Pulp Kafka: The Nightmares of Cornell Woolrich

Kafkaesque cockroaches crawling across a page. Now that is noir.
Kafkaesque creatures of noir.
The poet W.H. Auden once called Franz Kafka the voice of the 20th Century. What Auden saw in Kafka’s twisted tales was not simply their influence on other writers, but the way they captured the unease bubbling beneath society’s surface as we stumbled into the bloodiest century in recorded history. Though he died in 1924, Kafka seemed to anticipate not only the rise of fascism in Europe but also the dehumanizing effects of hyper-industrialization in the United States. Moreover, the nightmarish qualities of his fiction—the illogical turns of fate and a creeping sense of dread—that became known as “Kafkaesque” influenced countless writers and artists. One could even argue that film noir, as a genre, was defined in part by a distinctly Kafkaesque anxiety.

Having said that, however, Kafka didn’t have much direct impact on noir. None of his stories or novels were adapted during the classic period. (Fittingly, it was Orson Welles, during his second European exile, who filmed the first English language adaptation of Kafka with The Trial in 1962.) No, the Kafkaesque quality of classic noir in the forties and fifties actually derives from two other sources: 1) the influence of German Expressionism on filmmakers from Europe, and 2) the American pulp writer Cornell Woolrich.

Cornell Woolrich’s short story
It had to be murder…or did it?
Today, Woolrich is probably best remembered as the author of the short story “It Had To Be Murder” which formed the basis for Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but he was in fact among the most prolific of all pulp writers. Author Woody Haut, in his excellent study Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, puts Woolrich’s credits at twenty-two novels and 350 short stories. Perhaps as impressive as his literary output were the seventeen adaptations of his work that Hollywood produced between 1938 and 1956.

It was the bizarrely off-center quality of his writing that led to a profusion of Woolrich movies. Like Kafka, Woolrich wrote almost exclusively about a world of ever-encroaching doom, of mysterious people who show up in the middle of the night and persecute confused protagonists for crimes they have not committed. One of his favorite tropes was the amnesia story: a man (almost always a man) wakes up to discover that he’s apparently done something awful. The cause of his amnesia can be a falling rock or an all-night bender, but the result is the same. Confusion. Guilt. Terror.

Another super weird movie by Cornell Woolrich, Phantom Lady starring FranchotTone and Ella Raines.
Who is the Phantom Lady?
Woolrich was the master of the set up. A man spying on his neighbors thinks he’s witnessed a murder (Rear Window). A woman in a train accident assumes the identity of a dead woman (No Man of Her Own). A married man spends a night with a mysterious woman and then discovers that she’s his only alibi for the night of his wife’s murder (Phantom Lady). A man awakens from a violent nightmare to find actual blood on his hands (Fear in the Night). A sham fortune teller discovers to his horror that he can actually see into the future (Night of a Thousand Eyes). A little boy known for telling fibs witnesses a murder, but no one will believe him (The Window). And on and on. Hollywood lapped up these stories at an astounding rate, and while masters like Hammet, Chandler, and Cain scored impressive hits, none of them churned out prose like Woolrich. He seemed to wake up from a different nightmare every morning and run to his typewriter.

Cornell Woolrich The Black Path of Fear or How To Scare Yourself Silly in One Easy Step
Nightmare upon nightmare…
Woolrich was himself, alas, pretty much a miserable son of a bitch. His biographer Francis M. (Mike) Nevins once described his life as “wretched.” Like Kafka, his relationships to both sex and death were complicated. A self-hating gay man who tormented a young wife for a short time before retreating to booze-soaked codependency with his beloved/despised mother, as a person Woolrich was as unpleasant as many of his darkest scenarios. In his autobiography, Blues of a Lifetime, he wrote of a childhood epiphany that “I would surely die finally…I had that trapped feeling like some sort of poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass.” He channeled that vision not only into a life of debauchery and cruelty but also into his fiction. After his mother died, however, Woolrich’s literary output stagnated and his drinking exploded. By the time he died in 1968, he’d all but been forgotten by most people, his legacy a fraction of that of Hammet and Chandler.

Yet his twisted tales of sinners and weaklings caught in fate’s unforgiving grasp shaped noir more than the work of any other author. Woolrich was by no means a perfect writer—his third acts and climaxes are typically weak—but he channeled the same sense of dread that chilled readers of Kafka. Indeed, if Kafka was the voice of the 20th Century, then Woolrich was singing harmony—in an American accent.

Suggested Fiction:

  • The Cornell Woolrich Omnibus: Rear Window and Other Stories / I Married a Dead Man / Waltz into Darkness– Woolrich was so productive that a representative volume of his work is impossible, but this collection from Penguin gathers together two fine novels and a collection of crackerjack short stories.
  • The Black Curtain-A man wakes up in a street after he’s struck by falling debris from a construction site. He goes home and his wife tells him that he’s been missing for a year. Where has he been? And who are those strange men knocking on the door? Also check out the 1942 film adaptation Street of Chance.

Suggested Films:

  • Phantom Lady (1944) The greatest director of film noir, Robert Siodmak, takes on a first rate Woolrich novel (written under the name William Irish) and the result is an utter delight. Not to be missed.
  • Rear Window (1954) Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly peak in Raymond Burr’s window. In some ways, the consummate Hitchcock film.
  • The Bride Wore Black (1968) Francois Truffaut adapted Woolrich’s novel about a woman out to get revenge on the punks who murdered her husband on their wedding day. Think New Wave Kill Bill.
  • The Chase (1946) This adaptation of The Black Path of Fear might be the weirdest movie ever made from a Woolrich novel. And, you know, that’s saying a hell of a lot.

Cockroaches from Benieto’s photostream, edited with permission.

Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor


  1. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Thanks for this. Rear Window is one of my all-time favorite movies. Phantom Lady sounds like a must-see.

  2. Megan Frampton

    I know I’ve read Woolrich, but I didn’t know about all the films (besides, of course, Rear Window). Going to hunt them down.

  3. Lloyd Cooke

    The Cornell Woolrich was NOT among the most prolific pulp writers simply because he was not a pulp writer. He wrote books. Wild guess: Walter Gibson, who wrote at least two pulps of The Shadow a MONTH for years would be the champ.

  4. curtis evans

    I think it’s a bit unfair to say the man lived a life of “debauchery and cruelty.” He sounds like he was a pretty bad drunk, but that is hardly exceptional among authors, especially in those days. We don’t know that he had sexual encounters at all after the early 1930s and we don’t even know for certain that he had them before then, since the purported “sex diary” apparently does not exist (if it ever did). Almost all the evidence we have about Woolrich’s purported sex life comes from the recollection of his elderly former sister-in-law, almost a half-century after the event.

    People who knew him in the 1960s largely seem to have found him sad and pathetic, rather than cruel.

    Even if he was gay, was he a self-hating gay? I don’t see how we can be so certain we know this much about Woolrich, he’s an eusive and mysterious individual.

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