Cornell Woolrich, who used the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley, began writing romantic fiction in imitation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He turned to pulp fiction in 1934, writing for magazines such as Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly and Dime Detective. Thus he has a claim to being among the founding generation of hard-boiled fiction; however none of the hundreds of formulaic stories he wrote in the 1930s is equal to the work that he did as a "suspense" writer in Hollywood during the 1940s. Many of his stories were turned into noir movies by Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Siodmak, and other directors. "The Twilight Zone" and other 1950s television series owe to his influence.
Born in New York City in 1903, Woolrich grew up in Mexico, where his father worked as a civil engineer. His parents soon divorced, Woolrich moving back to New York with his mother when he was twelve. In 1921 he entered Columbia University, where he studied journalism for three years. During an illness he began to write fiction, which he then took up full time, dropping out of school. His Cover Charge (1926) is a Jazz Age romance that owes to Fitzgerald, as is Children of the Ritz (1927); but the latter won $10,000 in a First National Pictures contest and was filmed in 1929. Woolrich hired on to write scripts in Hollywood in 1928, also completing a gritty Times Square (1929) and the autobiographic Young Man's Heart (1930). Then he suddenly married the daughter of a movie mogul, but the marriage was annulled, apparently on his bride's discovery of a diary that he kept detailing his homosexual life. Biographer Francis Nevins has written that Woolrich idealized his young wife and loathed his own secret and promiscuous homosexuality. But "in the middle of the night he would put on a sailor outfit that he kept in a locked suitcase and prowl the waterfront for partners." 1 "For the next quarter century he lived with his mother," wrote Nevins, "trapped in a bizarre love-hate relationship which dominated his external world." 2 Though financially able, they lived in a vermin-infested Harlem tenement with pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals. Woolrich decayed emotionally and physically even as he wrote his best work, but with his mother's death in 1957 the rate of decline accelerated. He lost a leg to gangrene and years of alcoholism took their toll. He died of a stroke in 1968.
It was only with The Bride Wore Black (1940) that Woolrich arrived at a remunerative post-Hollywood profession. Rather than a detective novelist, he was a suspense writer, in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. Far more formulaic than his colleagues, Woolrich employed a limited number of plots. According to Foster Hirsch,
innocent characters are accused of or in some way involved in a murder, and saved at the last minute after a series of escalating catastrophes. The Woolrich world is a maze of wrong impressions as the author sets traps for his luckless protagonists and then watches as they fall into them. Filled with pitfalls and sudden violence, the landscape in Woolrich is the kind of place where a single wrong turn, a mere chance encounter, triggers a chain reaction in which one calamity follows another.… The first person mode, with its necessarily limited perspective, increase the aura of claustrophobia and entrapment which hovers over all of Woolrich's work – Woolrich's characters seldom see the light, and are rarely prepared for what happens to them. 3
Francis Nevins has divided Woolrich's plots into 1) the Noir Cop story (a plainclothes policeman solves a crime, but some sadistic police procedure is the real interest), 2) the Clock Race story (the protagonist or loved one will die unless s/he makes a discovery about who or what is killing him or her), 3) the Oscillation story (the protagonist's tiny foothold on love or trust is eaten away by suspicion, then restored, in greater and greater swings, until s/he sees that the other is really evil, 4) the Headlong Through the Night story (the last hours of a hunted man as he careens through a dark city) and 5) the Annihilation story (the male protagonist meets his one true love, but she disappears without a trace, and 6) the Final Hours plot (sharing the final moments of someone slated to die in a particularly terrible way). 4
The best known of these are The Bride Wore Black (1940), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), I Married a Dead Man (1948), and "Rear Window." The later became a famous Alfred Hitchcock movie in 1954. Woolrich's reputation owes as much to the movies made from his works as to his writing. Beginning in 1940, the words "black," "dark" and "death" appeared in so many of his titles that he is credited with suggesting to others the label "film noir." These movies featured important actors and directors. The first, Street of Chance ( 1942, based on Black Curtain) starred Burgess Meredith; the second, Phantom Lady (1944) was directed by Robert Siodmak and featured Elisha Cook Jr. as the disreputable jazz drummer. 5 A rush of Woolrich-based movies followed: Black Angel (1946) featured perennial noir protagonist Dan Duryea; The Chase (1946); Deadline at Dawn (1946); Fall Guy (1947); The Guilty (1947): and, more significantly, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), starring Edward G. Robinson. His plots provided episodes of the television series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and influenced "The Twilight Zone." Francois Truffaut filmed some of his stories.
Woolrich's widely quoted aphorism -- "First you dream, then you die" -- sums up his worldview and his plots, but also provides a clue to his mastery of suspense. Woolrich was not a lean and mean writer in the tradition of Hammett and Hemingway, but endlessly descriptive. As biographer Nevins concedes, "purely on its merits as prose, it's dreadful." Likewise his plotting: "As a technical plot craftsman he is sloppy beyond endurance." 6 But Nevins and others point out that the long sentences and plot contrivances act as a retarding force against the protagonist's obvious appointment with fate, creating suspense. At his best, Woolrich creates a divided reading response, in which complete identification with the protagonist, while desirable, is impossible because of his or her paranoia, amnesia, hypnosis, or a dose of drugs. The character's initially admirable love or fidelity slowly becomes corrupt, and the reader understands that there is a reasonable logic in the protagonist's suffering or even feels that it is deserved.
1 Francis Nevins, "Cornell Woolrich," in Mystery & Suspense Writers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons), 1998. Vol II, 968. 2 Francis Nevins, quoted in "Cornell Woolrich," Contemporary Literary Criticism, (new revised) 77, 386. 3 Foster Hirsch, Contemporary Literary Criticism, (new revised) 77, 400. 4 Francis Nevins, "Cornell Woolrich," in Contemporary Literary Criticism, 402. 5 Bruce Crowther, Film Noir, 14-15. 6 Nevins, Contemporary Literary Criticism, 77: 403.