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Cornell Woolrich, the Dark Prince of Noir


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Five hours and twenty-five minutes.

That’s how much time the novel you are holding in your hands will take. Not how long it takes to read—that will vary, depending on the reader, and whether you have opened this book while browsing in a bookshop, on a short ride home after buying it, or tucked up in bed with a cup of tea. Rather, it is the story itself that unfolds over exactly five hours and twenty-five minutes. And we know this because the author not only alerts us to the time, he makes each chapter heading another click of the hands, (1:39…2:52…) so that we are precisely, at times excruciatingly, aware of those precious minutes running out. 

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“A ticking clock” indeed. But this author goes further. Here the metaphorical clock is an actual clock: The Paramount clock, set on a building that looms over the characters’ lives as it towers above the city in which they live and die, shining like the moon over their destinies. It becomes a presence, an omen of good or ill, even a kind of character as our heroine, Bricky, addresses it, first as a comforting pal over her shoulder, and then as a lurking threat.

This combination of extreme precision (5:25) and almost surreal or dream-like imagery, of expertly-wrought suspense and mytho-poetic symbolism, is characteristic of this novel, this author, and of the genre and place in which he lived and worked. 

The place is New York, Gotham at its most hard-boiled. The author is Cornell Woolrich, who rose from the pulps to become the dark prince of noir. And the time-haunted novel of danger and suspense, of course, is Deadline at Dawn.

***

Cornell Woolrich. If he didn’t exist, it would take a writer of just his unique bent to create such a character. Born in 1903, in New York, into what seems to have been an unhappy marriage, he was a pale, sickly, underweight child who lived with his father in Mexico for ten years before his mother retrieved him at thirteen and returned him to his hometown. He never saw his father again. He attended Columbia University, just three blocks from where he had been living on 113th street, but dropped out when his first novel, Cover Charge, was published in 1926. 

His goal at the time was to become a Jazz Age novelist, like his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald. This aspiration was not meant to be, but the influence remains in his work—in the lyricism, the choice of characters, the romantic fatalism.… The debutantes become dance-hall dime-a-dance dames, the daring chancers like Gatsby become small-time thieves and shady operators, and that famous green light at the end of a dock becomes, well, a big clock on a tower, among other things.

Like Fitzgerald, and so many others, Woolrich went to Hollywood, after his novel “Children of the Ritz” won a contest held by First National Pictures. It didn’t work out; the most memorable event of his Hollywood sojourn was a short, disastrous, and by all accounts deeply miserable marriage. Again, he returned to New York, where he remained, living in residential hotels with his mother until her death in 1957 and, after that, reclusive and alone.

He was never able to establish himself as a mainstream novelist, whether it was because of the Great Depression, which ended the Jazz Age, or because of his own more personal, but still pretty great, depression. Instead, in the thirties he turned to the pulps, becoming so prolific that he spun off multiple pseudonyms, (William Irish was first credited with this book) and so successful that the movies came calling after all, with directors from Hitchcock to Truffaut adapting his work. 

But success did not seem to brighten his inner gloom. He remained a haunted figure. The reasons for this remain mysterious, subject to wild speculation: He was a closeted gay man, tormented by repression and self-loathing. He was an extremely-uncloseted gay man, wildly promiscuous and cruising the streets in a sailor suit. He cynically married merely as a cover. He was a deeply lonely soul who longed for a human connection but was unable to ever make one, except perhaps with Mother. His cadaverous, ghostly appearance was due to illness, or congenital reasons, or alcoholism. The truth is that we may never know. A solitary who confided in no one, he died with his secrets intact.

What we do have is the world he created. It is a night world, a world set not only in the crime genre but more specifically the hardboiled crime fiction that emerged from the pulps, most notably with such masters as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and David Goodis. Eeven more precisely, it is a noir world—a sub-genre noted for its fatalism, its dark glamour, its expressionistic style, its cynical and critical view of the human heart. Woolrich is as noir as it gets, perhaps the noir writer par excellence.

This book, Deadline at Dawn, is a perfect example. It is the story of Bricky, a small town girl gone wrong, a taxi dancer clinging to the shreds of her dignity, counting the seconds until her shift ends, and just one night away, it seems, from surrendering to the darkness that New York has left in her soul after leaching away all her dreams. By sheer chance, or fate (and the distinction will matter), she bumps into Quinn, minor thief and desperate character who wandered into the dancehall for a brief respite from his own torment, and who, as it happens, hails from the same small town. His family even lives right next door. Each one sees the other as their last chance at redemption, their one hope of escape from this dirty town on a dawn bus back home. But to do that they will need to undo the jam that Quinn has gotten himself into, and, to do that, they will have to solve a murder—without getting killed or arrested themselves.

What unfolds next is a night of tension and suspense: a minute-by-minute thriller full of sudden twists and hair-pin turns, driven by our frantic but brave and resourceful lovers and played out in indelibly rendered settings—streets, bars, alleys, taxis, and hotel rooms—where a cast of thieves, hustlers, cheats, rapists, killers, and a few decent souls struggle to survive. All characters, however minor, have their defining traits, their story. Every detail of mid-century Manhattan rings true. 

But there is also a kind of hyper-real, mythic feeling to the novel. Objects and places take on a symbolic, almost magical, power. I mentioned the clock above. There are keys, cigars, matchbooks, scraps of paper. The flour dusting from a loaf of pumpernickel bread. All of these items have a specific role in the plot, but they also seem to glow and hiss, to take on good or evil power. Even a hall of doors in a cheap hotel becomes a “row of stopped-up orifices in this giant honeycomb that was the city.” And the city itself is the most malevolent creature of all, a living, breathing monster that hunts Bricky, licking its claws, waiting to suck the last life out of her and Quinn. It is the beast from whose belly they are trying to fight their way out of. At one point, she even whispers, afraid that it will hear her.

Another noticeable trait is a high degree of coincidence, spins of fortune that propel and ricochet these characters through the tale. At first, as a skeptical, contemporary reader, I took this in stride the way I do, for example, with Dickens. But once thoroughly seduced into Woolrich’s world, I realized this was not wild luck (for the characters) and convenient coincidence (for the author). This was fate. 

The world of noir is ruled by fate, whether that means the inner drives and demons of the characters, who cannot change their nature even if it kills them, or the unbeatable workings of a rigged system in a corrupt society, or the narrative necessity of dream logic, forged by fear and desire. Of course the key that you should never use just happens to fall into your satchel. Of course the dark room contains a corpse, the stranger at the bar a secret, the scrap of paper a vital if inscrutable significance. As in a fairytale, everything has the inevitability, the interconnectedness, the meaning and potency of dreams. But for Woolrich, that dream is a nightmare from which the characters cannot awake.

Without giving away the ending, I will say that, this time, Woolrich does hold out a ray of hope. Morning does inevitably come, after all. Light chases away the darkness. The bus leaves the city for the open country. But even so, a shadow always remains, like the daytime remnants of a nightmare. We, like Bricky and Quinn, will never be quite the same.

***

Woolrich’s own fate was as noir as it gets. He ended up alone, in his hotel room, in a wheelchair, after losing a foot to gangrene, in an uncanny replay of one his own most famous tales, “Rear Window.” His life, like his work, is full of twists and shadows, and beneath it all, the mysterious unraveling of fate. Luckily, we can enter this strange and thrilling world as we wish and leave when we close the book. I suggest you start with a visit of exactly five hours and twenty-five minutes. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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