Friday, May 14, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Black Path of Fear,” by Cornell Woolrich

(Editor’s note: This is the 94th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Maryland resident Thomas Kaufman, an award-winning motion picture director and cameraman, and author of the newly released Drink the Tea, which won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press competition for Best First P.I. Novel.)

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“Cornell Woolrich lies in an unmarked literary grave”--Harlan Ellison
OK, excuse me for being dramatic. Even author Ellison admits this statement is over-the-top. Still, there’s a lot of truth to what he says.

We’ve all read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Probably James M. Cain and David Goodis as well. But you may not recognize the name of Cornell Woolrich. Then again, maybe you’ve heard of Rear Window? How about The Bride Wore Black, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Deadline at Dawn, or Phantom Lady? The New York-born Woolrich--who also wrote under the aliases William Irish and George Hopley--produced 42 novels and short-story collections during his lifetime (1903-1968). Many of those were made into feature films, and lots of Woolrich’s other tales were adapted for the 1955-1965 TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Aside from Rear Window, my favorite movie version of Woolrich’s work is Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943), based on the 1942 novel Black Alibi, and directed by Jacques Tourneur (who also made Out of the Past). A close second is director John Farrow’s 1948 Edward G. Robinson film, Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

In 1946, Nero Films took a whack at another Woolrich novel, The Black Path of Fear, which had been published under the author’s real name two years before. Nero turned the book into The Chase, starring Robert Cummings and Michèle Morgan. Even though Philip Yordan wrote the screenplay, I’ve heard The Chase is a stinker. Which is a pity, because Fear is definitely a classic of noir literature.

The novel begins with Scott and Eve, two young people who enter a crowded nightclub in Havana, Cuba. Just why they’re on the run, and from whom, are questions to be answered as this story unfolds.
I said, “But he sent you a telegram wishing you luck.”

“That’s why I’m worried,” she said. “He didn’t say which kind of luck.”

“I’m with you,” I said.

She smiled again. I felt like used-up chewing gum, only not so sturdy. “And I’m with you,” she said. “And we can only die once.”
The couple squeeze through to the bar, order drinks, and a passing photographer takes their picture. Then within seconds Eve is dead--knifed with a dagger boasting a special carving.

Scott is an Everyman figure, a Gulliver traveling through strange worlds of fear and corruption. He is still recoiling from finding Eve dead in his arms, when the local police arrive and arrest him. He insists the knife used on Eve couldn’t have been his, that he’d bought his knife earlier that day from a shop run by a Chinese man named Chin.

However, when Scott takes the police to Chin’s curio store, Chin refutes Scott’s story and can back it up with phony evidence. In essence, Chin hands Scott over to the cops. Seeing his last chance at maintaining his freedom, Scott escapes the police, and ducks into an apartment building. At random, he enters the room of a Cuban girl named Midnight. Discovering that the police are hot on Scott’s tail, she decides to help him. By the time the lawmen reach her apartment--part of a room-to-room search of Midnight’s building--she has found a clever way of concealing Scott in plain sight.

Now, let’s stop for a minute and think about this situation. I don’t know about you, but whenever I read a book in which a wrongly accused murderer on the run finds sanctuary with an innocent woman, my suspension of disbelief takes a vacation. I don’t care how handsome the man is, or how big the woman’s golden heart--I just don’t buy it.

Unless ...

Unless the woman has her own reasons for helping him, that have nothing to do with the man. So it is with Midnight, whose lover was killed by the police. Her hatred of the cops compels her to aid Scott, as a way of laying flowers on the grave of her beloved.

Sure, it’s a coincidence that Scott just happens upon this particular woman. But Woolrich prepares the reader through his descriptions of the seamy side of Havana. By the time Scott and Midnight meet, we’re ready to believe almost anything.

First, Midnight helps Scott evade the police. Then Scott tells her--and the reader--how he and Eve came to the Cuban capital.

In flashback, we see Scott, a drifter wandering through Miami, Florida, down on his luck, stumbling across and returning the wallet of a brutal hood named Eddie Roman, who in turn hires Scott to be his driver. Roman is married to a lovely young woman named Eve. She is miserable, being married to a monster like Roman.

You can connect the dots. Once Scott and Eve decide to make a run for it, we know Roman isn’t going to let go so easily. Scott buys steamship tickets, but one of Roman’s men spots him. Scott has only two hours to get Eve safely onto the departing vessel.

Classic Woolrich, using the time element to generate suspense. With seconds to spare, the two lovers make it on board. For the moment Scott thinks they’re safe. But then Roman’s ominous telegram arrives.

This is the set-up of the book. It’s compact, and once the flashback ends, Midnight and Scott must figure out their next move. They need to locate Campos, the nightclub photographer. It’s possible that the picture he took of Scott and Eve was shot just as the knife hit home. If Scott can get his hands on that photo, he might be able to clear himself with the police. Woolrich writes a great set piece as Scott winds his way through Havana at night, only to discover, unfortunately, that Roman’s men beat him to the punch. Campos’ rooms have been tossed, there’s blood on his bed, and even his body is gone, hoisted up through the skylight.

Scott regroups with Midnight to sketch out Plan B. They guess that Campos must’ve seen something on the negative of the photo he took of Scott and Eve. Otherwise, why would the crooks have bothered to abduct him? Using deduction and scraps of dialogue that Scott has overheard, they reason that Eddie Roman is in the drug trade, trafficking opium into the States with the help of store owner Chin. Scott’s only chance is to “accidentally” fall into the hands of Roman’s men, then find either the negative or Campos. Midnight promises to give Scott one hour before calling in the cops. If they’re lucky, Scott will then be cleared. But so far, Scott’s luck has been rotten.

The Black Path of Fear is an unusual work. To begin with, the main action takes place in the course of a single night. Woolrich enjoyed using the time factor as a way of creating suspense. Second, Fear is a very dark yarn--in more ways than one. Almost all of the action happens at night, and the reader, through Scott, meets gangsters, drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, and murderers. Finally, there’s the opium den, which Scott must enter if he’s to succeed:
It was like a last port of call. And the path that had led me to it through the night had been so black and so full of fear, and downgrade all the way, lower and lower, until at last it had arrived at this bottomless abyss, than which there was nothing lower.
We think we know from Scott’s reactions that he is very much like us. He responds the same way we might, were we caught up in a murder mystery. Yet, when we read about Scott in the flashback, it’s obvious that he isn’t really like us, and certainly not like the typical American. Scott is a drifter, a wanderer without the money to pay for a meal. Then, as a result of Eve’s slaying, Scott learns of a different world, one without light, without justice. We see this world through Scott’s eyes, and in so doing become closer to Scott than we were before. This is part of the genius of the story: Woolrich gives us a man who is an outsider, not part of mainstream society, then plunges him into something so alien that his previous existence seems normal by comparison.

The path that Scott travels is not only out of our experience, it’s also out of his. And while some of what Scott lives through may seem tame by today’s standards, in 1944 the subject matter was dark and daring.

Cornell Woolrich wrote quickly, almost feverishly. In the cold light of day some of his stories don’t hold water. But like a magician, he makes you believe what he’s written while you’re reading it. And it’s too much fun reading to step back and poke holes in his stories. There’s much more enjoyment to be found in taking the ride.

It’s a shame that so many of Woolrich’s books are out of print. If you have a chance, visit a used bookstore or go online and find a copy of Nightwebs, a 1971 collection of Woolrich’s short stories, edited by Francis M. Nevins Jr. It’s a good introduction to this author’s work. And who knows? Maybe you’ll become lifelong friends.

READ MORE:Cornell Woolrich’s Mysterious Tales of Sorrow & Horror,” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (The Weird Review).


GeoffS said...

Excellent write-up on Woolrich today. I've only read a couple of his novels. Will seek out Nightwebs -- sounds like something right up my alley.

Eric Beetner said...

I disagree that The Chase is a poor film. Not the best but it is a solid adaptation. The pity is that decent print doesn't really exist so the only available one is very, very dark. As you said the action takes place at night so it can fairly be described as murky.
Thanks for spotlighting Woolrich, my favorite noir author.

George said...

I'm a big fan of Cornell Woolrich. This is one of his best books!

Martin Edwards said...

This was one of the first Woolrich's I read, and I agree that, despite his failings, he really was a class act.

Todd Mason said...

I certainly picked up all the Ballantine reissues in the '80s I could find. Handsome set, for mm paperbacks.

And now the THRILLER complete series set, scheduled from Image at the end of the summer, will put another fine adaptation, of "Papa Benjamin," back into circulation.

I'm not sure Woolrich has been forgetten at all, even if I'M DANGEROUS TONIGHT, which should've been a fine match of source material and lead actress (Maedchen Amick), was the last adaptation I caught, some years back. Unless we count REAR WINDOW ripoffs.

Todd Mason said...

See also Barry Malzberg's economia in THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT and its recent new edition, BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS. (If you're trying to place that name, aside from his own impressive work in crime fiction, he has also been a frequent collaborator with Bill Pronzini on various projects.)

Anonymous said...

The Chase wasn't an RKO production. It was produced by an independent company, Nero Films, and distributed by United Artists.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Good catch, "Anonymous." That information about Nero Films/RKO has now been corrected in the text.