Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

Many are more familiar with the term “film noir.” There is another genre that shares the same qualities. “Noir fiction” evokes unrelenting gloom; the work of all the major authors in the field can be characterized by a fatalistic attitude. This type of fiction has a lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and, contemporarily, Elmore Leonard. Cornell Woolrich belongs in this distinguished list. “Cornell Woolrich’s novels define the essence of noir nihilism.” ~ Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

 Night Has a Thousand Eyes was published in 1945, under one of Woolrich’s noms de plume, George Hopley. One of Cornell Woolrich’s most famous novels, this classic noir tale is arguably the author’s best in its depiction of a doomed vision of fate and free will. A man, his daughter, and a detective cope with the predictions of a old, wizened mystic with second-sight. Events occur that could be coincidence but the old man had foreseen them and knows things that seem impossible for anyone to know. The outcome could have been the result of predestination or free will; the reader can decide.

 I became impatient at times with the writing; Woolrich’s prose can be quite overextended and contains too many literary effects. For example, stating that someone is drinking a cup of coffee is too direct; three to four sentences describing the way milk sits in this cup of coffee is obligatory. At some point, however, I decided that it was Woolrich’s method of creating tension. Seen this way, it was effective.

 However, it is generally agreed even by Woolrich’s most admiring fans that well-plotted novels were not among his strengths. Nor was he much of a stylist; he often overwrites like a man who gets a penny a word and is determined to squeeze every cent he can out of his story.  It is for this reason that critics say that his work lacks the conciseness and fast pace usually associated with noir fiction, his subject matter evokes those same feelings of despair and cynicism.

Woolrich had a troubled life; being gay during this time certainly wasn’t acceptable and undoubtedly contributed to his problematic life. After his three month marriage was annulled, he lived with his mother. When his mother died in 1957, Woolrich deteriorated. An alcoholic, he ignored a minor foot infection until it became gangrenous and they had to amputate his leg above the knee. A recluse, when he died  in 1968, he weighed only 89 pounds.

The fatalism and self-loathing that haunted Woolrich’s life surfaced in his writing, in the murky, shadowed recesses of crime fiction. A number of movies have been made from his writings. Probably the most famous is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), originally published as “It Had to Be Murder” in Dime Detective Magazine (Feb. ’42). Others include: Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943, from Black Alibi), Phantom Lady (’43), Deadline at Dawn (’46), The Window (’49, from “The Boy Cried Murder”), Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (’68) and Mississippi Mermaid (’69, from Waltz into Darkness), Mrs. Winterbourne (’96, from I Married a Dead Man), and Original Sin (2001, Waltz into Darkness again).

A movie was made from Night Has a Thousand Eye; however, apparently, the only thing retained was the title. The movie has little in common with the novel.


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