A Rendezvous with Cornell Woolrich

Having only read a couple of his books, I have far more exploration of the writing of Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968) in my future, but I certainly already know enough about him to celebrate. Well known movies adapted from his works include Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), and the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur RKO horror classic The Leopard Man (1943), et al. He sometimes wrote under the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley, though his given one was best of all. With a name like Cornell Woolrich, how could he NOT write mysteries?

With that handle one might also be forgiven for assuming he was British-born, but Woolrich was a straight-up, cradle-to-grave creature of New York, with interludes in Mexico and Hollywood. He attended, but did not graduate, Columbia, and first began writing Jazz Age themed novels in the ’20s. Woolrich’s connection with the motion picture business began as early as the silent era: he wrote titles for the films Haunted House (1928) with Chester Conklin and Thelma Todd, and the part-talkie Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) with Todd and Creighton Hale. In 1929 his second novel Children of the Ritz was made into a film starring Jack Mulhall and Dorothy Mackaill as a result of his having won a contest sponsored by First National Pictures, where he was a staff writer for the next several years. The prize came with a cash award of $10,000 (then a substantial sum), enabling him to marry Violet Blackton, daughter of Stuart Blackton, founder of Vitagraph. Woolrich was gay, however. The marriage was never consummated, and was annulled in 1933. Manhattan Love Song (1934) with Robert Armstrong and Dixie Lee was based on his eponymous novel, but by mid decade his Fitzgerald-esque efforts were wearing thin, and neither publishers nor studios were biting any more.

It was at this stage that Woolrich went back to the drawing board and reinvented himself as a writer of hard-boiled mysteries and thrillers in the mold of Hammett, Chandler and Cain, and some horror as well. And this is what he became known for. In addition to the films we’ve already mentioned, some others based on his works include a couple in The Whistler series starring Richard Dix, Phantom Lady (1944, directed by Robert Siodmak), Deadline at Dawn (1946, the only movie ever directed by Harold Clurman, with a screenplay by Clifford Odets), The Chase (1946, directed by Arthur Ripley), Fear in the Night (1947, with Deforest Kelly), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, with Edward G. Robinson), and No Man of Her Own (1950 with Barbara Stanwyck).

Despite success and plenteous income as a writer, Woolrich suffered from a sort of chain reaction of problems both psychological and physiological. A self-loathing homosexual, he was an alcoholic as well as a diabetic. He was a recluse who lived alone with his mother, and then (upon her passing in 1957) just alone, in a series of seedy Manhattan hotels. A leg was amputated, he was confined to a wheelchair, and weighed under 100 pounds. The wheelchair predicament has caused many to point out the parallels with Rear Window. Interestingly he had written the story on which that movie was based “It Had to be Murder” when he had been wheelchair-bound during an earlier ailment.

Woolrich’s works continue to be adapted for the screen from time to time. Some more recent ones include I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990) directed by Tobe Hooper and Mrs. Winterbourne (1996) directed by Richard Benjamin. The most recent film inspired by one of his works is Sandip Ray’s Hit List (2009).