Three Argentinean Films Noirs Adapting Cornell Woolrich
Santiago Rubín de Celis, Spanish freelance film critic and reviewer
By the early 1940’s crime fiction was still entering the Argentinean publishing scene. Two leading publishing companies then served crucially to popularize the works of crime writers for the Spanish-language readers─ Hachette and Emecé. Hachette’s ‘Serie Naranja’ pocket series, running from 1943 to 1955, “by editing profusely the works of such writers as Ellery Queen, lavishly and excellently represented in its catalogue, and William Irish” (1), introduced classic authors as Dashiell Hammett, S. S. Van Dine, Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Cheyney, and the aforementioned, among other, which had never been translated into Spanish up to that moment (2). The instant and enormous success of Cornell Woolrich in Argentina relied heavily in the large number of his books published by Hachette’s ‘Serie Naranja’, following each other─ La mujer fantasma (1943; # 61), No quisiera estar en tus zapatos (1944; 76), El plazo expira al amanecer (1945; 112), Lo que la noche reserva (1946; 136), Si muriera antes de despertarme (1947; 146), El ángel negro (1948; 153), Siete cantos fúnebres (1948; 157), El negro sendero del miedo (1948; 158), La novia vestía de negro (1949; 160), Coartada negra (1950; 169), El perro de la pata de palo (1950; 171) and Seis noches de misterio (1951; 181) (3). In addition to these, Hachette launched in 1951 another crime fiction collection, ‘Evasión’, including several Woolrich new titles─ Me case con un muerto, Crimen prestado, Alguien al teléfono (4), as well as some reprints of the best-selling ‘Serie Naranja’ titles. For its part, Emecé, a publishing company with a solid high-brow literary reputation, set up its own crime fiction collection, ‘El Séptimo Círculo’, directed by seminal authors Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, in 1944. The collection, with a penchant for the Golden Age Detective fiction style more than pulp or ‘tough’ crime fiction, included only one of Irish books─ the short-story collection Violencia (1959; # 155) (5), among its otherwise extensive and superb catalogue until the late 1970’s (6). As in the cases of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and David Goodis (7), by the early 1950’s the works of Woolrich had not only been widely translated (8) into Spanish but therefore they were widely-known to crime fiction aficionados.
But this sort of Woolrich-mania so unexpectedly emerged in Argentina from the mid 40’s to the early 50’s, of course, was not just a matter of books. Between 1940, the year Simon & Schuster originally published in the US The Bride Wore Black, and 1951, in which León Klimovsky directed El pendiente, the first of three consecutive Argentinean movie adaptations of Woolrich’s short stories, the Hollywood majors (9) produced a total of a dozen films based on the New York City born author. Paramount, RKO, Columbia, Universal, they all would give the Poe of the 20th century, and one of the preeminent authors of American suspense fiction, a try. Movies indeed played a decisive role for him to achieve recognition between crime fiction grand masters. However, not many of them were actually released in Argentina at the time. Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946), released as Pasión diabólica in December 1946, being an exception.
In the image and likeness of the American film noirs of the early 1940’s, a rich crop of stylish crime dramas were produced in Argentina for almost a decade from the mid 40’s. As film historian Clara Kriger has noted, Argentinean film golden age, from the early 1940’s to mid 1950’s, decisively lean on “the industrial development, the quantity of films produced (202 in four years) and the conformation of a mode of representation connected to the classical Hollywood narrative” (10). Landmarks of this new film noir genre aesthetics were Daniel Tinayre’s Camino del infierno (‘Road to Hell’, 1946) and Passport to Rio (Pasaporte a Río, 1948), both co-directed with Luis Saslavsky, Hugo Fregonese’s Hardly a Criminal (Apenas un delincuente, 1949), León Klimovsky’s Marihuana (1950)─ with no relation to Irish 1941 Detective Fiction Weekly short story, later published as a book by Dell in 1951, and Carlos Hugo Christensen’s La muerte camina en la lluvia (‘Death Walks in the Rain’, 1948) and La trampa (‘The Trap’, 1949). This group, taking advantage of Woolrich’s bookstore success in the country, featured also three straight film versions of his works: El pendiente (‘The Earring’, 1951), Si muero antes de despertar (‘If I Should Die Before I Wake’, 1952) and No abras nunca esa puerta (‘Never Open That Door’, 1952). While Francis M. Nevins’s monumental biography Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die tiptoes through them─ as “three quickies made in Argentina and apparently never shown outside Latin America” (11), many other Woolrich-based films scholars don’t even mention them. The fact is that they were never theatrically released in the US and none of them has ever been shown on TV in America (12). However, those were not the only Spanish-language films to adapt Woolrich works at the time: La huella de unos labios (‘The Trace of a Lips’, 1952) and El ojo de cristal (‘The Crystal Eye’, 1957) were produced in Mexico and Spain respectively.
The second time that an Argentinean audience saw Cornell Woolrich’s name on the screen of a movie theatre was in 1952, the year in which Artistas Argentinos Asociados (A.A.A.), one of the leading production companies in the country, produced Klimovsky’s El pendiente. León Klimovsky (1906, Buenos Aires, Argentina-1996, Madrid, Spain) was a prolific travelling film director and screenwriter in his home country, Mexico, Italy, Egypt and Spain, where he settled in, adopting the Spanish citizenship, from the 1950’s. Before entering the motion picture business, Klimovsky was the owner of the first avant-garde and art film movie theatre in Buenos Aires, Cine Arte, as he was a life-long lover of experimental film. Although his work includes just about every conceivable genre, from musicals and light-hearted comedies to Euro-westerns, he had a penchant in his last few years for rock-bottom budget horror and exploitation cheapies─ e.g. the gialli-inspired A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (Una libélula para cada muerto, 1974), Dr. Jekyll Vs the Werewolf (Doctor Jekyll y el hombre lobo, 1972) or Mean Mother (1974), co-directed in the US with Trash-movies icon Al Adamson. He did also a good number of crime films: the aforementioned Marihuana, Miedo (‘Fear’, 1956), Todos eran culpables (‘They All Were Guilty’, 1962), Ella y el miedo (‘She and the Fear’, 1964), etc. “I always dreamt ─as he would put it in his final years, making influential avant-garde films and I actually ended up churning out commercial movies” (13). However, while most of his huge film output was routine at best, some of his early literary adaptations (including Dostoievsky’s The Gambler and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo) were bright spots among the dross.
So it was El pendiente, shot in Buenos Aires metropolitan area in 1951, adapted from the 1943 Irish’s nouvelle “The Death Stone” (later reprinted as “The Earring”), which was included in Siete cantos fúnebres, the Spanish translation of the short stories collection Dead Man Blues (Lippincott, 1947). The story was adapted to the screen by playwright Samuel Eichelbaum and Ulises Petit de Murat, by the time one of the most renowned screenwriters in Argentina because of his work for prestigious filmmakers Lucas Demare, Hugo Fregonese, Benito Perojo, Pierre Chenal and Mario Soffici.
The latter was precisely in charge of supervising Klimovsky’s work during the first days of the shooting. El pendiente opened in movie theatres in Buenos Aires on August 1952 with very good reviews. They unanimously praised the “technical skills” as well as the vivid direction by Klimovsky. However, Soffici was not of the same opinion. He found the whole movie “nonsense”, mostly because of its cast. Or it would be rather its miscast: “nobody knew ─as he confessed later, what to do with a couple so inappropriate. She hardly looked like a blackmailer’s victim” (14). Soffici was alluding to actress Mirtha Legrand, one of Argentinean film golden era’s biggest stars, who had been for some years the queen of the light-hearted “white comedies” (“comedias blancas” as they are commonly known in Argentina), a very popular genre in the country in the 40’s and 50’s. From her marriage with well-regarded filmmaker Daniel Tinayre in 1946, Legrand’s image as a comedienne gave way to more dramatically oriented performances in such films as Carlos Schlieper’s El retrato (‘The Portrait’, 1947), Lucas Demare’s Como tú lo soñaste (‘As You Dream It’, 1947) and Passport to Río (1948), directed by her husband. The latter and El pendiente introduce her successfully to crime dramas and film noir. Legrand also changed her physical appearance for these films with a new look inspired by the lovely French actress Michèle Morgan (15), who had starred in the most controversial of Hollywood’s Woolrich-based movies, Arthur Ripley’s The Chase (1946).
The handsome and socially prominent Hilda (M. Legrand) pays off her former lover Luciano Varela (Francisco de Paula) who has been blackmailing her with three-year old love letters rather than risks her happy marriage with wealthy businessman (José Cibrián). Returning home from the payoff, she finds one of her earrings missing and so she goes back to her blackmailer’s apartment. This event will not only confront her with murder but introduce her into a menacing nightmare that shakes off her peaceful existence.
Screenwriters Petit de Murat and Eichelbaum follow Woolrich’s novelette loyally but stretch out its plot to a 72-minute feature film length. A long flash-back resumes Hilda’s short-lived love affair with Varela and her marital life for the next three years, precisely what Woolrich ellipsed from his story. In this way, the essential ingredients of the writer’s world become somewhat blurred as the film swings from a hard-boiled thriller to a distinguished crime melodrama. Many of the pulp stuff is consequently scrapped from it─ the dingy apartment blocks and the mean streets, a kind of underworld patina, or properly stylized. But some of the suspense moments (the second visit to the blackmailer’s apartment with some beautiful close-ups of a distressed Legrand, the ambush set for the criminal) show a quite effective mise-en scene and a superb camera work (by veteran cinematographer Francis Boeniger). These are not only the finest moments of the film but in which Woolrich’s whole noir world with its eerie phosphorescence shine in its own right. However, the end sequence departs from the original story. In the book, Woolrich introduces the slight suggestion that Mrs. Shaw’s husband might know much more about Carpenter’s murder than it looks like. That is what the reader actually comes to suspect. But although some evidence points out his innocence, the case is closed with crook Sonny Boy Nelson’s execution. The film ends otherwise as the husband’s guilt is proved by the police leading him to be prosecuted and most likely being imprisoned. This alteration can be easily understood in light of conservative Peronist ideology─ socially focused on items such as family and household unity and security, and emphasizing on the ideas of justice and the rule of law. In any case, Roberto’s murder appears to be somewhat alleviated (and even justified) as his action was destined to protect his own family from an external threat. Oddly as it may seem, this vision sounds even more Woolrich-like than Woolrich’s own.
El pendiente, which was incidentally one of the 1952 box-office hits in Argentina, was immediately followed by a duet of Woolrich adaptations by the same filmmaker. In a seven-decade film career Carlos Hugo Christensen (1914, Santiago del Estero, Argentina-1999, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) made more than 50 films in Argentina and then, from the mid-50’s, in Brazil, country in which he was politically exiled because of his anti-Perón sentiments. A pioneer in the film industry of his home country, his multi-award winning film The Yatch Isabel Arrived This Afternoon (La balandra Isabel llegó esta tarde, 1951) was screened in Los Angeles in June 2007 as the only Spanish-language offering of the 21st Annual Last Remaining Seats Series. Christensen was particularly noted for his fluent storytelling and his lavish literary adaptations (some times also contributing to screenwriting) of such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Schnitzler, Alphonse Daudet, etc. His place in Argentinean film could be that of a William Wyler in Hollywood. For the record, Christensen did not make any film in the US as some pretend. Some footage from his film La dama de la muerte (‘The Death Lady’, 1946)─ R. L. Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club” segment to be precise, was “cannibalized” by horror film-hack Jerry Warren for his own The Curse of the Stone Hand (1964). Si muero antes de despertar and No abras nunca esa puerta were not the director’s first crime film incursions as he had previously adapted S. A. Steeman’s classic whodunit novel L’assassin habite au 21 by the evocative new title of La muerte camina en la lluvia. Incidentally, the novel had been the basis for seminal French cineaste Henri-George Clouzot’s─ Diabolique (Les diaboliques, 1955) and The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953), eponymous film L’assassin habite… au 21 (1942). Among Christensen’s other prominent virtues as a filmmaker is a solid taste for capturing the perfect ambience needed for every picture─ from the rough life of the Pampas to a sophisticated milieu of Latin American upper-class. Both Irish-based films, which are visually arresting, show a remarkable ability to create strong film noir atmospheres.
Despite the fact that Christensen wrote personally many of the scripts for his films, Spanish Republican exiled playwright Alejandro Casona was in full charge of the adaptation, dialogues and screenplay of Si muero antes de despertar and No abras nunca esa puerta. And it proved to be a happy choice. In the first case Casona’s sort of ‘magic realism’ style made the best of Irish’s short story, keeping the “half film noir, half fairy tale” (16) tone so nightmarishly disturbing. The film is based on the story “If I Should Die Before I Wake”, which gave its title to the eponymous collection of short stories (Avon Murder Mystery Monthly, 1945), which had just been published in Argentina by Hachette’s ‘Serie Naranja’ in 1947. Its screenplay is outstanding not only for being one of the best of Irish film adaptations altogether but it also ranks among the most faithful to both his style and personal vision. With an expert hand, veteran scripter Casona preserves all the suspense and emotional anguish of the tale, while keeping significant motifs in Woolrich works as the author’s ambivalence toward official violence and sadism─ e.g. when Lucio’s father beats the molester almost to death. Christensen direction is equally inspired, taking advantage of Pablo Tabernero’s low-key black-and-white cinematography full of German Expressionist accents. The best example of this bleak visual style is the scene in which the boy follows the molester’s footprints in the mud to his deserted house in the forest, vividly evoking the fearsome night world of the story. Of course it is not just the film’s aesthetics what makes us think about German films─ and particularly Fritz Lang’s M (M, 1931), also its suggestive poetic overtones. More than likely this similarity was behind the fact that the Mexican title of the film, El vampiro acecha (‘The Vampire Stalks’), was also reminiscent of Spanish-language titles of Lang’s classic masterpiece: M, el vampiro de Düsseldorf in Spain, El vampire negro in Argentina, etc.
The subsequent Christensen’s film, No abras nunca esa puerta, shown this last January 2014 in Noir City festival in San Francisco, was also shot in 1952, the same year in which RKO released the film extravaganza Face to Face (1952). Both films were conceived equally as a ‘double bill’ features, formed by two independent sections based on popular short story fictions. But whether in the case of Face to Face, the film was in fact just two different movies stuck back-to-back for no apparent reason ─Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Shearer and Stephen Crane’s The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, directed by noir expert John Brahm and Bretaigne Windust respectively, the Argentinean film put together two stories by a single author, Woolrich’s “Somebody on the Phone” and “The Humming Bird Comes Home”. The first was included in Alguien al teléfono (Hachette, ‘Evasion’, 1952), the Spanish translation of the collection Somebody on the Phone (Lippincott, 1950), while the other was then (and still is if I’m not wrong, of course) unpublished in the Spanish language.
Original Lobby card for Carlos Hugo Christensen’s No abras nunca esa puerta (1952).
Film Noir Foundation’s President Eddie Muller has referred to the film as “a terrific adaptation” (17) of the doom-haunted, menacing world by the noir maestro. “Somebody on the Phone” was one of his earliest crime vignettes, really short-short stories turned out from a couple of sequences so one would have said to be heavily influenced by cinematic writing. And it was one of the most climatic too. When a young and apparently happy-go-lucky woman jumps from her apartment window, after being tormented by strange phone calls ringing five continuous times and then hanging up, her loving brother─ or is he more than a brother to her?, becomes more and more obsessed with getting to the bottom of the matter. Following the trail of the man he blames for her suicide, he guns him down and returns to his apartment only to find the telephone starting again with the old five tone rings. Christensen’s 30 minute version captures all the tension and suspense of the story, its haunting fatalism and the senseless, ill-fated mechanisms of violence. Of course that is to say the best of the so-called ‘Woolrich mood’. Script work by Alejandro Casona is again superb deftly capturing the most subtle of Woolrich’s allusions─ the flimsy incestuous undertone in the sequences between the two brothers obviously shadowing all the rest. Altogether the sketch has an unmistakably woolrichesque flavour and captures the story’s essence visually, toping among the author’s best screen adaptations. Although Woolrich himself wasn’t really fond of most of the films turned out from his literary output, there is a strong feeling that he might have praised these as highly valuable. Who knows? As it has been asserted, his talent for film criticism was kind of peculiar to say the least.
“The Humming Bird Comes Home” is even shorter as a story (while the longer segment of the film). In narrative terms its most interesting element is the assumption by the author of the viewpoint of a blind old woman, giving the story an unusually strong emotional intensity. In fact this was the first of a series of fictions told from the viewpoint of handicapped characters, commonly blind people. As the previous “If I Die…” and “Somebody on the Phone”, “The Humming Bird…” is more a suspense exercise than a mystery story. And an extremely suspenseful one I dare say. Not missing all the available suspense elements─ the distressing train whistle blowing in the middle of the night, for example, the film combines the sheer thrills with a character study, focusing on the old woman, Mamá Rosa (Ilde Pirovano), and her gangster son ‘El pájaro cantor’ (Roberto Escalada). As Nevins pointed out, “Are we to see the gangster son as a stand-in for Woolrich himself, giving form to the self-contempt that sprang from his homosexuality and physical weakness and his career in the lowly pulps, verbalizing his fear that his beloved mother was ashamed of him?” (18) Incidentally, the shadowy, oppressive space of the family old house in the film, truly expressionistic, coincides with the architectural subject matter playing a key role in some Woolrich’s early fictions such as “You’ll Never See Me Again”, “The Room with Something Wrong” or “After Dinner Story”.
“No abras nunca esa puerta” is not a very good title. And more it is not easy to find a connection between it and the contents of any of the two stories included. A tag line for the film read that both of them shared “a door which separate good from evil”. Although it may arguably sound quite Woolrich-like, it seems much more likely a crime oriented title thought for commercial theatrical distribution. Be that as it may, as its predecessor, Si muero antes de despertar, the film remains as one of the essential cinematic exercises to experience Woolrich’s unique literary world at its best─ that is to say at its bleakest. Although Cornell Woolrich’s cinematic prestige largely falls on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window in 1956 and later nouvelle vague’s disciple François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (La mariée était en noir, 1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (La sirène du Mississippi, 1969), these three noir thrillers laced with half-dimmed lights, doom, and gnawing anguish adapted from his works in Argentina in the early 1950’s can arguably head up any list of Woolrich films all-time favourites. How soon can we expect their DVD release?
Santiago Rubín de Celis is a Spanish Ph.D. in Communication and Media (& BA in Sociology) and a regular contributor to some film magazines in both Europe and America. He has written for the Spanish versión of Cahiers du cinema, as well as for some other half-dozen reviews in Spanish language, and has also contributed to Bright Lights Film Journal in the US, Film International (Sweden), La Furia Umana (Italy), Cork’s Film Centre’s Experimental Conversations, among many others.
1. Lafforgue, Jorge Raúl & Rivera, Jorge B., Asesinos de papel: ensayos sobre narrativa policial, Buenos Aires, Ediciones Colihue SRL, 1996, p. 16.
2. Three William Irish books, Si muriera antes de despertarme, El ángel negro and Alguien al teléfono, were translated into Spanish by Rodolfo J(orge) Walsh, the Argentine writer considered one of the founders of the investigative journalism mainly because of his book Operación Masacre (1957), who was himself a noted crime fiction author─ Variaciones en rojo (1953).
3. The original titles are The Phantom Woman, I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, Deadline at Dawn, The Night Reveals, If I Die Before I Wake, Black Angel, Dead Man Blues, The Black Path of Death, The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, The Blue Ribbon, and Six Nights of Mystery.
4. I Married a Dead Man, Borrowed Crime and Somebody on the Phone.
6. From the early 1970’s Emecé added some more Irish titles to its catalogue: Plazo: al amanecer (Deadline at Dawn, # 232, 1971), No quisiera estar en tus zapatos (I Wouldn´t Be in Your Shoes, # 242, 1972), La dama fantasma (Phantom Lady, # 251, 1973), Serenata del estrangulador (Strangler’s Serenade, # 298, 1977) and La novia vistió de luto (The Bride Wore Black, # 396, 1979).
7. See Lafforgue, J. R. & Rivera, J. B., cit., p. 33 (footnote 6).
8. Apart of the books I have already mentioned, other Irish titles available in Argentina were Ojos que acusan (Eyes That Watch You, Kraft, 1954) and some years later, as by Cornell Woolrich, La danza de la muerte (Death Is My Dancing Partner, Obelisco, 1960).
9. Therefore we exclude three Monogram pictures, Fall Guy (1947), The Guilty (1947) and I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948).
10. Kriger, Clara, Cine y peronismo, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, p. 11.
11. Nevins, Francis M., Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, New York, The Mysterious Press, p. 474.
12. However the three of them can now be seen in YouTube in their Spanish original version.
13. García Oliveri, Ricardo, “El artista y sus paradojas” in Clarín, April 20, 1996.
14. Posadas, Abel, Damas para la hoguera, Buenos Aires, Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales, 2009, p. 33.
15. Blanco Pazos, Roberto, Diccionario de actrices del cine argentine (1933-1977), Buenos Aires, Corregidor, pp. 138-139.
16. F. M., Op. cit., p. 158.
17. Eddie Muller interviewed by Despina Veneti in Noir City, Vol. 6, nº 2, 2014.
18. Nevins, F. M., cit., p. 165.