Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Cornell Woolrich

Whodunit: murder mysteries 101

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Who has sold the most mystery books? Where did the line, “the butler did it” come from? And who wrote the first detective novel?

Begun more than 170 years ago, the detective story is a staple of American literature and equally popular overseas. American writers are joined on best seller lists by mystery authors from the UK, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy and other countries. In essence, killing people on paper is popular the world over.

This begins an occasional series on the history, subject matter, authors, techniques and trivia of this genre.

Fedora,-gun-etc.-Sepia--Es-The modern detective story was born in 1841 with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia.

First in an occasional series

Edgar Allen Poe’s story describes the analytical power used by detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin to solve a series of bizarre murders in Paris. Like the later Sherlock Holmes stories, the tale is narrated by the detective’s roommate. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but a monkey did it. Yes, it is a bizarre twist to have a murderous monkey, but consider who wrote the story.

Following the publication of Poe’s tale, detective short stories and novels gradually became popular. English novelist Wilkie Collins published The Moonstone in 1868, a detective novel that includes several features of the typical modern mystery, including red herrings, false alibis and climactic scenes. Continue Reading →

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Only the orange hat can save his life

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Phantom Lady
Cornell Woolrich writing as William Irish
Introduction by Barry N. Malzberg
Centipede Press 2012
288 pages
Trade paper $18
Originally published in 1942

Hear the clock ticking? It’s counting down the minutes and seconds that Scott Henderson has to live. He’s accused of murdering his wife who, he admits to police, had refused to give him a divorce. But he didn’t kill her.

At least we don’t think he did, although his alibi is almost impossible to believe. He says he spent the evening with a lady he picked up in a bar. They attended a musical revue together, then parted after the show without ever exchanging names or personal information.Phantom-Lady-novel-cover

Fans of Cornell Woolrich will appreciate this new edition of Phantom Lady. It contains a unique, if rambling, reminiscence about the author by someone who was his agent a year before he died. It also includes color pictures of posters from the 1944 movie based on the novel and shots of various cover treatments of the book since its original release. This beautiful edition, on heavy stock, makes a great addition to your mystery library.

If you’ve just discovered Woolrich and are working your way through his substantial body of suspense work, Phantom Lady is not a bad place to start. Although it’s not my favorite Woolrich tale, it’s an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter until the end. But that was Woolrich’s MO for more than two dozen books. Continue Reading →

Your vote: what are the best noir films?

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Anyone who thinks of Fred MacMurray mainly as the jovial father on the 1960s TV series My Three Sons or the screwball title character in The Absent Minded Professor film, doesn’t know the real Fred MacMurray.

The real Fred MacMurray was the scheming insurance salesman and murderer in the 1944 film, Double Indemnity. In so many scenes, from his first meeting with Barbara Stanwyck, the wife of the man he would ultimately kill for his life insurance money, to a secret rendezvous in a grocery store, MacMurray has an undisguised devious look in his eyes yet a guarded set to his lips.Crow-gun-Web-opt-w-title619 (It’s a different, yet equally dishonest countenance he bore as Lt. Tom Keefer in The Caine Mutinty.)

Combine MacMurray’s persuasive performance with his two assured costars, Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson plus a script by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the James M. Cain novel, and you have what many people think is the finest noir film ever made.

What do you think?

What are the best noir films?

Mystery fiction scholar Francis M. Nevins defines noir as, “…the kind of bleak, disillusioned study in the poetry of terror that flourished in American mystery fiction during the 1930s and 1940s and in American crime movies during the forties and fifties. The hallmarks of the noir style are fear, guilt and loneliness, breakdown and despair…” Although many noir films were stylish, often featuring avant garde cinematography, as Nevins points out, happy endings were rare.

If you do a Google search for “favorite noir movies” you immediately see a spread of movie posters in this order:

  1. Double Indemnity
  2. The Maltese Falcon
  3. The Third Man
  4. Out of the Past

It would be difficult to argue with that selection. The Internet Movie Database says Sunset Boulevard and Night of the Hunter edge out Out of the Past and Double Indemnity, though the latter film is ranked number five.

Films based on novels by the leading detective writers of the period rank high in many ratings. In addition to Double Indemnity, Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is another highly rated noir flick. The Maltese Falcon novel was written by noir master Dashiell Hammett and Chandler novels also became classic noir films such as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely.

The writer who I would count as the fourth of the great noir authors, Cornell Woolrich, had more than two dozen of his novels and stories made into movies, many, unfortunately were forgettable adaptations. His most famous, Rear Window, was a superb suspense movie with many noir elements, not the least of which was the villainous Raymond Burr.

Other films I think you should consider for your top ten include: Brighton Rock, Lost Weekend, Touch of Evil and Kiss Me Deadly. Sydney, Australia, blogger, Tom D’Ambra, has one of the most comprehensive noir film websites you can find. Among his many suggestions: Journey Into Fear, I Wake Up Srcreaming and The Seventh Victim.

Many noir fans have favorite lines from films. One of mine comes from Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He stares at Humphrey Bogart as he says, “By gad, sir, you are a character.”

So, think of some noir characters yourself, and let me know your favorite films of the noir era.

Hyperlinks:

IMDB/noir

Tom D’ambra on noir films

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