The appeal of hard boiled detective fiction is a little like the attraction of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Scholars will point out that, in both cases, the audience is sympathetic to the suffering of the Hero and that the ultimate payoff is a cathartic release as we paradoxically take pleasure in the very human pain he endures.
No matter what the scholars say, those of us in the audience know that we like to see the other guy get his, especially when it is safely confined to the world of fiction.
The best writers of tragedy are able to play on our sympathies. This is why the protagonist in most dramatic tragedies is a hero. The main character in hard boiled fiction is often far from Heroic, in fact, he is very often a sleaze ball. In this case, the emotional payoff is the thrilling tension that the author creates. What the audience may not realize is that, in some cases, the author is able to create sympathy for his less than heroic characters because the author himself is far from being a heroic figure.
Cornell Woolrich is called the fourth greatest crime novelist of his time, after Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Raymond Chandler. More film noir screenplays have been adapted from his writing than from any other crime novelist. Woolrich is little known outside of hard core noir fans, in part because he published much of his work under pseudonyms like William Irish or George Hopley.
Woolrich’s success as a hard boiled novelist is in part due to his own dark existence. His parents split when he was very young. While living in Mexico with his civil engineer father, one of his pastimes was to collect spent bullet casings from the street. Later. he returned to New York to live with his mother.
His first novels were Jazz Age romances, one of which was selected to be adapted for a movie. While in Hollywood, Woolrich found himself in a short lived marriage to a movie moguls’ daughter. He considered it a cruel joke on the young lady. The marriage ended when the secret of his homosexuality was discovered.
Woolrich came from a time when homosexuality was considered an abnormality, usually connected with a great deal of shame. Some characters from old time radio may seem “light in the loafers”, but cute from a modern perspective. Candy Matson’s side kick, Rembrandt Watson, can be seen in this light, even if never acknowledged as being gay.
Woolrich practiced his homosexuality with as much shame and degradation as possible. To hide his predilections he kept a sailor’s uniform in a suitcase so that he could cruise the docks to find partners. After his short marriage, he returned to New York to live in a squalid Harlem hotel room with his mother for the rest of her life. It is reported that he did his writing in a corner of the hotel room with his mother watching him while he worked.
Film Noir directors flocked to Woolrich’s stories. Edward G. Robinson‘s Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948), The Window (1949), Barbara Stanwyk‘s No Man Of Her Own (1950), Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1954 film Rear Window starring James Stewart, Nightmare (1956) with Edward G. Robinson, and the 2001 film Original Sin starring Angelica Jolie and Antonio Banderas make up a small portion of the films based on Woolrich’s writings.
The Mark Of The Whistler (1944) and The Return Of The Whistler (1948) were part of a Columbia Pictures series built on the popularity of The Whistler radio program and used plots from Woolrich stories.
Although his prose failed to gain the praise of Hammett or Chandler, his plotting and characterization were second to none. Woolrich never relied on recurring characters through his works. Although suspense is an essential element of many stories, his principle delight is heaping ever increasing anguish upon his characters.
Woolrich stories are seldom formulaic but do fall into a number of noir plot types. There is the noir cop story, where a plainclothes detective solves the crime, but depends upon an uncommonly sadistic police technique. There is the clock race stories, where suspense builds as the protagonist must find the deadly secret before it kills them. The oscillation story has the protagonist’s love or trust eaten away as their partner’s deadly secret is slowly revealed. The final hours plot shows the terrifying last moments of someone facing an inevitable death.
These are stories of deception, shame, and personal claustrophobia. One chance encounter leads to another until the characters have no choice but to follow the path to doom. The anguish that Woolrich’s characters are forced to endure is more than any human being should be made to deserve, but on some level, it is what each character deserves.
The stories all provide the cathartic release that we look for in great tragedy. Although the author lived in a personal darkness that most of us could not imagine, his stories make our own world brighter if only by contrast.
Cornell Woolrich‘s mother passed away in 1957, occasioning his move to the Hotel Franconia. He rarely socialized, but when he did he was rudely dismissive of those who praised his work. Because of his alcoholism and an amputated foot (the result of an infection that was the result of a too-tight shoe), Woolrich died a recluse. The bulk of his estate went to endow journalism scholarships at Columbia University. The endowment bears his mother’s name.