The Magazine

Dark Deeds

The Mystery of Cornell Woolrich.

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By JON L. BREEN
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Born in New York in 1903, Woolrich was a child of divorce, spending some of his youth with his father in Mexico (an occasional locale of his fiction) and the rest with his mother in Manhattan. He quit Columbia University after launching his writing career as an ersatz F. Scott Fitzgerald in novels like "Cover Charge" (1926) and "Children of the Ritz" (1927). Woolrich wrote several effective novel-length works after discovering his crime-fiction métier in the mid-1930s. But the most famous of them, "The Bride Wore Black" (1940), points up his short story roots. It is episodic and schematic in structure: a chapter on the killer, a chapter on the victim, a chapter on the investigation, and then the cycle begins again. It was somewhat ahead of its time as a thriller about a determined cop's hunt for a female serial killer, whose motive gradually becomes known to the reader. Along the way, the novel offers inventive plotting, effective scenes, and well-realized characters--right up until an utterly preposterous, rabbit-out-of-a-hat windup.

Woolrich was so in tune with the film-noir school of the 1940s, that he became one of the most frequently adapted writers of crime fiction. His stories also were a perfect fit for the classic radio series "Suspense," which began as a project of motion picture director Alfred Hitchcock, several years before his television stardom.

Woolrich and Hitchcock, whose names are often bracketed although they never worked together directly, had similar approaches and creative sensibilities. Hitchcock's great film "The Lady Vanishes" (1938) was based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, but it incorporated one of Woolrich's favorite nightmare situations. One of the director's greatest films, "Rear Window" (1954), was based on Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder," to which Hitchcock added characters and incidents while keeping the basic situation and voyeuristic theme. What some believe to be Hitchcock's very best television mystery, "Four O'Clock" (1957), was based on Woolrich's "Three O'Clock" (1938). And when François Truffaut made a 1968 film in homage to his idol Hitchcock, he not only hired frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann to compose the musical score, but chose Woolrich's "The Bride Wore Black" for adaptation.

BOTH WOOLRICH AND HITCHCOCK were sharp and sympathetic observers of human frailties. In the stories they developed, both often threw credibility to the winds in the pursuit of the suspense that was their major goal. Hitchcock, who had exhaustive story conferences on all of his films, knew very well that the plot of "North by Northwest" (1959) made no sense. But he didn't care, deciding the audience wouldn't think about the inconsistencies while they were watching. Similarly, many of Woolrich's stories so grip the reader in the telling that giant holes in the plot go unnoticed until the story is laid aside. Of course, Woolrich felt the need to provide, or believed his markets required, a logical explanation. But it wasn't logic that inspired him. So while he made more effort to explain things than Hitchcock ever did--compare "It Had to Be Murder" with "Rear Window," for example--his explanations were often perfunctory and seldom watertight, his surprise endings more tacked on than organic.

The writer and the director both had more than their share of personal demons and kinks, although Woolrich's were so bad they made Hitchcock's look wholesomely normal. Seeing a performance of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" at age eight precipitated a lifelong obsession with death and the dark pessimism embodied in the subtitle of Francis M. Nevins's 1988 biography, "Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die." He apparently never achieved a satisfactory romantic relationship, and during his sham marriage he would don a sailor suit in the small hours and look for partners on the Los Angeles waterfront. After his mother's death in 1957, he spent his last years in alcoholic self-hatred, writing little and finishing less, attending publishing-world parties but deflecting personal contact, doing his best to antagonize his few friends, and ignoring his diabetic condition to the extent that a gangrenous leg had to be amputated. Though he didn't need the money, in years of low output he sometimes dusted off old stories and presented them as new work. When he died in 1968, his funeral was sparsely attended, and his considerable estate went to Columbia University to fund a creative writing scholarship.