● CORNELL WOOLRICH – Black Alibi. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1942. Paperback reprints include: HandiBook #14, 194?; Jonathan Press, 194?; Collier, 1965; Ballantine, 1982.

● THE LEOPARD MAN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943. Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell. Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. Producer: Val Lewton. Director: Jacques Tourneur .

   So it was time to get back to the Classics, and in my book, that’s Cornell Woolrich. Black Alibi isn’t terribly well-structured — it consists mainly of a growingly repetitious series of rather lengthy vignettes of young girls going to meet untimely and violent ends at the hands of…. well, it’s a Mystery, isn’t it? — but it contains some of Woolrich’s richest prose, and that’s saying quite a lot.

   Alibi offers scene after scene of startling imagery, deft metaphor, and everything else that makes the words a pleasure to read, even when the book itself gets a bit tiresome.

   Black Alibi was filmed by the Val Lewton unit at RKO just a year after the book came out, and Woolrich never found an auteur more attuned to his peculiar sensibilities than Val Lewton. Lewton made “B” movies and Woolrich wrote pulp, but both men were compulsive poets, and The Leopard Man is one of the more meticulous Woolrich-to-film adaptations: bits of dialogue, trifling incidents, and minor characters from the book all show up on the screen under Lewton’s careful supervision and the classy direction of Jacques Tourneur, which seems to capture even the metaphors from Woolrich’s novel.

   Given the faithfulness of this film, I’ve sometimes wondered about the exact contributions of the screenwriters, Ardel Wray and Edward Dein. It takes a certain amount of talent not to mess  up a good story when putting it across the screen, so I can understand Wray’s contribution: she worked on a couple other Lewton films and a better-than average series entry, The Falcon and the Coeds. But I wonder what “additional dialogue” may have been contributed by Edward Dein, a writer whose dubious credits include Jungle Woman, Calypso Joe, and Shack Out on  101. Just one of those unexplained mysteries of The Cinemah, I guess.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #37, March 2005.