The Black Smorgasbord
Various Woolrich adaptations I tracked down but didn’t have time to write about in depth —
STREET OF CHANCE deserves more attention than I can give it here. A 1942 release, it’s a very early noir and an early Woolrich crime adaptation. In addition, it deploys amnesia for perhaps the first time in a movie thriller (any suggestions for earlier usage?), appearing the same year as RANDOM HARVEST. Burgess Meredith makes an ideal Woolrich hero/sap, since he’s eye-catching and oddly charismatic despite a total lack of movie-star glamour or that stalwart trustiness projected by B-list leads. With his face, even in youth like some fantastic tumorous root, or an old woman’s elbow, and his husky, tremulous voice, he holds the attention as if he had a sniper’s laser-sight beamed onto his forehead at all times.
Wallop! Burgess begins the film flat on his back on the sidewalk, victim of fallen masonry. Recovered, he thinks, from the slight concussion, he returns home to Mrs Burgess Meredith only to learn he’s been AWOL for three years! It seems he’s the victim of double amnesia — an earlier blow caused him to depart his existing life and begin a new one, and today’s bludgeoning restored his old memories but has inconveniently erased the events of his secondary existence.
Good old Burge tries to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, but the occluded years flood back in the form of mysterious assailants. Turning private dick, the amnesiac hero tries to rediscover his past, meeting Claire Trevor, his alter ego’s girlfriend, a maid in a spooky old house where murder has been committed.
It all gets complicated from here, but we get the pleasure of meeting sneaky heirs Frieda Inescort (Edinburgh-born specialist in snooty sneaks) and Jerome Cowan (a Woolrich specialsit who’s also in DEADLINE AT DAWN, purveying his classic brand of the camp and craven), and granny, (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) paralysed and mute after a stroke, and the only one who knows whodunnit. Her presence leads to a nifty bit of “blink once for yes” interrogation, derived from Therese Raquin (and recently recycled wholesale in Korean vampire opera THIRST), followed by a surprise anticipation of the alphabetical blinking language used in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. Reynolds keeps her eyelids quiveringly apart as Burgess recites the alphabet, blinking when he gets to the letter she wants, slowly spelling out words like a wrinkled ouija board.
It’s all fairly B-grade in visual terms, but the cast is very fine, with Claire Trevor bringing the same tortured vulnerability she used so well in STAGECOACH three years earlier, and the plot, while slightly predictable, is decent, even if we never quite find out how BM’s second life got started in the first place.
CONVICTED is an oddity, a nominally British quota quickie shot in Canada to cash in on UK govt aid, but with an American cast and crew. And it stars a very young Rita Hayworth as a nightclub dancer whose brother is unjustly convicted of murder. Turning sleuth, Rita must try to clear him, pinning the blame instead on mobbed-up night club proprietor Marc Lawrence.
The basic idea here is a Woolrich favourite, the unjust conviction (his Number Two Plot is the Avenging Angel figure, and he sometimes merges them), and bits of the story feel like a dry run for the more complicated and satisfying BLACK ANGEL. Rita is appealing, although my smeary copy doesn’t allow her beauty to shine.
The 1946 production BLACK ANGEL is much starrier, and throws in a lot more plot turns, with the gangster merely an elaborate red herring, and alcoholic blackout, understandably a favourite Woolrich device, playing a part. Roy William Neill, who climaxed a long and neglected career (eleven Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone, all of them stylish and entertaining) with this movie, occasionally serves up a genuinely arresting moment, like the swoop in on hi-rise apartment at the beginning. Dan Duryea is an ideal Woolrich protag, his face and body somehow all wrong. And there’s Peter Lorre too, who also turns up in the same year’s THE CHASE, a Woolrich adaptation that makes a narrative hash out of The Black Path of Fear.
The innocent man in I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES is Don Castle, who also played in THE GUILTY with Bonita Granville. He made only a faint impression there, but he has a great scene here, trying to reassure his wife on the eve of his execution for the proverbial Crime He Didn’t Commit. Castle’s gentle smile is much more affecting than tears or desperation would be. The circumstantial evidence here hinges on the hero’s distinctive tap shoes, hurled from his window at an annoying tom-cat, and subsequently used and returned by a murderer who also arranges for Don to find a wallet-full of the victim’s savings. (I did think it a little offensive that the radio news heard in the movie refers to the blameless murderee as an “aged miser”…)
The story’s resolution utilizes the same psychotic stalker / police detective figure deployed in I WAKE UP SCREAMING, whose killer is reputedly based on Woolrich himself. Regis Toomey plays him with a certain sleazy exploitativeness when he’s just a cop, then switches to gentle, childlike perplexity when he’s unmasked as a stone killer. Interesting choices!
Actors who have been in more than one Woolrich adaptation — let’s list them and then imagine them all in one SUPER-MOVIE.
Michelle Morgan managed to be in two adaptations on two continents, OBSESSION and THE CHASE. So maybe she should be our leading lady. Also in THE CHASE, Peter Lorre, who is also in BLACK ANGEL, and he’s always welcome! He can be villain or quirky support.
I hope we’re not going to be stuck with Don Castle (THE GUILTY, I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES) as leading man, as he’s decent but bland. He can play a decent but bland supporting character. The same but double goes for John Lund, who’s in NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES and NO MAN OF HER OWN.
But Elisha Cook Jnr is in both THE FALL GUY and, of course, PHANTOM LADY. I would love to see a movie with Elisha in the lead! And clearly a Woolrich adaptation would make sense as a vehicle for him — he’s the ultimate loserman.
Oddly, members of Preston Sturges’ stock company of decrepit supporting players keep turning up, but never the same one twice: William Demarest in THOUSAND EYES, Porter Hall in MARK OF THE WHISTLER, Al Bridge in DEADLINE AT DAWN. So I’d like to see Jimmy Conlin as a psychopathic hitman.
Another strong actor with two credits in Woolrich movies is the majestic Edward G Robinson, featured in NIGHTMARE and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES. Jerome Cowan would certainly make good backup in the losing department — he’s in DEADLINE AT DAWN and STREET OF CHANCE.
FALL GUY is maybe the perfect Woolrich title (except it doesn’t have the word “black” in it). I’d never been very taken with Reginald LeBorg’s work before, it strikes me as adequate at best, but something about the combination of beyond-parodic intensity in the writing and sub-par woodenness in the acting here tickled me somewhere special (medulla oblongata?) — this movie is like a compendium of Woolrich tropes shoveled onto the screen with desperate abandon. “Film noir enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris would have it, give you that authentic squalor and staleness no big studio production can invoke.
We have an alcoholic (in fact, drug-induced, as it turns out) blackout, followed by false suspicion alighting on the hero, who’s found by the police unconscious and blood-stained. Hilarious scene where the cops want to interrogate the comatose hero, (“Who did you kill? Why did you kill? Who did you kill? Why did you kill?”) while the doctor repeatedly assures them this is pointless. “I’m gonna throw the book at him!” “That’s fine, but the book will only land with a dull thud while he’s in this condition.”
Stupified patsy Clifford Penn (father of Sean and Chris) escapes the drunk ward in a superb scene at once frenetic and stilted, and must go on the lam with cop friend Robert Armstrong (a superb, one-note perf of barking belligerence, surly even by Armstrong’s pit-bull standards). Suspects along the way include the above-mentioned Elisha Cook Jnr, and crazy gambling couple Iris Adrian and John Harmon.
LeBorg throws in familiar tropes like the blurred POV shot slowly resolving into focus, and the dutch-tilted investogative montage, both of which appear in Maxwell Shane’s FEAR IN THE NIGHT and NIGHTMARE. They seem like stock techniques for Woolrich adaptors. But the best moment isn’t the director’s work at all — when Penn and Armstrong take off after a witness, the film suddenly breaks for a reel change, and the headlong pursuit turns into a baffling tumble of inverted words and numbers, picking up the momentum of the pursuit perfectly. While the few interesting shots make me wich I had a better copy of this film, I seriously dug this weird moment of Dennis Hopper-style film-as-film accidental avant-gardism.
Woolrich on TV. Recently I got my hands on several episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, none of which were very exciting in themselves, despite talents like John Brahm and Mitchell Leisen lurking off-camera. Guillotine takes a neat little Woolrich twist ending and elongates it beyond endurance, but the zinger when it comes is quite satisfying.
Shorter and sweeter was Black Bargain, an episode of the HBO series Fallen Angels, directed by the continually promising Keith Gordon. Very stylish, with Twin Peaks exiles Miguel Ferrer and Grace Zabriskie providing a pointer to KG’s influences. David Lynch does seem a very apt reference point for Woolrich’s paranoid universe.
And then there’s this, written about here back in Hitchcock Year. Four O’Clock, based on Woolrich’s story Three O’Clock.