To a pulp

Pub date February 11, 2009
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the death of author Cornell Woolrich, darkest of the noir genre’s lost souls. Like so many of the milquetoast protagonists who populated his novels, Woolrich died an anonymous and ignoble death in a New York City hotel room. Years of alcohol abuse and a gangrenous leg amputation had left him an amorphous wad of a man. Though often credited with establishing the American roman noir ("black book") and indirectly developing its cinematic correlate, film noir, his literary legacy has largely been siphoned by hard-boiled mavericks like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Inspired by Dostoyevsky and Victorian poets like F.W. Bourdillon, whose 1878 ode "Light" provided the title to one of Woolrich’s most popular novels (The night has a thousand eyes, / And the day but one). Woolrich’s occasionally hackneyed poetics of the dark became his literary obsession. Besides 1945’s The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, there was 1959’s Death Is My Dancing Partner, 1948’s I Married a Dead Man, and a 1939 short story, "Through a Dead Man’s Eye." Few American writers so accurately portrayed the crushing boredom and fantasies of violence that existed in the postwar American metropole during the very years when suburbanization and media-driven consumption lavished the middle-class with giddy excesses. Biographer Francis Nevins perspicaciously sums up Woolrich’s life and career with one of the late author’s most nihilistic offerings: "First you dream, then you die."

The Pacific Film Archive’s "One-Two Punch: Pulp Writers on Film" retrospective celebrates the onscreen contributions made by Woolrich and his brethren in pulp — Fredric Brown, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford — from the halcyon mysteries of the ’40s to the bloody climaxes of the ’80s and ’90s. While many noir authors established reputations primarily on the page and others failed to make the transition to Hollywood, these four writers have had a particularly enduring relationship with cinema, as their stylized and iconic prose lent itself to arch visual expression.

Along with the über-popular James M. Cain, Woolrich and Thompson were responsible for much of the genre’s early vogue and were able to cash in on the development of the mass paperback (the primary medium for roman noir) precisely because their onscreen popularity had made the format financially viable. Woolrich’s publications-turned-films like The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Black Angel (1946), along with Thompson’s The Kill-Off (1989), signified the breadth of noir’s settings and styles by effectively trading the former’s claustrophobic Gothams for the latter’s dusty, open roads and seaside towns.

Discovered in Europe in the ’60s and ’70s, Woolrich and Thompson were critically acclaimed by French nouvelle vague writers and directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979), written by Oulipo poet Georges Perec and based on the 1954 Thompson novel A Hell of a Woman, is a conscientiously Francophone retelling of a most American narrative.

Fredric Brown, an eccentric innovator of the noir/sci-fi short story, had as much influence on the works of Philip K. Dick as those of Elmore Leonard. His 1949 novel, Screaming Mimi (Gerd Oswald’s film version, 1958), remains his most infamous contribution to the screen. Starring newcomer Anita Ekberg — later of La Dolce Vita (1960) fame — Mimi‘s lewd, serial killer-meets-stripper plot is a thinly veiled exercise in dime novel titillation.

Willeford, the most contemporary of the quartet, comes closest to representing the silver age of the genre, often referred to as neo-noir. Similar in style to Thompson, Willeford forgoes the moribund poetics of Woolrich and the whimsical perversities of Brown for more straightforward prose replete with crisp plotlines, raunchy interludes, and sociopathic villains. Willeford’s most popular novel turned film, 1984’s Miami Blues (George Armitage’s film version, 1990), demonstrated the crossover potential of crime fiction onto the screen at the beginning of the ’90s, anticipating the mega-popularity of Leonard and Quentin Tarantino.


Feb. 13–28, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2757 Bancroft, Berk.