Archive for Night and Fear

A Woolrich Gallery #1

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2010 by dcairns

I once got into a silly argument with my friend Nicola about whether THE WINDOW was in colour or b&w. I clearly remembered the colours — proof, in fact, that sometimes the eye paints in what the film omits to record. I think also the all-American boy in a stripy top had formed a connection in my mind between Bobby Driscoll in THE WINDOW and little Tommy Rettig in THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR T, enabling me to “see” the colours of Bobby Dee’s shirt.

Maybe also the palpable sense of summer heat evoked by former DoP Ted Tetzlaff’s film (based on Woolrich’s juvenile Rear Window retread, The Boy Who Cried Wolf) added a wash of orange and red over my memories — although in fact, monochrome movies are often the best for making you feel a choking sense of humidity — see TOUCH OF EVIL for confirmation.

To threaten the life of a child, said Francois Truffaut (who filmed two Woolrich novels), is almost an abuse of cinematic power. THE WINDOW depends entirely for suspense on placing its miniature protagonist in peril, but we are reassured slightly by the fact that he’s the hero of the film, and he’s a star, so he’s probably going to make it through OK. Nevertheless, it’s disconcerting to find him playing in the ruins of a crumbling tenement in scene one, something modern American parents probably would tolerate, and which the city would take steps to render impossible. And when bad guy Paul Stewart punches the little mite unconscious later on, there’s a genuine sense of SHOCK.

Because the film is rooted in a fairly happy family, and the threat comes from entirely outside, and things are cleared up cosily by the end, perhaps we can’t call this true noir, but the visuals certainly fit. And Bobby looking up at the stars enables me to quote Woolrich’s memoirs. As an eleven-year-old boy, he looked up at the stars, and ~

“I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.”*

The other thing that haunts this film and gives it a darker edge is the melancholy fate of Bobby Driscoll. After his movie career did a slow fade in adolescence, he drifted into drug abuse. Apparently a talented artist, he hung out with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd (he was apparently a promising visual artist), then vanished from view. An unidentified body found in an abandoned tenement was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave on Hart Island. A year and a half later, his mother approached the police, wanting Bobby to see his father, who was close to death. A fingerprint search matched Bobby’s name to his corpse.

Bobby Driscoll, RIP.

*Excepted from Francis M Nevins’ introduction to Night & Fear.

The Window [DVD]

Portrait of an Unhappy Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2010 by dcairns

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

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