Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Noir

Help, I have writer’s block; do I need surgery?


I’m writing this with two fingers.  How embarrassing.

Having begun my writing career as a newspaper reporter, I’ve never worried about writer’s block.  Composing on the fly is built-in.  You can’t tell a city editor, “Look, I need to wait for inspiration.”

Indeed, I’ve always joked that the only true form of writer’s block is a broken arm.

No, I don’t have a broken arm, just a painful one.  Typing even for a short time makes my right forearm feel as if someone has put out a cigarette on it. Make that a cigar.  Physical therapy didn’t help. The heavy-duty prescription anti-inflammatories only moderate the pain.  I see an orthopedist in two days.

In the meantime, I’m going to recycle an article I posted here years ago.  Cornell Woolrich is of my favorite noir authors and this novel from1944 is one of his best.

In this Woolrich classic the city is only one of the enemies

Deadline at Dawn
Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish)
American Mystery Classics (Penzler Publishers), June 2022
288 pages
Kindle 6.99   Trade paperback $11.95

New York City has Bricky Coleman in its clutches. The small-town girl came to the city to become an actress, but it didn’t work out. Now she’s a dime-a-dance girl living in a dingy walk-up, bereft of spirit and hope. One evening she dances with Quinn Williams, another small-town transplant with equally dismal prospects. Somehow Quinn manages to erode Bricky’s layers of cynicism and suspicion. They become friends and allies in solving a dangerous puzzle.

Like most Cornell Woolrich novels, 1944’s Deadline at Dawn is dark and fast moving. The entire book occupies only a few early morning hours. Getting around a burglary and solving a murder stand in the way of the two young protagonists’ escape from their dismal lives.   An early coincidence and one or two later plot twists require a significant suspension of disbelief, but you sign on quickly because the dark corners of the city and its malevolent denizens are easily accepted as Woolrich draws you and his young protagonists into a race against the clock.

The atmosphere is thick. Bricky looks up a dark street.   “Three anemic light-pools widely spaced down its seemingly endless length did nothing to dilute the gloom; they only pointed it up by giving contrast.”

For Bricky, the main enemy isn’t a lurking murderer, it’s the city itself. It wants to possess her and grind her down. The young protagonist’s nemesis is similar to a lead character’s unnatural fear of stars in the sky in Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Merciless, mysterious forces conspiring to thwart success is a common Woolrich theme.

Looking for a murderer so they can put a regrettable event in Quinn’s life behind them and escape to small-town paradise, the two split up and dash about the city at night. In back-and-forth chapters each amateur sleuth thinks he or she is on the right trail, but of course there are complications, dead ends and unexpected dangers. We move quickly from Quinn’s perilous encounter with a stranger who he follows around the city, to Bricky’s capture by a pair she thinks did the murder.

I have a copy of the first printing of the “Tower Books Motion Picture” edition illustrated with photos of the 1946 film based—very loosely—on the book. Instead of chapter numbers or titles, there are faces of a clock, and each chapter heading has the hands moving closer to the 6 a.m. deadline Quinn and Bricky are racing toward. That’s when they hope to catch the interstate bus and escape New York City.

Note that Deadline at Dawn is an example of Woolrich’s practice of recycling scenes, characters and events from short stories into novels. The first scene of Bricky’s dance hall dysphoria is similar to the beginning of a short story, Dancing Detective, that focuses on another cynical taxi dancer with moxie. After this first scene, however, the novel departs completely from the short story.

Like so many Woolrich stories, Deadline at Dawn looks at the many faces of fear. “And the man who says he’s never been afraid is a liar,” Woolrich writes. Later he tells us, “Fear rots the faculties.” Unlike the movie version, the novel maintains the pessimism, the dread and the eerie notion of noir. It’s a gem.

Mitchum and Greer keep you guessing

Noir movie review

William Bendix crashes into Robert Mitchum’s steamship stateroom flashing a gun.

“Where is it Halliday?”

William Bendix gets the drop on Robert Mitchum in the first seconds of The Big Steal.

We don’t know who or what Bendix is looking for, but Mitchum slugs him, steals his ID identifying him as Army Capt. Vincent Blake and scrams down the gangplank into the bustling dockside crowd of Veracruz, Mexico.

Action in the 1949 film The Big Steal starts quickly and confusingly. Halliday maneuvers his way through the crowd berating souvenir hawkers and other locals for getting in his way.

Another debarking passenger, Joan Graham (Jane Greer), chastises him for throwing his weight around, especially when he doesn’t speak Spanish.

   “It’s men like you who make people like them contemptuous of tourists. Doesn’t it occur to you they don’t understand?”

When Halliday is blocked by an insistent peddler selling a caged parrot, he relents and buys the bird. With an insistent squawk, it swears in Spanish.  He hands the bird to Graham and ducks out when he sees Blake at the top of the gangway.

Graham gets a cab to a hotel where she surprises Jim Fiske (Patrick Knowles) in his room.  After he proposed to her in the States, he ran off with $2,000 she loaned him. Now that she’s caught up with him, she wants it back.

When he tries to sweet talk her, she slaps him in the face and demands the money. She wants the money, not him.

“Come on.  Hand it over. I was saving that money for my trousseau,” she says in mock distress.

“Oh, darling, your pride’s been hurt because I went away without a word.”

“And stayed away without several.”

“Will you try to believe there was a reason, a good one.”

“Sure, you wanted to surprise me. By not coming back.”

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Hitchcock’s suspense and terrorism in ‘Sabotage’


Movie review Part II

Here’s a link to Part I:

Halfway through Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 suspense film Sabotage, the villain, Karl Verloc, played by Oscar Homolka, is contemplating the bombing of London’s busy Piccadilly Circus intersection with untold loss of life. 

At the same time, undercover police sergeant Ted Spencer, played by John Loder, is buying lunch for Mrs. Verloc  (Sylvia Sidney) and her school-age brother who lives with the Verlocs.  She’s telling Spencer what a peach of a guy her husband is.  Unaware of her husband’s part-time job as a terrorist, she says he has been very kind to her and her brother. “Very kind” sounds like the way you’d describe a benevolent aunt.

John Loder, as Sgt. Spencer, chats up Mrs. Verloc, Sylvia Sidney.

“He’s the quietest, most harmless, home-loving person,” she says.

Her description is slightly at odds with Homolka’s Verloc whose heavy-browed, malevolent facial expressions and short temper seem to dominate their home, an apartment at the rear of the theatre Verloc operates.

When the movie was filmed, Homolka was 38, Sidney 26, although they seem even farther apart, Homolka’s Austrian accent adding to his menace, especially in pre-war England.

The title was changed from ‘Sabotage’ when the film was released in the US.

Later while Spencer watches the theater from his one-man command post in a street-front vegetable stand, he sees several suspicious characters enter, not to see a film, but to visit Verloc. The sergeant snoops inside the theater  and we’re given a behind-the-movie-screen view.  But in his awkward eavesdropping  Spencer is exposed as a cop, scaring off Verloc’s potential accomplices.

Verloc confers with the next-door greengrocer who admits to permitting the detective to use his shop for surveillance. Verloc asks the store owner if he knows what the police are looking for.

“You must have been showing some funny sort of films, I daresay,” the greengrocer tells Verloc. “You know, perhaps a bit too hot.”

Deserted by his fellow saboteurs, Verloc realizes he must now transport the bomb himself.  When the bomb is delivered to Verloc at the theater the next day in a brown paper parcel, an attached note tells  him it’s  set to explode at 1:45 p.m. that afternoon.

The last thirty five minutes of the film is a dash to the end while putting the leading characters at peril. It includes the most suspenseful ten minutes of this film and perhaps of any Hitchcock movie. Writing on, Jeff Stafford calls the scenes “a visual tour-de-force, employing montage to powerful effect and presenting a breathtaking example of Hitchcock’s emerging technique.”

Stafford also questions whether the climax “blurs the line between the director’s typical use of suspense versus shock.”

I think it combines both elements. It’s an amazing sequence. But Hitchcock has more in store besides the anxious ten minutes, and the ending is a mixture of noir bleakness with hope for a little Hollywood-style happiness.

Oscar Homolka, husband, movie theatre operator, terrorist

According to Stafford, Hitchcock expected Robert Donat and Peter Lorre to be the male leads, but wound up settling for Loder and Homolka. Although Lorre was a master of disreputable and downright evil characters, Homolka’s Verloc is sufficiently ominous. Loder overplays his undercover role becoming a jolly, garrulous and inquisitive vegetable vendor but partially redeems himself with a passing moment of despair late in the film. Donat would have been ideal for the part, and in fact, had just completed The 39 Steps for Hitchcock the year before.

But I’m a fan of Donat and The 39 Steps.  I think it’s the best of Hitchcock’s early works. I’m a sucker for the scenes of Donat handcuffed to co-star Madeleine Carroll as they check into a country inn posing as newlyweds to escape foreign spies.

But I digress.

Possibly of greater interest to film buffs, Sabotage is packed with suspense and offers a blueprint for many Hitchcock films to come.  It also reminds us that terrorist bombs are not a 21st century creation.   The film receives a 100% rating from 11 critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.1 rating on

The film is available for streaming on Amazon Prime for $1.99 or $3.99 for an HD version.  It’s not available on Netflix, but no surprise.  I’m not sure they understand the concept of noir. A free, although slightly grainy version of Sabotage is available from BjgTjme Free Movies (correct spelling) via YouTube.

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Free version of Sabotage:

Jeff Stafford’s article on Tuner Classic Movies:

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