Rogue’s Gallery: King is the new Woolrich

ROGUE’S GALLERY – Where three dedicated Noirheads discuss, argue and bat around topics on all things Film Noir.
With Jake Hinkson, Cullen Gallagher and Eric Beetner.

 

Eric Beetner leaves his brothers in noir behind this time out to make a point he’s not sure the others would agree with. Of course, they’d be wrong to disagree.

I’m here to make the case that Cornell Woolrich was the Stephen King of his time. Hear me out, I come with evidence.

Both were genre writers, often pigeonholed in their craft. Widely read, less respected. It is their Hollywood careers where I see the biggest similarities.
Both have had multiple film adaptations of their work, some of it the cream of the crop for the times. Let’s break it down:

Rear Window (1954) is Woolrich’s Misery (1990), and not just for the guy in a wheelchair. The cast comparison breaks down when you put Grace Kelly and Cathy Bates side by side so let’s stick to the film making and story. Hitchcock and Reiner’s adaptations are arguably the best adaptations of each author’s respective work. Material that elevates beyond genre conventions into mass appeal movies that have stood the test of time. Each story is confined, both in the setting and by the character’s inability to get around. I’m not saying for a minute that King drew any influence whatsoever from Woolrich’s story, but the similarities sparked me to investigate the rest of the Woolrich/King canon. It is not the only similarity.

 

Let’s say Phantom Lady (1944) is comparable to The Shining (1980). Both were the third adaptation of the author’s work (and here I take some minor creative license because Woolrich had been adapted before, but in such radically different versions and in such minor films I’m not counting them here, solely focusing on his classic Noir period output). Both are, again, among the finest adaptations, and I’m sure some would argue on behalf of both films for the top spot. Plus, Phantom Lady has, um . . . an elevator. Blood free, so okay, scratch that. Still, stick with me.

In 1946 Woolrich had three film adaptations, all solid entries. In 1983, King gave us three as well. All solid. Wollrich had Deadline At Dawn, Black Angel and The Chase. King had Cujo, Dead Zone and Christine. None of them the absolute best, but all solid entries that solidified each author in their genre. And three in one year? Remarkable if it hadn’t happened multiple times for both men. Am I blowing your mind yet?

Okay, how about Stand By Me (1986)? What matches that in the Woolrich file? Sounds like The Window (1949) Let’s see – young male protagonist, another one in the best of column, taken from a short story and not a novel? Check, check and check. If only Hitchcock had directed we’d have Yahtzee. Does it help that the director of The Window, Ted Tetzlaff, was the cinematographer for Hitchcock’s Notorious? I thought it would.

What about the lesser works? Lord knows King has had plenty. Take something like Pet Semetary (1989). It’s exactly that collective gasp from the die-hards as they all get their hackles up and proclaim, “That’s not a lesser work, I love that film!” that I mention it. See, I happen to have a soft spot for I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes (1948). I know it’s not great, but I like it nonetheless. Silly premise, decently done but not A-list. We have a match!

Woolrich’s Fall Guy (1947) is akin to King’s Silver Bullet (1985) in the quality department. The Guilty (1947) is Maximum Overdrive (1986), although Woolrich never attempted to direct his own work. Probably too drunk.

Fear in the Night (1947) and Nightmare (1956) may sound like King novels but they are Woolrich adaptations and I say they equal Salem’s Lot (1979/2004). Both are the same story, filmed twice, years apart and neither one is truly great, but both are satisfying in their way. (I tried to find a link between these two films and Salem’s Lot using Noir stalwart Elisha Cook Jr. who shows up in the original Salem’s, but these appear to be the only Noir films he did not appear in.)

Still with me? Let’s go short format. Woolrich provided material for several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on TV. Shorter tales like The Big Switch, Momentum, and Post Mortem add up to some great short fun just like Creepshow (1982).

How about pseudonyms? Both men wrote work under different names. Woolrich had three – Cornell Woolrich, William Irish and George Hopley. King wrote as Richard Bachman early on. So a film like Return of the Whistler (1948)  based on the short story “All At Once, No Alice” we can equate to Thinner (1996). Early work adapted and perhaps better left unfilmed.

Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948) is about a man with psychic powers not unlike, oh I don’t know, The Dead Zone (1983) perhaps? But we’ve already used that one so let’s go Firestarter (1984). Bet that’s the only time in history Drew Barrymore has been compared with Edward G. Robinson.

1943’s Val Lewton production of The Leopard Man involves a wild animal terrorizing townsfolk. Cujo anyone?

So you see, I could go on. King has had many more adaptations but Woolrich gets a revival every now and then. Most recently with the Angelina Jolie / Antonio Banderas flop Original Sin, adapted from Waltz Into Darkness. With so many King adaptations to choose from where to begin? Let’s see, early work…bloated production more about the star power of the leads than about good storytelling…I’ll say The Running Man (1987).

There you have it. Compelling evidence that Cornell Woolrich was indeed, the Stephen King of his time. Why do I think this would’ve been harder with Raymond Chandler and Nicholas Sparks?

Jake Hinkson is the author of Hell On Church Street. He blogs at thenighteditor.blogspot.com
Cullen Gallagher writes about all things pulp at www.pulpserenade.com
Eric Beetner is author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision, A Mouth Full of Blood and co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble as well as appearing in the anthologies D*cked, Pulp Ink, Grimm Tales, Off The Record and Discount Noir. For more visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com

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One comment

  1. Eric, I’m not disagreeing, but WALTZ INTO DARKNESS is brilliant. The crappy movies based on it discourage any discussion of adaptations of his work.

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