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Tag Archives: Cornell Woolrich

The Window (May 17, 1949)

The Window
The Window (1949)
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
RKO Radio Pictures

Ted Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films dating back to the silent era. After shooting Notorious (1946) for Alfred Hitchcock, he moved to directing full time.

Tetzlaff directed a relatively small number of films, but the two I’ve seen so far have both been fantastic. The first was Riffraff (1947), a visually inventive detective thriller in a tropical setting. The second was this one, which I thought was even better than Riffraff.

Apparently The Window was filmed in 1947, but its release was delayed when Howard Hughes acquired RKO Radio Pictures.

The Window is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich called “The Boy Cried Murder” (also reprinted under the title “Fire Escape”). The story was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in March 1947. The screenplay was adapted from the story by Mel Dinelli, who also scripted the terrific RKO thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945).

The Window opens with a quote from Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I guess they were concerned that people weren’t going to pick up on the concept immediately, so they’d get it out of the way before the movie even started.

Even without the opening text, I don’t think you’d need a PhD in Comp Lit to pick up on the “boy who cried wolf” theme pretty quickly.

The Window stars Bobby Driscoll, a child actor on loan from Disney. Driscoll plays Tommy Woodry, a nine-year-old boy who lives in a working class neighborhood of New York with his parents, Ed and Mary (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale). Tommy is an only child who plays in the street and in an abandoned building with the other boys in the neighborhood. He’s a bright kid, and he loves playing make-believe and telling tall tales.

“If it isn’t Indians it’s gangsters, and if it’s not gangsters it’s something else,” his mother complains. (Incidentally, Barbara Hale was 27 years old when The Window premiered in 1949. Driscoll was 12. What this means is that Kennedy, who plays Driscoll’s dad, would have been 23 when his 14-year-old wife gave birth. In fairness, Hale is made up to look older than she is, and I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to imply statutory rape and teen pregnancy.)

Bobby Driscoll

One sweltering summer night, Tommy asks permission to sleep out on the fire escape because it’s a little cooler outside. He lies down and gazes up at the black sky, pinpoints of stars, and white laundry flapping on a line above him. Still too hot, he climbs up one story to the top floor, where it’s slightly cooler. He drifts off to sleep, but wakes up later and witnesses something terrible. He thinks he sees his neighbors kill a man.

“With all the stories you tell it’s no wonder you have nightmares,” his mother tells him when he wakes her up.

Tommy persists with his story, but his parents refuse to believe him. When he takes his story to the police, it only makes things worse.

The wonderful thing about The Window is how believably adults relate to Tommy. His parents are both patient and understanding people, especially his dad. They’re not clueless buffoons or coldly abusive, the way so many parents are in movies with child protagonists. That they refuse to believe him is not their fault. It’s how the situation would play out in real life.

The police don’t just dismiss his story either. They are kind and indulgent. But when they investigate Tommy’s upstairs neighbors, everything seems to be all right, so they drop the matter. Again, this is probably how the situation would play out in real life.

The Window is genuinely suspenseful, and it has a fairly shocking climax. This is one of those films where everything comes together perfectly. The actors are wonderful, the writing is great, and the pacing is perfect. Tetzlaff and his cinematographers, Robert De Grasse and William O. Steiner, crafted a great-looking film that seamlessly blended New York locations and studio soundstages.

I always have more movies I want to watch than I can find the time to watch (and review), so I rarely watch movies twice, but I liked The Window so much that I watched it a second time and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time.

Incidentally, Bobby Driscoll ended up having a very sad life. I don’t feel like getting into it here, but if you’d like to know more about him, Google him.

The Window will be shown on TCM on March 10, 2014.

The Return of the Whistler (March 18, 1948)

The Return of the Whistler
The Return of the Whistler (1948)
Directed by D. Ross Lederman
Columbia Pictures

The Return of the Whistler was the final entry in the Columbia Pictures series based on the CBS radio show. It’s the only Whistler film that doesn’t star Richard Dix, who was in poor health when it was made (he died on September 20, 1949, at the age of 56).

Not only were the Whistler films excellent B-movie programmers, they were remarkably faithful to their source material. Just like the radio show, The Return of the Whistler begins with the eerie whistled theme music. The camera tracks the shadow of a walking man as he narrates in voiceover: I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.

Michael Duane and Lenore Aubert star as Ted Nichols and his fiancée Alice, who — when the film begins — are driving through a dark and story night to be married by a justice of the peace. Alice is a Frenchwoman, and Ted has only known her for two weeks. He found her under mysterious circumstances, limping through the woods near his summer cabin, running away from someone or something. There’s a lot about her past that he doesn’t know, but he does know one thing — he loves her more than anything in the world.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. First their car breaks down, then they discover that the justice of the peace is out of town, trapped by bad weather. Ted and Alice can’t stay in a hotel room together for the night because they aren’t legally married yet, so Ted leaves Alice at the hotel alone and walks to a nearby garage to have his car fixed. The shadow of the Whistler follows him.

This isn’t just the way you’d planned your honeymoon is it, Ted? But don’t be too unhappy, it’s only a few more hours before you and Alice will be united forever.

Like most things the Whistler says, those words drip with sardonic irony, because when Ted returns to the hotel the next morning Alice is gone, and the cranky night clerk (played by Olin Howland) claims not to know anything.

The Return of the Whistler is a fine capper to the series. The pacing is excellent and the actors all turn in solid performances. The mystery of what happened to Alice isn’t attenuated unnecessarily, and the movie is more suspenseful because of it, getting us involved in her predicament and Ted’s desperate fight to find out what’s going on before it’s too late.

The Return of the Whistler was directed by D. Ross Lederman, produced by Rudolph C. Flothow, and written by Edward Bock and Maurice Tombragel, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. There are currently a few uploads of The Return of the Whistler on YouTube. You can watch one of them below:

Fear in the Night (April 18, 1947)

Fear in the Night begins with a little floating dot of light dancing around the screen. It’s a will o’ the wisp that flits here and there before it morphs into the title and an odd, pulsating background pattern that is abstract, but vaguely obscene. The background music by Rudy Schrager is high-pitched and eerie.

After the credits roll, the visual abstractions clear away and are replaced by a black screen and the disembodied head of a beautiful woman with upswept hair (Janet Warren) floating toward the viewer. We hear Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) narrate his strange vision:

At first, all I could see was this face coming toward me, then I saw the room. A queer, mirrored room. And somehow, I was inside it. There was danger there. I knew that. I wanted to turn and run, but I couldn’t. It seemed as if my brain was handcuffed, and I had to do what I’d come to do.

Vince dreams that he stabs a man (Michael Harvey) in the heart with a steel bore. The man resists, and chokes Vince. One of the buttons on the man’s jacket pops off. The beautiful woman with upswept hair watches and silently screams, then Vince hides the body in one of the closets in the strange octagonal room full of mirrors. He locks the closet and puts the little key in his pocket. He wakes up from his vivid dream. He is relieved, but then he sees in his bathroom mirror that he has thumbprints in his neck. He looks down and sees a spot of blood on his wrist. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a key and a button.

Distraught, Vince calls in sick to work. He’s a bank teller, and his pretty co-worker Betty Winters (Kay Scott) is happy to take over his window for the day, but she clearly has feelings for Vince, and is worried when she calls his room and no one answers.

Vince walks the streets alone, eager to be in the sunshine, afraid of the shadows and the coming night. He goes to see his brother-in-law, Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly), who just happens to be a police detective. Cliff tells Vince that his mind is playing tricks on him — selling him a phony bill of goods — and not to say anything about this to his sister, Lil (Ann Doran), since she’s expecting a baby and high-strung enough already, but Vince insists on following the leads from his dream. He takes out a newspaper ad that says “WANTED—I am interested in buying or leasing a house with an octagonal mirrored-paneled room or alcove. Location, size secondary, provided has this one essential, desired for reason of sentiment. Phone Grayson, FE-7648.”

Nothing pans out until Vince and Betty go on a picnic with Lil and Cliff. Caught in the rain, they take refuge in a large, unoccupied house. Guess what Vince finds upstairs when he starts poking around? You guessed it … an octagonal mirrored room, the same one he dreamed about.

In a nice bit of realism, as soon as it becomes clear that a murder actually was committed, Cliff jumps to the conclusion that Vince has been stringing him along the whole time with a crazy story so he’ll be able to plead insanity when the case goes to trial.

Fear in the Night was the first film that screenwriter Maxwell Shane directed. He also wrote the screenplay, which was based on the story “Nightmare” by Cornell Woolrich (originally published under his “William Irish” pen name). If you’ve seen Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946), which was based on a novel by William Irish/Cornell Woolrich, you’ll noticed a few similarities to Fear in the Night. Blackouts and murders possibly committed in hypnagogic states were frequent occurrences in Woolrich’s fiction, which is unsurprising once you know that Woolrich was an alcoholic shut-in.

Fear in the Night was DeForest Kelley’s first role in a feature film. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Star Trek, it will be impossible to look at him in this film and not constantly see Dr. “Bones” McCoy and all of his trademark twitches and catchphrases. Even though Kelley was only 26 or 27 when he made Fear in the Night, he doesn’t look that different than he would in the ’60s.

If you can get over that, though, Fear in the Night is a twisty and involving noir with some remarkable subjective camerawork. The bits of straight drama are filmed in a flat, conventional style, but all of the dream stuff (of which there’s plenty) is really effective. I’ve seen numerous other films that the cinematographer, Jack Greenhalgh, worked on, and up until now they’ve all been flat, uninteresting P.R.C. westerns, horror films, and mysteries. Fear in the Night really lets him shine, and there are all kinds of wonderful cinematographic flourishes, such as images that shatter into pieces and then are reassembled, scenes that flutter in and out of focus, and even a freeze frame of Kelley’s face while a murder plays out across his empty eyeballs.

The plot is a little wacky, and the solution to the mystery involves some willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, but no noir fan will be able to resist the central conceit of the film, which is summed up nicely by Vince when he says, “I’ve got an honest man’s conscience in a murderer’s body.”

The Chase (Nov. 16, 1946)

Arthur D. Ripley’s The Chase is based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1944 novel The Black Path of Fear, which was adapted as a screenplay by Philip Yordan.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a sailor who was decorated during World War II, is now bedraggled and broke in Miami. While staring longingly through the window of a lunch counter at a griddle full of bacon and flapjacks, he finds a lost wallet full of $20 bills. He decides to return it to its owner, Edward Roman, whose I.D. says that he lives on Hermosa Drive, but not before he “borrows” a buck and a half to buy himself breakfast.

Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) turns out to be a smooth-talking criminal who lives in a palatial home with his creepy right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre) and his beautiful wife Lorna (French actress Michèle Morgan), whom he keeps a virtual prisoner. Roman is sinister right from the get-go, slapping a woman (Shirley O’Hara) who pokes him while manicuring his fingernails before he talks to Scott.

Gino and his boss seem amused by Scott’s honesty. (He even owns up to the 12 bits he liberated.) Roman asks Scott why he brought the wallet back. “Now that I’m here I wonder myself,” Scott says. “I guess I’m just a sucker.”

Roman gives “Scotty” — as he calls him — a job as a driver. Scott doesn’t like or trust either Roman or Gino, but he can’t say no to paying work. Things get weird right away. Roman has a contraption in the back seat that allows him to control the accelerator, speeding the car up to more than 100 m.p.h. to see how Scott handles himself. (My wife probably wishes all cars I drove came equipped with this feature.)

One night, Roman entertains a prominent ship owner named Emmerrich Johnson (Lloyd Corrigan), an overdressed fat man who spends most of his time laughing nervously … he can never quite tell if Roman’s joking or not. Unfortunately for Johnson, he doesn’t see the depths of Roman’s villainy and sadism. He’s never joking.

After Johnson refuses to commit to sell Roman the two ships he wants to buy, Gino takes Johnson on a tour of Roman’s wine cellar. While Johnson is excitedly fussing over a bottle of 1815 Napoleon brandy, Gino slips away and locks Johnson in the wine cellar with Roman’s vicious dog. When Johnson is attacked he drops the bottle of brandy on the floor and it runs out along the floor in a convincing approximation of blood. It’s an old cinematic trick, but a good one.

Meanwhile, Scott and Mrs. Roman are busy falling for each other. After one of their many trips to the beach, where she looks out over the water longingly as he stands behind her, waiting with the car, Lorna offers him $1,000 to take her to Havana. She thinks she can trust him, and she can’t make it on her own. He mulls it over for a little while but quickly gives in, booking passage for two on the S.S. Cuba.

They make it to Havana, but their plan to continue on to South America hits a snag, and Scott finds himself on the run, accused of murder.

Things get really weird an hour into the picture, when Scott wakes up in a room with a bottle of pills on the night table and no memory of what happened to him over the course of the past few days.

I haven’t read The Black Path of Fear, but I have read other novels by Woolrich, and blackouts, amnesia, and lost periods of time were recurring themes in his work. Like a lot of Woolrich’s booze-soaked prose, The Chase starts out as a fairly standard thriller, but by the end it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. In a better film, like Detour (1945), this could be counted as a real achievement. With The Chase, however, the confusion between dreams and reality seems more the result of slapdash filmmaking than anything else.

Cummings has a pleasant way about him, and is believable as an earnest, soft-spoken Everyman. Morgan is beautiful, but the script doesn’t give her a lot to do. Cochran and Lorre are the real gems in this film. Every scene in which they appear is full of menace. Each man has a calm exterior, but there’s always violence roiling below the surface.

If you’re looking for tight plotting or a clever climax, you won’t find it here, but The Chase has just enough oddball charm to recommend it to noir enthusiasts.

Black Angel (Aug. 2, 1946)

Black Angel was directed by Roy William Neill, the dependable craftsman responsible for eleven of Universal’s fourteen Sherlock Holmes pictures. Black Angel isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s slick, well-made entertainment and a nice opportunity to see what Neill was capable of when he stepped outside of the formula of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes films.

The screenplay, by Roy Chanslor, is based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name. Woolrich was a prolific author, and an instrumental figure in film noir, even though his actual work for the film industry occurred only during the silent era and was brief and unhappy. He apparently wrote a few screenplays under the name “William Irish,” which was one of his pseudonyms. (“George Hopley” was the other.) He was also briefly married as a young man, but it was annulled after less than three years. After that, he headed back to New York City, his hometown, and went back to live with his mother.

Woolrich mostly kept to himself. A closeted homosexual with a drinking problem, Woolrich found his niche writing stories for the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to publications like Black Mask and Argosy. More screenplays for film noirs were adapted from Woolrich’s stories and novels than from the the work of any other crime writer, but that’s not the only reason he was instrumental to the genre. The inky darkness of noir is evident in the titles of his books alone; The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948) are just a few. The two novels of his I’ve read were not particularly well-written — he wasn’t a great stylist like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett — but he conveyed in his writing a sense of overwhelming dread and alienation, both emotions that are central to film noir.

Also, perhaps due to his his drinking, Woolrich’s characters frequently suffer from amnesia and alcohol-induced blackouts. In Fright, written in 1950 under the name George Hopley, a young man is convinced he has committed murder while blind drunk, but it’s not clear for most of the novel whether he actually has or not.

This is a theme that rears its head once again in Black Angel, in which a regular Joe named Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of the murder of a blackmailing singer named Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Bennett’s wife Catherine (June Vincent, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Dowling) believes he is innocent, and sets out to prove it. She enlists the aid of Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), a composer and piano player who seems like a decent guy despite his alcoholism and unhealthy obsession with the murdered woman. (In the memorable first scene of the picture, we see Duryea leaning against a wall, staring up at the high rise apartment in which Mavis lives.) As Bennett’s execution date looms, the two pose as a professional singer and piano player in order to get closer to their prime suspect, an oily club owner named Marko (Peter Lorre).

One of the things I liked best about Black Angel was the opportunity to see Duryea in a sympathetic role. He wasn’t perpetually cast early in his career as villains and sniveling punks because he lacked charisma, he had plenty. But he was whip-thin and had a perpetual scowl, and he was good at playing nasty characters. The poster for Black Angel calls him “that fascinating tough guy of Scarlet Street,” and that movie and this one were both instrumental in creating his new image as a violent, dangerous, and sexy antihero.

Sadly, this would be Neill’s last film. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1946, while visiting relatives in England. He was 59 years old. Neill was a superior craftsman, and his Sherlock Holmes films were some of the most entertaining and well-made programmers of the ’40s. He made all kinds of films, including the campy horror movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (a personal favorite), but Black Angel showed what he was capable of in the hard-boiled noir/mystery genre. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to make more movies like it.

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