While the general public has remained largely ignorant of Cornell Woolrich’s work in relation to bigger noir stars such as Hammett and Chandler, film and television directors have often found his work to be fertile grounds. The Internet Movie Database lists 103 credits to Woolrich. Most are for adaptions of his stories, either for television or film.
Some of the adaptations are more or less faithful. Others deviate greatly in style and substance, barely recognizable to the noir stories that served as their source material. Perhaps Woolrich’s greatest talent was his understanding of scenario and plot, and his original “what-ifs” still have directors intrigued to this day.
From film noir classics to comedy dramas and steamy romances, Woolrich’s hardboiled work during the 1940’s not only laid the foundation for film noir, but proved a resilience of inspiration, evolving with Hollywood’s tastes long after it wrote noir off as filler for late-night programming on classic movie channels.
Those who discover Woolrich often find him through Rear Window (1954), but those who stay with him find his influence weaved throughout the history of modern television and film. In Cornell Woolrich from Pulp Noir to Film Noir, Thomas C. Renzi writes that “Woolrich’s pulp noir contains all the ingredients that are directly translated to cinema’s film noir: characters alienated from society, driven by obsessive desires, and beleaguered by guilt; femmes noires who tempt, seduce, and destroy their victims and usually themselves; plots teeming with ambiguity and irony; and an indifferent Fate manipulating lives with little or no consideration of justice” (23). With due respect to Renzi’s admirable work, I would argue that while these things were cornerstones of film noir, they are also cornerstones of intriguing plot design, no matter the genre. Obsession, temptation, injustice, and ambiguity will always intrigue us, and they will always find their way in to our art, whether it is on the page or on the screen.
Woolrich was a master manipulator of base emotions. His stories appeal to instinctual fears of the dark and the unknown. They address our human concerns about our personal mental health and stability. They push our senses of paranoia, and make us wonder if our neighbors have deep dark secrets. That type of drama never goes out of style.