Monday, January 14, 2008

Nightmare logic

Back at Rutgers University in the 1980s, I took a film criticism seminar with the great film critic (and, at that time, Penthouse columnist) Roger Greenspun. One of the dozen or so films we watched that semester was Francois Truffaut's MISSISSIPPI MERMAID, based on Cornell Woolrich's 1947 novel WALTZ INTO DARKNESS. Greenspun loved the film but dismissed the source material - and all of Woolrich's books - as "unreadable," a statement which drew laughter from the class.

I took exception - and offense. I was on a serious Woolrich kick at the time, having discovered him through the paperback reissues Ballantine Books had just done of his major novels, most of which were graced with moodily beautiful cover paintings by Larry Schwinger. I don't think I'd ever heard of Woolrich before I bought RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK, solely on the basis of the cover art. In the year or so that followed, I read all the Ballantine reprints and went looking for more Woolrich. What Greenspun found unreadable, I found irresistible. I loved the mood, the ambiance, the urban nightscapes (New York, more often than not), and the pervasive atmosphere of dread, even if the plots didn't always make much, uh, sense. This was noir so strong it warped reality. The stories unfolded with the logic - and inevitability - of a nightmare.

I haven't seen - or heard of - Greenspun in years (he was a brilliant critic and an excellent teacher, despite his anti-Woolrich bias), but his words came back to me last week while reading Hard Case Crime's" reissue of Woolrich's 1950 novel FRIGHT. The jacket copy says it's the book's first reprinting in more than 50 years. Halfway into the novel, it was easy to see why. Some passages are literally unreadable - and yet there are others that are sheer noir poetry.

The plot is pure Woolrich. In the heat of anger, a man commits a horrible crime hours before his wedding, then skips town (New York, again) with his bride to start a new life elsewhere. But as his past - and his guilt - catches up with him, he ends up committing a series of crimes in order to cover up the first one, while his long-suffering - but not terribly bright - wife begins to realize he's not quite the happy-go-lucky guy she once thought him to be.

Here's part of the poetry, a shorthand description of a man on a bender in Manhattan, getting progressively drunker as he stumbles from bar to bar:

All at once there was a woman with him. She'd been with him for just a few minutes, she'd been with him for long, endless nights at a time. She kept changing her dress at intervals. And even her hair and face to go with it. First she was in pink, then suddenly she was in light green. As though a gelatin slide had revolved and cast a different tint over her... The bars were very unreliable tonight. They looked nice and steady, but he'd lean on them too heavily, or something. They'd tilt way up on one side, and slope all the way down on the other... The bars gave place to a sidewalk. A sidewalk that was straight up and down in front of his face.

And here's the, um, other part:

The night was like purple ink. And it was as though the bottle that had held the ink had been smashed against the sky by some insurgent celestial accountant. For heaven was pitted with its tiny, twinkling particles of broken glass. And there seemed to be no one up there to sweep them up. God's office was closed for the night.

Though it's set in 1915 (in his mind, Woolrich might well have romanticized that era, the way we now romanticize the New York of the 1930s and '40s), FRIGHT is classic Woolrich - evocative, unsettling and often downright loopy. It's not one of his great novels, by any means, but it's Woolrich through and through, from the comma splices to the over-the-top descriptive passages to the omnipresent feeling of guilt and undercurrent of sexual shame. And - most Woolrichian of all - the Doom that watches over us always, waiting for its moment to arrive.

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