Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: Bob Cummings

Woolrich novel is campy noir film


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, 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.

Follow Woolrich down this alley

The Black Path of Fear
by Cornell Woolrich
Ballantine Books  1982
160 pages
Price varies (available used only)

Bill Scott is honest, though obviously not the brightest guy in the world.  But he can’t help himself.  He’s in love.  Unfortunately Eve Roman, his new love, is married to a Miami mob boss.  But she loves Scott, too, so they runaway together—to Havana.

In the first few pages of Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear, Eve is stabbed to death in a Cuban nightclub and the police blame Scott.  We get the backstory of how Scott and Mrs. Roman got together in a long flashback, but the majority of  the book—which hour-by-hour covers no more than a day and a half—describes Scott’s desperate attempts to find the murderer and clear himself.  His chances look dim.  He doesn’t speak Spanish, the police are combing the city for him, he knows no one in Havana and when it comes down to it, a big part of him doesn’t really care.  Eve is dead.

I’m working my way through Woolrich novels and short stories.  It’s a rewarding journey although Black Path is not his best.  My 1982 printing of the book (it was first published in 1944) reads almost as if it lacks a final edit.   The dialog occasionally sounds a bit off, Scott’s hat mysteriously appears in one scene—after he’d dropped it somewhere else—and he doesn’t use his love for the dead woman as an argument for his innocence.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is Woolrich takes a certainly unoriginal plot (though undoubtedly copied many times since) and builds it into a succession of nail-biting scenes in some of the most Black Path of Fearmemorably ugly, foreboding settings you can imagine.   In one scene Scott is escorted by police down a suffocatingly narrow  alley—too small to accommodate a car—in a run-down portion of Havana’s Chinatown.  The alley smelled “like asafetida and somebody burning feathers, and the lee side of a sewer.”  It was also dim.

It wasn’t of an even darkness; it was mottled darkness.  Every few yards or so an oil lamp or kerosene torch or a Chinese paper lantern, back within some doorway or some stall opening, would squirt out a puddle of light to relieve the gloom.  They were different colors, these smears, depending on the reflector they filtered through: orange and sulphur-green, and once even a sort of purple-red, were spewed around on the dirty walls like grape juice.

In another scene Scott is feeling his way in pitch darkness across a silent and seemingly empty skid-row office when something pricks his ear.  It’s a clever, suspenseful set-up that leads to a creative result.

Scott is similar to many Woolrich protagonists, an ordinary guy dumped into extraordinary circumstances and challenged to save someone else, himself, his sanity, or all three.  Emotions, not only of fear, but loneliness, disgust and hopelessness often drive his plots.

She had the look on her face of someone who has just been granted a quick glimpse down into the bottommost depths of hell from the top of the stairs.  And didn’t turn away quickly enough.

Woolrich was a noir master.  Although he’s not as well known as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, according to his biographer Woolrich influenced not only the French Roman noir novels but the bleak Hollywood crime dramas, film noir.

To me, noir represents not only a grim, dark setting or plot, but a style of writing. And Woolrich’s style is unmistakable: “Silence fell, and we kicked it around between us for a while.”

Like the majority of Woolrich’s novels and short stories, Black Path was dramatized, in this case, many times: One of several radio versions starred Cary Grant (1946), the movie version (1946) starred Robert Cummings and Peter Lorre and a TV drama (1954) had James Arness as Scott.

Black Path was one of Woolrich’s “black” series in the 1940s, when the author was in his prime, cranking out so many thrilling novels that he released some under two pen names, William Irish and George Hopley.  Biographer Francis Nevins, Jr. called Woolrich the Poe of the Twentieth Century.  Black Path is an entertaining, compelling read, but stick with Woolrich titles for the whole dark ride through the 1940s.

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