Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Tag Archives: noir

Woolrich: novels or short stories?

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Last week, a reader, intrigued by my recent articles, asked if I could recommend a starting point for reading Cornell Woolrich. Although I’m just beginning to explore this little-known author myself, I have a suggestion or two.

The Woolrich works I’ve read thus far are best considered for the journey, rather than the destination. Each scene, each page drags you deeper into the protagonist’s miasma as he or she races against the clock or death or both. The idea that every scene in a detective story should be as important and as involving as the conclusion–when the mystery is solved–was a priority for Raymond Chandler. And in his novels, each chapter and each dark, gritty scene created more trouble for Philip Marlowe. Finding out whodunit was just the final step in a perilous journey. The same can be said for Woolrich.

Therefore, I recommend the 1941 novel, The Black Curtain, as an introduction to Woolrich. In it, Frank Townsend gets a bump on the head and suddenly three years of his life disappears–or reappears. He searches for his home and discovers his apartment is vacant and that his wife has moved out.   He finally finds her and she tells him she hasn’t seen him for three years.

So starts this different version of an amnesia story. After he’s been back with his wife a short time, Townsend discovers someone is following him. The more dangerous the pursuit becomes, the more Townsend realizes he must figure out what happened during the missing three years.

His struggle to discover his past leads him through a threatening world of suspicious looks and dead ends. The fast-paced story includes a case of murder and a decrepit, isolated mansion.The Dancing Detective

Like most roman noir novels, there isn’t exactly a Hollywood ending. The plot twists at the end leave some unanswered questions, but each step along the quick trip through Townsend’s cloudy world is worth the effort and then some.

To be picky, Woolrich uses terminology that refers to a semi-automatic pistol after he has already identified a gun as a revolver. The difference between the two types of handguns is significant in several ways and they look nothing alike.   But confusing revolvers for semi-autos is so common in mysteries that I didn’t even notice the first time through.

The other way to get an introduction to Woolrich is through one or more of his numerous short stories. The best one I’ve read is “The Dancing Detective” written under the pen name, William Irish. The protagonist’s first person voice is unique and so strong she captures you from the first paragraph. “Dancing Detective” appears in several mystery/suspense anthologies and in Woolrich collections. Of course for short stories it’s hard to beat “Rear Window,” Woolrich’s most famous creation. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the story is still compelling.

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.

Cabbie has a body in the trunk

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Peace, Love, and Murder
by Nancy Holzner 
Five Star (publishing) –  367 pages
$.99 e-book

Bo Forrester is a resourceful, latter-day hippie who has returned to the town of his birth in upstate New York in search of his parents who he has not seen since he rebelled against their hippie lifestyle 20 years ago and joined the army.  The pony-tailed vegetarian takes a job as a cab driver where he falls in with an odd assortment of characters including his daily fares and his cab company compatriots.

When a body is found in his trunk, Forrester takes us on a joy ride through a small university town–with side trips to New York City–as the cabbie tries to find evidence that will persuade the local cops he had nothing to do with the murder.  Almost from the beginning, the unusual characters as much as the action propel the first-person story along.  A nympho college art professor and her insanely jealous ex-con husband, a filthy rich graffiti-style artist, an art foundation executive with a gambling addiction and assorted low-lifes populate Nancy Holzner’s first mystery novel.

Trudy Hauser is a petite deputy sheriff who is Forrester’s sometimes nemesis, sometimes partner as the case gets weirder and weirder.  Drug trafficking and assault figure in the plot as author Holzner has her cabbie-detective interviewing suspects and chasing wild leads while Hauser tails him.

Holzner’s assured, straightforward style includes the classic language of the genre.  Forrester learns that the body in his trunk belonged to a well educated, wealthy philanthropist. “A life like that wasn’t supposed to end in the trunk of a cab.”  Later, in his taxi, Forrester says to himself,  “Felicia’s presence lingered in the cab, like a trace of her perfume.”  Forrester almost loses a suspect he was tailing because, “Hedlund moved pretty fast for someone built like a sofa cushion.”

Some of the smart-alecky narrative had me wondering if Forrester sounded more like a street-smart PI rather than a tofu eating refuge from a commune: “I wondered what Felicia was doing, and the best that I could come up with was a blurry image of cocktails, country clubs, and people swanning around in designer clothes.” This sounds strangely like a line from a Mitchum or Bogart film noir.  Regardless, Forrester is a savvy and likable Peace, Love & Murderprotagonist.

He has enough moxie to tough it out in a biker bar by pretending to be a cop, but he’s less sure of himself with Felicia,  the beautiful widow of the corpse in his trunk.  At times his approach to women he’s attracted to seems overly reticent particularly with Felicia.  But as Forrester explains, “…she was so far out of my league we might as well be different species.”

About three-quarters of the way through, Forrester’s run from police in a snowstorm when he’s without a car or a place to hold up is inventive and compelling.

A couple of trivial technical observations:  Hauser carries a .38 semi-auto.  Although such caliber semi-auto pistols do exist, they’re uncommon.  Most .38s are revolvers.  And at one point Forrester thinks about disabling a bad guy’s car by popping off the distributor cap.  Cars haven’t had distributor caps in a long time.  Aside from these quibbles,  the book is smooth sailing.

One of my favorite lines:  “She was furious.  In a comic book, flames would be shooting from her eyes.”

Whether you figure out whodunit may depend on whether you miss a nicely tossed off clue that slipped by me.  This novel is a great example of my favorite form of mystery: one with plot twists and clues that challenge you (and make it possible for you) to solve the puzzle plus a blend of action and suspense to hasten the pace.

An adroit writing style, quirky characters, sufficient plot twists and funny lines that several times made me chuckle out loud combine to create a satisfying, page-turner mystery.

Holzner has also written several well-received urban fantasy books.  We hope a sequel to Peace, Love and Murder is in the works.

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