Cornell Woolrich, The Black Path of Fear

Cover for The Black Path of FearCornell Woolrich wrote a lot of novels and stories that were adapted by Hollywood in the film noir era, from Phantom Lady (1944) to Rear Window (1954). Because I’ve seen quite a few of these movies, I’ve been curious about his books, so after seeing The Chase yet again at Noir City this year, I picked up the 1944 novel it was based on, The Black Path of Fear. It’s not a particularly good book, so I’ll probably focus more on how it relates to the movie than on the quality of the book itself.

The novel starts in Havana, where Scott and Eve are killing time while they wait for their ship to continue on to South America. They enter a crowded night club, expressing their love for each other. Suddenly Eve is murdered by an unknown assailant, and Scott is left holding the knife. The cops accuse him of the murder, and he escapes into a local tenement, where he meets a mysterious woman whom he calls Midnight. Midnight hates cops, and so she helps Scott figure out who really killed Eve. Scott explains the backstory, involving a Miami gangster named Eddie Roman, who was married to Eve and who hired Scott as his driver. Then Midnight and Scott begin to hunt the mean streets of Havana for clues about how Eve’s murder was committed.

This is a very pulpy novel of murder, desperation, narrow escapes, brutal beatings, unlikely happenstance, yellow peril, paranoia, drugs and degradation. The most interesting thing about it is probably Midnight, who is depicted as a cigar-smoking mama who is tougher than all the men. There’s also a dreamlike air to the proceedings that we of course appreciate here at the Dreamland Cafe, but in this case I didn’t actually find the atmosphere all that compelling. There are a few snatches of good description, but mostly the prose feels pretty dead. Scott’s encounters with the Havana underworld seem oddly detached and muffled, and the story didn’t have much energy for me. It was plenty sordid, but slow as molasses, even as short as it is, more viscous than visceral.

The movie is much better, I think, even though it radically changes and softens the story. The movie starts with Scott finding Eddie Roman’s wallet and going out to his estate to return it. The murder of Eddie’s wife (called Lorna) doesn’t happen until halfway through the film. Scott is given a backstory as a Navy vet suffering from a mental condition something like PTSD, which gives the story a psychological dimension. Eddie and his partner in crime, Gino (called Jordan in the book), are much more vivid, charismatic characters with much more presence than they have in the book. What happens in Havana is much more truncated, although most of what does happen is from the book (the Chinese seller of the knife, the photographer who takes a picture just as Lorna is murdered). What’s missing are Midnight, who appears only briefly as someone who gives Scott cover during his escape from the police, and the opium underworld where Scott finally tracks down the murderers in the book. Instead the Havana sequence becomes a red herring in the film — a throwaway nightmare that expresses Scott’s mental instability and thus a feeling that reality — or at least the story — has itself come unmoored. The sordid, squalid, grungy quality of the book is missing, replaced by sadism, surrealism, and narrative rupture.

I get the impression that even Woolrich fans don’t consider The Black Path of Fear one of his better books. I’d be interested to try another. Perhaps Night Has a Thousand Eyes, which has got to be one of the greatest noir titles ever, taken from a poem by Francis William Bourdillon.


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