Portrait of an Unhappy Man

This sickly cove is none other than Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich. Image scanned by Guy Budziak (thanks!) from Francis M Nevins’ First You Dream, Then You Die, the biography of Woolrich.

In his foreword to Nightwebs, an anthology of Woolrich stories, Nevins quotes a passage from I Wake Up Screaming, Steve Fisher’s crime novel, which features a disturbed detective called Cornell ~

“He had red hair and thin white skin and red eyebrows and blue eyes. He looked sick. He looked like a corpse. His clothes didn’t fit him . . . He was frail, gray-faced and bitter. He was possessed with a macabre humor. His voice was nasal. You’d think he was crying.  He might have had T.B. He looked like he couldn’t stand up in a wind.”

Interestingly, while Laird Cregar in the movie version of IWUS cannot suggest the character’s slenderness, disbarred as he is by excess poundage, he nails the nasal voice and corpse-like demeanour, accurately suggested a floater fished from the East River.

Woolrich has been compared to Poe, which holds true in some ways and not in others. Poe’s life was disordered, financially fraught, haunted by death. Woolrich was wealthy (he was worth two million when he died), and not adventurous enough to get into real trouble, it seems. His writing suggests a man fearful of any change in routine. But his health was poor, and he seems to have suffered a terror of death since childhood, poisoning his life. One wouldn’t want to be either Poe or Woolrich, but Poe probably had more fun (was a better writer, too).

The true comparison is probably not the alcoholism or misery, but the way both writers devoted the bulk of their work to hammering on a single key, the key of terror. Woolrich can sustain a single note of suspense for an entire novel (as in I Married a Dead Man) and seems to gain power and effectiveness from the speed and even the sloppiness of his writing. Capable of brilliant poetic effects (in the shade of purple), he could blithely toss of clunking nonsense without looking back, but he drags you bodily through the story, over logical crevasses both bottomless and yawning, never relaxing the bony grip on the scruff of your neck or the icy fingers round your heart.

Woolrich wrote for the movies, it appears, around the time of the changeover to sound, and I can talk about that stuff a tiny bit, but really we’re looking at adaptations of his work. This cannot, in one week, be an exhaustive survey of the field, for although, weirdly, there hasn’t been an official Woolrich adaptation since ORIGINAL SIN flopped in 2001, there have been A LOT. I’ve been rooting around amid the more obscure productions, those I can find, but do intend to touch on some of the better-known movies too — PHANTOM LADY, THE LEOPARD MAN, but probably not REAR WINDOW, which I wrote about back in Hitchcock Year.

So don your sailor suits and prepare for the Waltz into Darkness…

UK readers: start here ~
Night and Fear: A Centenary Collection of Stories

36 Responses to “Portrait of an Unhappy Man”

  1. Some other writers who led tortured lives include Franz Kafka whose works are full of unstability. Someone who suffered despite the relative comfort of his life like Woolrich was Lewis Carroll, who had a stutter and was an outsider, never fit in anywhere. But even Carroll had it better off than, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins(just thinking of that guy depresses me).

    I believe Woolrich also wrote under a pseudonym William Irish. What’s the story behind that.

  2. Like a few other pulp authors, he was too prolific, so they couldn’t place all his work under one name. So he wrote as George Hopley and William Irish. Don’t know where he got the Irish name, but he used it for the awesome Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

  3. What Woolrich excels at I think is finding those little moments in life where it suddenly occurs to us that something very very bad might have happened, and then have exactly that happen. I’ve worked on two shows directly based on Woolrich’s life and works. The first was Shunt’s “Amato Saltone” back in 2005, a title rather unwisely taken from the first person to be killed in his works (nobody booking tickets could remember it). Much was made of the sailor’s costume he kept in a case under his bed. The second was “Contains Violence” in 2008, a more obviously Rear-Window-inspired work. The show took place in a building across the courtyard from the open bacolny on which the audience sat equipped with both binoculars and headphones tuned into a binaural recording of the events occurring across the road (to which the performers then had to lipsynch, although the audience didn’t know this). An odd gig.


  4. Damn, Woolrich (in the guise of Irish) came at the end of my crime-novel reading craze of the early ’80s. He didn’t pull me out of the funk that Ross McDonald put me in (for some reason, McDonald tired me of the genre). Never really went back to it. My loss, I guess. Seen adaptations, but never read more than one of his books.

  5. Well MacDonald is quite different from Woolrich. MacDonald followed in Cahndler’s footsteps — writing about private eyes. Woolrich isn’t so confined. His narratives are all over the map.

    And they don’t have heroes. Or even anti-heros.

    Just victims.

  6. Somebody should make Ballard’s The Sixty Minute Zoom, a very Rear Windowesque conceptual piece in short story form.

    If you’re tired of crime fiction, Woolrich might not pull you out of it, as he exists in a genre world. But he’s a unique voice within that. I’d recommend his short fiction equally with his novels, his plot ideas are clever as heck. As Simon rightly says, he plunges into nightmare from ordinary beginnings, and often pursues things into darker places than you’d think possible, also extending every moment of anxiety as long as he can (ever mindful of the word count).

  7. When it came to the psychology of fear, Woolrich was right up there with Dostoevsky and Poe. When it came to action scenes, particularly chases, Woolrich was dreadful. But he needed the money and pumped out works both good and bad.

    The poor man had more demons than a Charles Addams compendium. Married to a portly millionairess who adored him, Woolrich’s dalliances to the waterfront were probably the worst kept secret in history. He lived with his mother through the marriage and after the divorce. In the last ten years of his life he never stepped out of his apartment, partially because he has his leg amputated from diabetes. But he had no shortage of work and some of the best episodes of Perry Mason were written by him. And during his life Truffaut directed and released The Bride Wore Black. Financially, he did not suffer, but it was probably only in that area that he did not suffer.

  8. When Woolrich brings in the cops to sort things out, they’re perfectly likely to resort to torture to bring events to a satisfactory conclusion. Which I haven’t encountered in other writers of the period. Woolrich seems to see this as just another example of the horror of the world.

    I didn’t know anything about the Perry Mason connection — do you have any more information on this?

  9. Woolrich biographer Francis M Nevins informs me that Night has a Thousand Eyes actually cycled through all Woolrich’s pseudonyms, appear first under the George Hopley byline, then as a William Irish, and finally as a Cornell Woolrich.

  10. Sorry. It wasn’t Perry Mason. I meant Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Both were big at the same time. My excuse? I am running a fever. At this point I will use any excuse.

  11. “And they don’t have heroes, or even anti-heroes. Just victims.” I like that a lot.

  12. I’d like to extend an additional thanks to my friend Dave Hill, who was kind enough to let me use his scanner (since I don’t have one hooked up to my PC).
    The new banner: Is that the back of Bill Williams’ head, from DEADLINE AT DAWN? There’s something about the man himself (Woolrich) that perhaps frightens me even more than his written pieces. He had the means (financially) to possibly enjoy the fruit of his labor, yet seemed unable to do so. He actually made in the mid-Forties what today would amount to half a million dollars. Sad. And frightening.

  13. There’s a slight element of wallowing in misery with some of the Woolrich stories, but I guess he felt it was all he had. He’d occasionally go to parties, stand around with a bag of booze in a brown paper bag, and if somebody everntually approached and said “I love your work,” he’d respond, “You don’t mean that.” But I don’t want to judge him — no doubt that was all he felt he could say or do.

    That is indeed BW in DAD, the best film I’ve discovered through my researches so far, apart from the staggering and distressing Martha. I’ll certainly rewatch DAD before Martha, though… unlike Woolrich I have no masochistic side!

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    One of Mike Nevins’s humorous, but true comments, when Invited him to give a class presentation over 20 years agi (when money was available) ran as follows: “Woolrich began life as a nasty young man and ended as a nasty old man.” This ideally complements David C’s post above.

  15. Somehow, when you refer to “I Wake Up Screaming” as IWUS, I think of a Swedish picture called “I, Wuss.” And as for DAD … I hate to think of Woolrich’s notion of a patriarch.

    Never seen “Deadline at Dawn,” although I oughta since I’m a fan of both Susan Hayward and Clifford Odets. Not to mention Woolrich himself. But one does, however, have to roll one’s eyes as the line quoted in the Time Out London capsule review: “Golly, the misery that walks around in this pretty, quiet night!”

  16. Hayward pulls it off! Mainly by almost whispering it, with absolutely no emphasis. She lets it escape. As Odets said, “Don’t play the lines themselves.” The movie’s full of striking lines so I can forgive a few strikingly bad ones. The speech that follows it is superb, and very moving.

    As to fathers, there’s a sympathetic patriarch in I Married a Dead Man, although the entire nice family in that are relatively 2D compared to the convincingly malevolent villain and craven heroine.

  17. Well, I plead extenuating circumstances. I was going to university full time, and also working about 25 hours a week. And playing in (sort of) a band. I quit reading first, the band went next, and my working hours kept going up. Yes, I did manage to sleep and even have a social life.

  18. Well, it’s not too late! I read a few Ross Macdonalds, kind of nice, but rather colourless compared to Hammett, and certainly lacking Woolrich’s insanity.

  19. Paul Murphy Says:

    It’s worth remembering that Woolrich was also perhaps the most frequently adapted writer in all of classic American Radio Drama. He made a fortune just from adaptations on Suspense and Escape, CBS’ two great anthology series. Oddly enough, I don’t know that he was ever used by the companion show, Romance. Guess they had something against seamen.

    If you go to http://www.radiogoldindex.com/frame1.html and search by Artist under the names of Woolrich and Irish, you’ll find loads of great stuff. Most everything is avail. for free download at http://otrarchive.blogspot.com/

    I especially adore the Suspense ep. Black Path of Fear with Cary Grant(!) and the Escape called Papa Benjamin with Frank Lovejoy (In A Lonely Place, Shack out on 101)

    Radio seems to have been an ideal medium for Woolrich. It put his ideas right where they belong, out of the world and straight into the imagination of the listener.

  20. Thanks for the old-time radio links, I’ll be sure and investigate. I agree that Woolrich and the audio play are excellent bedfellows. The level of abstraction seems conducive, which is why cheap noirs often worked well: simple sets, B-list actors and plenty of shadows…

  21. Considering how much I do now, I could polish off Woolrich’s ouevre by the end of the year. Is the fact that we’re having hail falling right now a sign I should do it?

  22. Paul Murphy Says:

    BTW, the Odets scripted Deadline at Dawn is coming to DVD in July as part of Warners next noir collection, 8 films including good titles by Dmytryk and Karlson.

    DC, thanks for another great project. Gives me something to do while waiting for the PFA screening of Losey’s PROWLER April 16.

    (The Losey series has been splendid. Just saw BOOM! Burton in a samurai robe, solemnly intoning “Boom! The shock of each moment of still being alive” no less than 5 times during the film. Thank you, Lord)

  23. Hope to get my Deadline piece up in a day or so.

    The Prowler is simply terrific, a film about “wrong values”, as Losey put it, in a very direct way.

    Hailstones definitely seem like a cue to turn to Woolrich.

  24. Speaking of “wrong values,” I should admit that I saw Prowler last year, but that I had time to kill before the screening, stopped off at the pub, and therefore only remember 10% of the film. I love what I remember, though.

    That film had set designs by the great lefty animator John Hubley, of Mr Magoo fame. He must have met Losey doing propaganda in WW2.

    While investigating the radio links, search Losey’s name too. He directed a number of wartime propaganda radio shows for the US homefront, most for the series “Words at War”

    As you may guess, the link between old time radio and classical hollywood cinema is something of a bat in my belfry.

  25. Then to the library I go, to pay my fines and see what Woolrich/Irish/Hopley titles they have deigned to keep. A nice hardcover compilation would be ideal.

  26. There is one, with three novels and a few short stories. The unendurably tense I Married a Dead Man is among them.

    Hubley either met Losey while doing war propaganda… or at commie meetings! Later the Hubley’s produced the titles for Jules Dassin’s blaxploitation version of The Informer, Up Tight!

    I wonder if any of Nick Ray’s radio work is available?

  27. […] David Cairns writes about film with a mixture of wit and severity all his own. In the comments to a discussion of Cornell Woolrich,I mentioned how often and well Woolrich was adapted for radio in the classic days of network radio […]

  28. Paul Murphy Says:


    There is 1 Ray-directed radio program in circulation, and I posted an mp3 of it along with a comment as the first real post at my very fledgling Shadowplay inspired blog:


    I hope the file link works for you. The blog is about 12 hours old, so there are lots of kinks to work out and changes to make. I’ll add more as time and health permit. Let me know what you think.

  29. Thanks enormously! When Woolrich Week is done I’ll post an entry on this, directing people to your site. Unheard Ray is a major event! And it ties in nicely with Ray’s use of folk music in They Live By Night, on which Woody Guthrie consulted.

    Ray collaborator Tom Farrell will be interested to hear about this if he doesn’t already know.

  30. Looking forward to the rest of Woolrich week, very much indeed. And I’m extremely excited by Paul Murphy’s tip-off about all those old-time radio shows — I think I may have a private, audio-only Woolrich festival to complement your next few posts!

  31. I’ll be watching out for Woolrich radio versions of movies I’ve seen — like listening to The Black Path of Fear and comparing it to The Chase, loosely adapted from the same story.

  32. […] because I’m badly in need of a theme to start off the blog, I thought I might cash in on his Cornell Woolrich Week and declare this “Cornell Woolrich is made of sound“ week here at the sparsely […]

  33. I just put up a brief post on some Woolrich radio versions at my new blog. More posts to come after a few hours of fitful, dreamless sleep.


    The previous entries also have a few tidbits about Ray and Hitchcock and their relationship to radio.

  34. “Cornell Woolrich is made of sound“ week is now well underway at the Electric Chair with a post on 2 radio versions of Phantom Lady.


  35. DC,
    If your looking for audio BPoF, follow this link:

    I may blog that story soon, but I think my next post will be on the equally loose Black Angel adaptation.

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