Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die

cornellopenerResearching, re-viewing, and re-visiting film noir this summer through TCM’s Summer of Darkness has led me beyond the trio of hard-boiled novelists/screenwriters generally discussed as the genre’s literary architects: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Daniel Mainwaring, author of Build My Gallows High on which Out of the Past was based, and I was delighted to discover the extent of his contributions to postwar Hollywood. Several readers suggested I also look into Cornell Woolrich, best known for penning the story that served as the basis for Rear Window. While every movie lover can connect his name to Rear Window, few know much beyond that—including myself. Not only is he the least familiar contributor to mystery fiction and film noir, but, in a genre created by a number of self-destructive, anxiety-ridden, and depressed writers, Woolrich was arguably the most troubled.

When the reclusive, alcoholic, diabetic died in 1968, he left behind several unfinished stories, including one titled “First You Dream, Then You Die.” The title seems a suitable epitaph for his wretched life—so suitable, in fact, that writer Francis M. Nevins, Jr., used it for his definitive, 600-page biography of Woolrich.



Born in 1903, Woolrich was the product of a broken home. His father, Genaro Hopgood-Woolrich was a civil engineer who left Claire Tarler Woolrich, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, when Cornell was a child. He lived with his father in Mexico City until his teens, when he moved to New York City to reside in a hotel suite with his mother. Until her death in the 1950s, the two were rarely separated, living in a succession of hotel rooms.

Perhaps the only extended period away from his mother was his first experience in Hollywood during the late 1920s. Before he began writing thrillers, he wrote a few novels in the style of his literary hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald. His second novel, Children of the Ritz, won a prize in a contest sponsored by First National Pictures, so he moved to Hollywood to be involved in the film adaptation. In 1930, he got so carried away in Hollywood that he eloped with Gloria Blackton, the daughter Vitagraph Studios founder J. Stuart Blackton. The short-lived marriage is a something of a puzzlement because Woolrich was gay. Never consummated, the marriage was quickly annulled, with Woolrich explaining to the papers that he “loved his wife too much to kiss her.” He moved back to New York City—and mother.

cornellwindowAround 1940, he turned to writing mystery novels and stories, changing his literary interests to earn some much-need money. The timing was perfect, because the noir genre was percolating as hard-boiled writers began invading Hollywood. Studios purchased his short stories and novels, turning them into crime dramas, films noir, even horror films. During the Golden Age, the Hollywood studios produced at least 23 movies based on Woolrich’s work, including a thriller airing this Friday, July 3, as part of TCM’s Summer of Darkness. Be sure to catch The Window (1949) at 9:45 starring Bobby Driscoll as a kid who witnesses a murder. The film is based on Woolrich’s novella The Boy Who Cried Murder.

The Boy Who Cried Murder shares common plot elements with the short story “It Has To Be Murder,” which was the basis for Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Both stories take place in the heat of a New York City summer and feature a helpless protagonist with little control over his situation. The protagonist—a little boy in one story and a man with a broken leg in the other—sees a murder in a nearby apartment, though no one believes him. In each story, the protagonist is literally and figuratively cornered by the murderers at the end.





Aside from a handful of films, including The Window, Rear Window, and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1967), I was hard-pressed to name many of the 37 movies based on his work. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to hear that so many of his stories and novels had been turned into features. I think part of the reason that he and his work are not well known is because he was not a screenwriter working in L.A. like Hammett, Chandler, Cain, or even Mainwaring. Instead he lived as something of a recluse in New York City, repressing his homosexuality, and suffering through his afflictions. He also wrote under two pseudonyms—William Irish and George Hopley—as well as his own name, making fan recognition more difficult. Yet another reason for the lack of awareness of Woolrich’s work is that most of his original titles were changed by the studios. Among his first writings were the “Black” series, including The Black Curtain, Black Alibi, Black Angel, and Black Path of Fear. All of these narratives were turned into films during the mid-1940s, but only Black Angel (1946), starring Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, retained the original title. The Black Curtain became Street of Chance (1942), Black Alibi was turned into the Val Lewton horror film The Leopard Man (1943), and The Black Path of Fear was released as The Chase (1946). Likewise, “Dormant Account” was filmed as The Mark of the Whistler (1944), “C-Jag (Cocaine)” as Fall Guy (1947), “He Looked Like Murder” as The Guilty (1947), “And So to Death” as Fear in the Night (1947), “All at Once, No Alice” as The Return of the Whistler (1948) “I Married a Dead Man” as No Man of Her Own (1950), and “And So to Death” as Nightmare (1956). Phantom Lady (1944), Deadline at Dawn (1946), I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) retained Woolrich’s original titles. While I had seen many of these films, I did not connect them to Woolrich.



More important than recognizing his titles is understanding his contribution to hard-boiled fiction and film noir, which means distinguishing a consistent style, themes, character types, etc. And, while there are definitely consistencies, his work differs a great deal from the holy trinity of hard-boiled writers –Hammett, Cain, and Chandler.

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Though Woolrich lacked Chandler’s ability to finesse a metaphor, and his characters were not as complex as Cain’s, the historians and biographers I consulted were unanimous in their opinion that Woolrich’s strength as a writer was his ability to build tension in his narratives and to capture the pessimism or dread of the postwar period. Pessimism, darkness, and dread are even suggested in the titles, which often included the words “black,” “night”, and “death.”

Woolrich does not use a private detective as the protagonist in his narratives. Instead, his stories unfold from the point of view of regular folk acting as amateur detectives or from the perspective of victims, bystanders, even petty criminals. The stories begin in the normal, ordinary world—usually a working-class, urban environment. His characters might be secretaries, clerks, cops, even housewives. Their everyday world is disrupted by sinister deeds committed by unsavory characters. The ordinary folk soon realize that they have entered a dark world where one false move or one wrong turn can trigger a chain reaction of calamity and catastrophe, and they are wholly unprepared for what befalls them. In Angel Face, for example, a young stripper tries to save her younger brother from being executed after he is found guilty of killing a singer. She plays amateur sleuth by infiltrating the world of a sadistic nightclub owner. Columbia turned the story into a 1938 crime drama called Convicted, starring Rita Hayworth.



Angel Face also represents another aspect of Woolrich’s work that is interesting to consider. In several stories, the detective figure is a woman who is forced to explore or participate in the underworld in order to save a wrongly convicted male. Phantom Lady, Black Angel, and I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes are other examples. The women protagonists prove fearless and resourceful as their adventures progress. Woolrich’s stories with female detective figures were adapted in the immediate postwar period, perhaps a reflection of the independence women enjoyed during the war. However by the 1950s, those particular Woolrich stories disappeared from the Hollywood screen as gender roles returned to traditional, conservative norms.

Woolrich’s mother, Claire, died in 1957, and the writer’s creativity seemed to die with her. He wrote less and tried to pass off old stories as new ones. He was able to live well enough from royalties, reprint rights, and movie sales, and he retained the respect of other mystery writers. Always a heavy drinker, he became an alcoholic, his health precarious because of diabetes. He died in 1968. This handwritten note was found among his effects: “I was only trying to stay alive a little brief while longer, after I was already gone. To stay in the light, to be with the living a little past my prime.”


16 Responses Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die
Posted By kamau : June 29, 2015 2:40 pm

I like the collection of these movies especially the Crack in the world. Great place to write your movie reviews.

Posted By Autist : June 29, 2015 3:11 pm

Excellent profile of an underrated writer! Thanks!

Posted By Steve Burrus : June 29, 2015 3:42 pm

I took tjis about him from the Internet Movies Database website: “Bequeathed $825,000 to his alma mater Columbia University for writing scholarships.” Now that’s a sizeable “chunk of change” bequeathed by a man with few friends.

Posted By LD : June 29, 2015 3:58 pm

A film that I like that is based on Woolrich’s 1947 novel “Waltz into Darkness” (as William Irish) is MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (1969). It was directed by Truffaut and starred Deneuve and Belmondo. I have not seen the 2001 remake tiled ORIGINAL SIN starring Jolie and Banderas.

Thank you so much for this informative post. I really feel that Woolrich belongs with Hammett, Chandler and Cain. He earned it.

Posted By Steve Burrus : June 29, 2015 4:03 pm

Y4eah after reading about the life of Woolrich I would say that he lived an even more tragic life than Hammett or Chandler did.

Posted By Arthur : June 29, 2015 4:32 pm

Apparently the films released on television in the 50s and 60s are but a small fraction of Hollywood;s total output, and this is especially true of the noir genre.

“First You Dream Then You Die,” interesting, apropos title. Also, happens to be the underlying theme of POINT BLANK.

Posted By Autist : June 29, 2015 6:12 pm

“Original Sin” is bad; “Mississippi Mermaid” is much better: slow moving but hauntingly beautiful.

Posted By Emgee : June 29, 2015 7:42 pm

A truly haunted man who left us a valuable legacy of nightmarish stories. i think the pessimism or dread was in himself, much more than in the times he lived in.

Posted By AL : June 29, 2015 9:19 pm

This one of your very best, Susan. Outstanding. Thank you…I saw THE WINDOW and the haunting FEAR IN THE NIGHT when I was a child. How I wish that someday we’ll have a decent print of THE CHASE…

Posted By Amanda : June 29, 2015 10:33 pm

I adore Cornel Woolrich. As far as I’m concerned, he is a master of noir. If you ever get a chance, be sure to listen to some of the Old Time Radio productions he wrote. They are amazing! Pure suspense at every turn.

Posted By David Bird : July 1, 2015 12:16 am

A great, informative article Susan.
Anyone interested in Woolrich esoterica should read Harlan Ellison’s TIRED OLD MAN as well as Ellison’s introduction to this story. The story has appeared in print several times, originally in Ellison’s NO DOORS, NO WINDOWS and more recently in THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON A Fifty Year Retrospective.
It made the hairs on the back of my neck, appropriately, stand up.

Posted By george : July 1, 2015 1:51 am

That Ellison piece was very disturbing/depressing. Sad that a writer who gave pleasure to so many readers found so little pleasure in life himself.

Posted By robbushblog : July 2, 2015 4:02 pm

I’ve always considered Woolrich among those other writers.

Posted By Elva Flores “La Otra” : July 2, 2015 5:10 pm

Really enjoyed this post. Having read several Woolrich books, I’ve always wondered about his background. I believe the film “Serenade”, with the unlikely casting of Mario Lanza and Sarita Montiel is based on the one Woolrich book I read that alludes to male homosexuality and its impact on a hetero couple’s relationship. Of course the screenplay was very altered from the book. My favorite Woolrich/Block book is the devestatingly twisty “Into the Night” This is waiting to be a film.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 2, 2015 11:16 pm

AL: Thank you so much for the compliment.

And, I am very grateful to my readers for suggesting this topic to explore a bit. Great comments from all of you about CW.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 3, 2015 12:17 am

Loving your focus on noir lately, Susan! Really want to read some Cornell Woolrich now.

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