DASHIELL HAMMETT – Woman in the Dark. First appeared in Liberty Magazine in three installments, April 8, April 15 and April 22, 1933. Later published in Woman in the Dark, a digest paperback original collecting six stories, including the title novella: Jonathan Press, 1951. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1988. Vintage Books, softcover, 1989.

WOMAN IN THE DARK. RKO Radio Pictures, 1934. Also released as Woman in the Shadows. Fay Wray, Ralph Bellamy, Melvyn Douglas, Roscoe Ates, Ruth Gillette, Joe King. Based on the story by Dashiell Hammett. Director: Phil Rosen.

   Actually I recently watched the movie first, then decided I didn’t remember the story all that well and not being able to locate my copy of the 1951 paperback, I bought the more recent one from Amazon for a ridiculously low price.

   For only a long novelette, there’s a lot of story involved. Hammett’s prose is crisp and clear, and I found myself really enjoying reading it again, after some umpteen years. If I were to try to summarize the story in as short a space as I could, it would go something like this. I’ll fill in more later as I go along:

   A guy named Brazil (John Bradley in the movie, played by Ralph Bellamy) has just been released from prison for killing a man in a fight, and he knows he has to keep his temper from now on for fear of going back. In the course of events, however, he knocks a man down who hits his head on a fireplace. When Brazil learns the man is dying, he takes it on the lam.

   This summary is far from adequate, of course, since there’s no mention of the girl who comes knocking on his door in the middle of the night (Luise Fischer in the book, Louise Loring in the movie, played by Fay Wray). Turns out that she’s on the run from the member of local gentry whom she’s been staying with as a live-in “house guest,” and all the people around know what that means.

   It’s the fellow’s buddy who gets socked, though, after the two of them come to retrieve the runaway Luise. Brazil objects, not because the girl is good-looking, especially, but mostly on general principles.

   For a place to hide out for a while he heads for the apartment of a former cell mate (Donny Link in the book, Tommy Logan in the movie, played by Roscoe Ates) and his full-bodies blonde wife Fan (Lil in the movie, played by Ruth Gillette), where they are welcomed, but when the police are tipped off, the safe haven suddenly isn’t so safe any more.

   I hope I don’t spoil things by saying that it all works out, with a slight twist and a happy ending to boot, but a good part of the real enjoyment is Hammett’s tough, terse prose in the getting there, told in such a wonderfully atmospheric, precise fashion that I think the movie could have been filmed without changing a thing.

   But while of course they did, and not only the names of the characters, most of the story comes through intact. There are two long opening scenes to set the stage that are not in the book, the first in which we see Bradley (Brazil) being released from prison, the second at the home of the local sheriff, whose daughter has had a long time crush on Bradley, and against her parents’ wishes, is there in his cabin when Louise comes stumbling in from the cold and the dark. (Fay Wray in a white dress stands out beautifully in the night sky.)

   Ralph Bellamy seems to be a man of some wealth. I didn’t catch that that was so for Brazil in the book. Brazil seems to have been a rougher, tougher man than a Ralph Bellamy type, the latter seen most memorably lounging against the fireplace in his cabin, casually puffing away on a pipe.

   There is a flashback in the movie that describes how Louise met her benefactor Robson (a suitably slimy Melvyn Douglas), softening her image somewhat. In the movie she’s a singer down on her luck; in the story it is less clear, but she sadly seems to acknowledge that when she is called a strumpet by the local folks, they may not be altogether wrong.

   One scene in particular surprised me little when I saw it reproduced in the movie almost the way I pictured it in the book. It is when the lawyer that Brazil’s pal calls on for assistance repeatedly puts his hand on Luise’s knee, and she accidentally brushes it off with the tip of her cigarette.

   What consistently breaks the mood of the movie, though, is the comic antics of Roscoe Ates as Bellamy’s former cell mate. Hammett could be amusing in a tough, hardboiled way. It isn’t over the top, but the movie really could have done without silly stuff like this.

   Fay Wray is near perfect in her part, though, and the near pre-Code release date means we get to see camera shots of her beautifully long legs as she examines them for bruises, but there’s far more to her role than that.