1945 (rerelease 1985)
Cornell Woolrich is sometimes considered the lost voice of Noir fiction. Whereas Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler have their place secured, Woolrich is terribly out-of-print for the most part, with his books going for high prices on Amazon, and no publisher really putting out a comprehensive re-release. Yet he wrote “The Bride Wore Black” (under the name William Irish), which had been filmed several times, wrote “Rear Window” (you may have heard of this little Hitchcock film), and most recently the Banderas-Jolie “Original Sin” film was based on one of his stories. The Believer featured a nice retrospective a few years ago, and yet, still he’s hard to find.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes was lent to me by a friend, and is my first Woolrich novel to read. It dates from the ’40s, is more a post-Depression piece than a WWII one, and features the classic noir trope of inescapable fate. The novel is in two halves. In the first, a millionaire’s daughter, saved from a suicide jump, relates how her father has become mentally enslaved to a poor psychic. The psychic foresees a plane crash and the millionaire cheats death, from then on hanging on his every word. He forecasts the stock market, and the millionaire makes more. But then the psychic foretells his death…in the jaws of a lion! At midnight! On a certain day! The once confident man now becomes unraveled–after all, the psychic has been right up to now…
The second half follows Shawn, a detective, who doesn’t believe in all this, and is determined to figure out what’s really going on (while falling in love with the once-suicidal daughter, Jean). Is it extortion? Woolrich cuts back and forth between the last night of the fate-condemned man and the detectives sent out to follow the psychic. And surely the lion is a load of hooey…except! A lion escapes from a traveling circus that night! Yeh, you heard me…
Ludicrous as it all sounds, Night takes it all seriously, and places its readers in the position of the unbelieving investigators, who reveal one fact-based clue only to be confounded with some otherworldly event. This oscillates back and forth towards the climax, which includes a desperate game of roulette, right up to a surprise conclusion literally as the clock is chiming midnight. The ending, which I won’t reveal, allows its question of fate to remain ambiguous.
Woolrich’s writing can often be overly prosaic, and I did skim a bit when he seemed to be padding. But it’s rough and mean enough, which lashings of black dread, to appeal to noir fans everywhere…if you can find a copy.
Here’s a good Cornell Woolrich site.
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