Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Woolrich novel is campy noir film

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Read a novel, then see the movie and you’re often disappointed.  It’s difficult for a motion picture to recreate a detailed, nuanced book filled with subplots and many characters and do justice to the original story.  This has been true perhaps since the advent of motion pictures.  Case in point: the 1946 production of The Chase, based on the novel, The Black Path of Fear, by Cornell Woolrich. 

In this space I recently reviewed the Woolrich suspense novel, a story of lost love and of desperation in the dark alleys of post-World War II Havana.  Many of the author’s novels and short stories became radio, TV or motion picture dramas and I looked to see if the film version of Black Path, called The Chase, was available on Netflix.  No luck; probably one of those “B” crime movies that have faded away as the celluloid deteriorated. 

Not so.  Checking the cast on imdb.com, I noticed a link to the Internet Archive.  That site had a copy of the movie that could be streamed, so I let it play. 

It’s difficult to discuss details of the plot without spoiling either the book or the movie.  Things that take place in the middle of the book, via a flashback,  form the first scenes of the movie.   And an event in the middle of the movie, happens in the first few pages of the book.

Without getting into too many specifics, Chuck Scott, played by Bob Cummings, is an honest, destitute vet who finds a wallet on a Miami street and returns it to its owner, Eddie Roman, played by Steve Cochran.  It’s obvious that Roman is a ruthless, wealthy hood.  The first evidence of this is a scene when he knocks his manicurist to the floor when she displeases him. The second bit of evidence is that his assistant, aka henchman, is played by Peter Lorre.

Admiring, while mocking Scott’s honesty, Roman gives him a job as his chauffer.  Later, after an unnecessary scene designed to remind viewers—if they had fallen asleep in the previous five minutes—that Roman was really a nasty guy, Scott meets the glamorous Mrs. Lorna Roman (Michele Morgan). 

The majority of the book and a relatively small portion of the movie take place in dingy alleys and flop houses in Havana.  The noirish movie does a fairly good job reproducing the book’s skid-row atmosphere, with some dialog sounding as if it were taken directly from the novel.  But this part of the film story is about as close as it gets to the book.  New scenes and new characters are added and the film makes abrupt, substantial and sometimes laughable changes in the storyline. 

For example, in the book Roman urges Scott, as his chauffer, to drive fast.  In the movie, Roman doesn’t need to tell him to speed up.  He has an auxiliary accelerator and speedometer in the back seat.  The Chase movie To speed up, Roman floors it and tells Scott to steer carefully as they exceed 100 mph in a clichéd race with a locomotive to a railroad crossing.

Critics, including Woolrich biographer Francis Nevins, Jr., criticized screen writer Philip Yordan and director Arthur Ripley for twisting Woolrich’s story, ultimately changing the character and meaning of the novel’s original “chase.”  Roman, a relatively minor character in the book, is on screen too long and Cochran’s mobster portrayal is over the top.  Woolrich’s story is about a hapless guy on the run.  Yordan’s story is partly about a harassed gangster and partly about a guy who falls for a mobster’s wife. 

In  spite of numerous missteps in the script, Cummings comes across as a vulnerable everyman, as Woolrich portrayed him, and keeps the movie alive.  The actor had recently starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur, and eight years later would become a protagonist in the Hitchcock classic, Dial M for Murder.   Lorre’s smarmy presence, of course, is a highlight of the film.  In some scenes he seems a bit bored, but that was perhaps part of his character.  Or this perception could be the fault of the grainy, scratchy print with occasional sprocket noise. 

The film is also available on DVD from Amazon but based on some of the online reviews, the DVD quality is no better than what’s available on the web stream.

Driven by a music score that rises and falls melodramatically—to almost humorous proportions at times—The Chase veers from campy gangster fare to classic film noir and back again several times.  If you see the movie before you read the book, it’s worth watching—and it’s so removed from the novel’s plot that the things you learn will not materially spoil the novel.

Discover Cornell Woolrich, author of “finest suspense novels ever written”

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If you’re a mystery or suspense fan and have never heard of Cornell Woolrich, let me introduce you to one of the most prolific, stylistic and ingenious writers of the noir era.  His life was in some sense a tortured one containing successes and failures and dominated by his overbearing, wealthy mother.   Perhaps best known for his short story, Rear Window, which became an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Woolrich wrote more than 25 novels, numerous screen plays and dozens of short story collections.   According to IMDB.com Woolrich novels and short stories were used as the basis for more than 125 movies and TV dramas.

Woolrich died in 1968; few people attended his funeral.

Born in New York City in 1903, he struggled throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s writing short stories and (uncredited) screenplays for feature films in Hollywood.  While in California he married a producer’s daughter, but the marriage was short-lived and Woolrich returned to New York and his mother.  During the 1930s he wrote three novels and many short stories which appeared in pulp mystery magazines.  Gradually through his inventive plots and swift pacing he gained recognition and soon started cranking out superb noir suspense novels, many of which–if not all–became movies or TV dramas.

Eleven novels Woolrich published during the 1940s are “unsurpassable classics in the poetry of terror,” writes Francis M. Nevins, mystery writer, editor and Woolrich scholar.  Writing in the introduction to a Woolrich collection, Nevins says, “These [eleven] titles, all published between 1940 and 1948, make up the finest group of suspense novels ever written.”

The 1940s novels earned Woolrich a substantial living and a reputation on par with the best at work in noir.

Nevins says Woolrich’s world, “is a feverish place where the prevailing emotions are loneliness and fear and the prevailing action a race against time and death.”

“Woolrich’s fictional world is more discordant and threatening, and therefore perhaps more contemporary than that of either [Dashiell] Hammett or [Raymond] Chandler,” says Richard Rayner in the introduction to the 1988 Simon and Schuster collection, “Rear Window and Other Stories.”

Rear Window

This is one Woolrich collection that’s available, not the one mentioned in this article.

Rayner describes the situation one of Woolrich’s protagonists finds herself in as “something which might have been invented by Kafka on a bad day.”

The Woolrich novels are compelling but so are his short stories–his short crime tales from the 1930s are an excellent introduction to this author.  Originally this article was going to be a review of the “Rear Window” collection, but not only is it out of print, it seems to have disappeared.   In fact, many of Woolrich’s books are becoming rare.  Amazon and ebay prices for many used novels and story collections can reach more than $100 although many are available (used) in the $10 to $50 range.

There are other Woolrich collections called “Rear Window” available online but no listings I found provide the names of the stories included.  Thus, let me introduce you to a few of the master’s tales that you may find in more than one collection.

Woolrich stories often find average citizens stuck in impossible situations.  Such is the case in I Won’t Take a Minute (1940).  Protagonist Kenny is walking his fiancé home from work one evening and she has to stop at an apartment building to drop off a package that her boss asked her to deliver.  Kenny waits outside and she goes up in the elevator after telling him she won’t take more than a minute.  Of course she never returns, and the balance of the story is Kenny’s attempt to find her.

The Corpse Next Door (1937) is reminiscent of Poe’s Telltale Heart but Woolrich’s tormented main character is obsessed by the contents of a Murphy bed.  In, You’ll Never See Me Again (1939) , Ed Bliss has an argument with his wife who storms out supposedly heading for her mother’s house.   After two days Bliss is told that “Smiles” never made it to her mother’s and he runs afoul of the police in a frantic attempt to find his wife.  The 41-page story is filled with nighttime car chases, resourceful amateur sleuthing and repeated searches through a sinister house in the country.

In Dead on Her Feet (1935), rookie detective Smith is sent to investigate a nine-day old dance marathon and locate one Toodles McGuire, a 16-year-old whose mother has called police.   Detective Smitty, who flips over his jacket lapel to flash his badge, locates the missing girl but then finds himself investigating a murder.  His method of solving the case is macabre but effective.

Woolrich died at the age of 64 after many years of ill health and depression following the death of his mother.   According to Nevins, in a fragment of his papers found after his death Woolrich wrote, “I was only trying to cheat death.  I was only trying to surmount for a little while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me some day and obliterate me.”

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