Search Results for '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.

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.

   â€œOne 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.


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.


“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

    — “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

   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.

   â€œI’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.

   â€œFlatfoot,” 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:

   â€œI 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.


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.

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.”

by Francis M. Nevins

   Shall we go over my homework assignment for last month? The 1949 live TV version of “Goodbye, New York” was interesting to watch and certainly captured the Woolrich mood of desperation. But the scenes that are the heart and soul of the story, the ones that take place on the street, on the subway platform, on the IRT train, in Penn Station — how could they possibly have been done live? Even with the help of silent film clips that gave the actors time to run from one set to the next, there’s no way this pioneering live teledrama could do justice to Woolrich. What a shame that the story was never adapted for a 30-minute filmed series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents!


   â€œGoodbye, New York” appeared in print at least four times while Woolrich was alive: first in Story Magazine (October 1937), then in The Story Pocket Book, ed. Whit Burnett (Pocket Book #276, paperback, 1944), later in EQMM for March 1953, finally, as “Don’t Wait Up for Me Tonight,” in the Woolrich collection Violence (Dodd Mead, 1958).

   I happen to have all but the first of these, and for some unaccountable reason I decided a few weeks ago to compare the texts of the three versions on my shelves and see what I could see. What I found was what I’ve discovered many times before: all sorts of interesting attempts to update the story as time went by.

   The first of these relates to home entertainment. In the Pocket Book version the female narrator says that figuring out precisely how deeply she and her husband were in debt “had given us something to do in the evening, in place of a radio.” Fred Dannay left this sentence untouched when he reprinted the story in EQMM, but in Violence the last phrase morphs into “in place of TV.”

   The next has to do with the price of a daily newspaper. In the Pocket Books version we read that “the morning paper only came to two cents a day….” In 1953 Fred changed this to “a few cents” a day, and Violence follows his change. Then comes the cost of a man’s suit. The narrator purchases one for her husband, paying for it with a $50 bill he stole from the man he killed, and the salesman in the Pocket Books version “returned with fifteen dollars change….”

   In the era of post-WWII inflation Fred knew that a suit couldn’t be bought in Manhattan for $35 and substituted “with the change…,” which is how the phrase appears in Violence five years later. (Could a suit be bought in 1953 for less than fifty bucks? Dunno.)

   Finally come a couple of alterations connected with the New York subway system. The fare in 1937 was five cents — as we know from the Woolrich classic “Subway,” which first appeared in 1936 as “You Pays Your Nickel” — and the woman puts two such coins in the slot, telling her husband “I’ll leave a nickel in for you….” In EQMM the nickel grows to a dime, and in Violence it becomes a token. Having just returned from New York, I can report that today you can’t enter the system without an electronic fare card, from which a staggering $2.75 is deducted for each ride.

   A bit later in the Pocket Books version we are told that a subway clerk “wasn’t obliged to make change for anything greater than two dollars.” Two-buck bills were still common back then. Fred changed “greater” to “bigger” but kept the dollar amount as it was. In Violence it’s cut to one buck.

   I also discovered two sentences in the Pocket Books version that didn’t survive into later printings. Penn Station is described as “The one place where they [the police] could count on anyone who wanted an out in a hurry showing up to get it.” Why Fred cut this is unclear. Perhaps because Grand Central Station was unaccountably ruled out? The second expurgated line comes after the woman watches her husband carefully deposit some trash in a station wastebasket. “God, neatness at such a time!” she thinks.

   Such are the joys of comparing different versions of the same story. With or without changes, I still think “Goodbye, New York” is one of Woolrich’s finest even though Suspense didn’t do justice to it.


   This column began with a TV drama from 1949 so shouldn’t it end with a novel from the same year? Aaron Marc Stein (1906-1985) wrote something like 110 mysteries, under his own name and as George Bagby and Hampton Stone.

   Recently I pulled down Coffin Corner (1949), as by Bagby, which I’m sure I read decades ago but had forgotten almost completely. The body of a legendary athlete who in his diabetic declining years has been working as scout for a pro football team is found at the base of the team’s uptown home stadium, and medical evidence soon convinces Bagby’s series character Inspector Schmidt that he neither jumped nor accidentally fell off the stadium’s parapet but was murdered by a massive overdose of insulin.

   The rest of the book takes place in less than 24 hours and in one setting, a huge apartment atop the stadium which is surrounded by an even larger terrace complete with outdoor swimming pool and other athletic niceties, and the small cast of suspects includes the team owner, his wife, and various players and wannabees.

   The backstory which led to the central murder takes a bit of believing but I found the book highly readable, packed with insights into diabetes and pro football (which more than one character calls a racket) and with those unique sentences, long but not convoluted like Faulkner’s, which are a Stein trademark.

   Aaron wrote for half a century but never really hit it big. Many of his 110 novels were reprinted in paperback or as book club selections but none became movies or radio dramas and, to the best of my knowledge, only one made it to live TV. “Cop Killer,” based on the 1956 Bagby novel of the same name, was seen July 9, 1958 on Kraft Mystery Theatre, a 60-minute version starring the long-forgotten Fred J. Scollay as Schmitty and featuring Paul Hartman and Edward Binns. I remember watching this summer replacement series regularly but can’t recall whether I caught this episode.

   Beginning in 1946 after returning from service as an Army cryptographer, Aaron wrote four or five books a year, usually in a few weeks apiece, and spent much of the rest of his time traveling in odd corners of South America and other parts of the world, many of which show up in the novels published under his own name. In the early 1950s Anthony Boucher described him as the most reliable professional detective novelist in the country.

   I’ve been partial to his books since my teens and continue to revisit them now and then in geezerhood. I came to know him well in the Seventies, when both of us served on a University of California library board and he autographed many of his books for me. After his death I was invited, whenever I visited New York, to stay in the co-op on Park Avenue and 88th Street which he’d shared with his sister and her husband, and thanks to that invitation I enjoyed the unique experience of reading some of his late novels in the room where he wrote them. I still remember him fondly.

by Francis M. Nevins

   Thanks to being on the road – -among other places, in New York where I’ll attend the MWA annual dinner and find out if I’m going to be the proud recipient of a third Edgar — I need to hold this down to a mini-column. It’s an ancient tradition that when a professor has to miss a class or two, one leaves a homework assignment for the students. You’ll find mine in the next item.


   What an amazing age we live in! I never thought anything could be added to the checklist of adaptations of Cornell Woolrich stories from the golden age of live TV drama that appeared almost thirty years ago in my FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE. Now I’ve just stumbled upon a Woolrich-based teledrama that I had never heard of before.

   Not just a reference to it but the episode itself, and one whose origin was a Woolrich tale I had never known was adapted for TV. It’s available on DVD (SUSPENSE: THE LOST EPISODES, COLLECTION 3) and on YouTube to boot.

   â€œGoodbye, New York” was based on the first-rate Woolrich story of the same name (Story Magazine, October 1937). A Web write-up of the DVD describes it as evoking a mood of “grim…noir-esque despair,” which certainly makes it sound faithful to its source. Meg Mundy starred in the 30-minute drama, which featured Gage Clarke, Philip Coolidge and an unbilled Ray Walston.

   Like 90-odd other SUSPENSE episodes, it was directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989), who later helmed dozens of filmed episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. (Stevens died in his late sixties after being robbed and beaten by unknown assailants.) As shown on YouTube the episode doesn’t include an air date, but according to other Web sources it was the pilot for the series, broadcast on January 6, 1949, which apparently means that it’s the earliest TV version of any Woolrich tale.

   YouTube claims that Woolrich’s story was also the basis for the 1952 Hollywood feature BEWARE, MY LOVELY, starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, but this is flat-out wrong; the literary source for that picture was Mel Dinelli’s “The Man” which, funnily enough, also first appeared in Story Magazine (May-June 1945).

   Here’s your homework assignment: When you’ve finished reading this column, watch the YouTube video and see if you agree that perhaps the earliest contribution to TV noir has been unearthed.

   If you have it handy you might want to read the Woolrich story too. It closes with lines that come as close as anything to capturing his world in a few words. “Two doomed things, running away. From nothingness, into nothingness….Turn back we dare not, stand still they wouldn’t let us, and to go forward was our destruction at our own hands.”


   There’s just space for a couple of bits of information that I promised to include this month, dealing with adaptations of John Dickson Carr for 60-minute broadcasts during the golden age of live teledrama. The first of these was seen on the CBS anthology series STUDIO ONE the night of January 7, 1952. “The Devil in Velvet” was directed by Paul Nickell from a teleplay by Sumner Locke Elliott based on Carr’s 1951 historical thriller of the same name. The stars were Whit Bissell, Phyllis Kirk and Joan Wetmore.

   Apparently there were no more hour-long Carr adaptations until more than six years later when another CBS anthology series presented a version of by far the best known and most popular Carr radio play, “Cabin B-13″ (CLIMAX!, June 26, 1958). Shortly after a newlywed couple board a luxury liner for their honeymoon cruise, the man vanishes along with the fortune his wife gave him as a wedding present.

   She reports his disappearance to the captain and is told that there’s no record of either herself or her husband as passengers and that what she claims to have been their cabin doesn’t exist. Heading the cast were Barry Sullivan (Dr. Edwards), Kim Hunter (Ann Brewster), Alex Nicol (Robert Brewster), Hurd Hatfield (Morini) and Sebastian Cabot (Capt. Wilkins). The original Carr radio play is easily available both in audio and script form.


   Apparently the last hour-long live Carr adaptation on American TV was aired on NBC’s DOW HOUR OF GREAT MYSTERIES, a short-lived series that aired once a month for seven months during the last year of the Eisenhower administration, by which time live TV drama was pretty much dead.

   Second of the seven episodes was “The Burning Court” (April 24, 1960). The adaptation of Carr’s classic 1937 novel of the same name was by Audrey and William Roos, who were well known for collaborating on whodunits as Kelley Roos. Paul Nickell once again directed. The cast boasted four top names: Barbara Bel Geddes (Marie Stevens), Robert Lansing (Edward Stevens), George C. Scott (Gordon Cross), and Anne Seymour (Mrs. Henderson).

   I can’t remember a thing about this show, probably because I was watching MAVERICK or something that night.

by Francis M. Nevins


   Since my last column I’ve seen Pièges, the French film from 1939 with so many strange links to Cornell Woolrich, and discovered even more of the same. I’ll limit myself here to three.

   First of all, the movie is episodic in just the way so many of Woolrich’s best-known novels are episodic. It’s impossible that director Robert Siodmak and the screenwriters borrowed the structure from a Woolrich novel of that sort since all of those novels, beginning with The Bride Wore Black (1940), postdate Pièges.

   Could the filmmakers have known of Woolrich’s first use of episodic structure in the long 1937 novelet “I’m Dangerous Tonight”? Barely possible but most unlikely since that tale remained buried in the pulps for decades and wasn’t collected until 1981.

   Secondly, for just a minute or two, beginning with Marie Dea’s discovery of her vanished girlfriend’s bracelet in Maurice Chevalier’s desk, Pièges evokes the classic Woolrich situation where the protagonist is made to seesaw back and forth between believing the person he or she loves is innocent and accepting the evidence of the other’s guilt. The earliest Woolrich story in this vein is “The Night Reveals” (1936) so the filmmakers could have known of it.


   Third, when Chevalier in Pièges is put on trial for murder, director Robert Siodmak covers the scene in just a few impressionistic fragments. Woolrich in Phantom Lady (1942) covers the trial of Scott Henderson in somewhat the same way: prosecutor’s closing argument, jury verdict, death sentence. He could have chosen this approach simply because he knew no law and didn’t care to learn any, or because it was suggested to him from seeing Pièges. We’ll never know.

   Pièges was released in France late in 1939, apparently just before the outbreak of World War II. Was it ever released in the U.S.? Yes it was. In the chapter on Siodmak in his 1994 book Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp: American Filmmakers Abroad, 1914-1945, Harry Waldman tells us that its original English-language title was Personal Column and quotes from the review of it that appeared in the New York Times. Clearly Woolrich could have seen the picture.


   But did he? Since there’s no reason to believe he knew French, it’s unlikely he would have gone unless the print shown in New York was subtitled. Was it? Waldman doesn’t tell us and so far I haven’t found the answer elsewhere.

   Siodmak is included in Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp because Harry Waldman believed he was American by birth. In fact, as I mentioned last month, the director was of German Jewish descent and his birthplace was Dresden. But the myth that he was a son of the South, born in Memphis, has circulated for generations. I must say I’m grateful that Harry Waldman accepted that myth. His mistake made my research for this month’s column ridiculously easy.


   In my high school and college days I read just about all of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels — except those that hadn’t been published yet! — and some but not all of the novels about Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that he wrote as A.A. Fair.


   Last month I pulled out one that as far as I could remember I hadn’t read before and gave it a try. The results are mixed. Bedrooms Have Windows (1949) opens in the lobby of a large hotel to which, as we learn later, Lam has trailed a suspected con man. Suddenly a petite and gorgeous blonde, clearly meant to evoke Veronica Lake, invites Donald to escort her into the hotel’s cocktail lounge.

   There she spins a yarn that takes them both to a remote motel where they register as husband and wife. The woman walks out on Lam around the same time that a man in another unit of the motel apparently kills his mistress and then himself. All this in the first couple of chapters!

   Eventually we learn that the counter-plotting stems from the blonde’s determination to break up the marriage between the man her sister loves and the tramp he actually married and a blackmail ring’s determination to cash in on the situation. But, if I may mangle metaphors, under scrutiny much of the plot labyrinth collapses like a house of cards, which is an all too common fault in Gardner.


   The coincidences that keep things moving might have fazed a Harry Stephen Keeler, and the storyline suffers from a number of coffee-out-the-nose elements, for example that the police accept as an obvious suicide the death of that guy in the motel who, as Gardner omits to tell us till near the end of the book, was shot between the eyes.

   I wouldn’t rank this as one of the finest in the Cool and Lam series, but it moves fast and has plenty of the adversarial dialogue that was a Gardner trademark and reflects its time well, with plenty of references to the skyrocketing inflation of the years right after World War II. I don’t recommend it strongly but I can’t call it worthless either. Shall we say one thumb down?


   This month’s column is both shorter and later than usual. Why? Because I have been and still am putting in a slew of hours on the index to Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection. Gad, what drudgery! The book will come out around February and a short excerpt will appear in the January 2013 EQMM. I hope those who read this column regularly will keep an eye out for both.