part in Tarzan’s Peril, I never heard of Glenn Anders before and after this film, and he reportedly had an awful time making it, but his performance as Grisby is one of high points of the American Cinema: sweaty, smiling, whiny and worming, he seems so devoid of humanity — of perhaps so excessively human — that you can’t figure out why no one ever killed him before the picture started.

   His performance complements Welles’ visual excesses perfectly, and I’ve always thought it an overlooked gem in a treasure-trove of a film.

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Before I Wake