Cornell Woolrich: Writing with an Artist’s Eye

Noir writer Cornell Woolrich (1903 – 1968) is mostly remembered for his short story, “It Had To Be Murder” (1942), which formed the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Rear Window (1954). He’s also remembered, unfortunately, for his poor prose. His biographer, Francis Nevins, put it bluntly: “purely on its merits as prose, it’s dreadful.”

While I do not dispute that Woolrich’s writing is uneven—due, most likely, to the haste with which he wrote his books—I’d argue that when it comes to rendering visual experience, he had skills few other writers possess. He doesn’t merely tell us what a character sees, but shows us, through nuanced description, the character’s embodied experience of seeing. He/his characters see with an artist’s eye.

Take the opening of “It Had to Be Murder.” The nameless house-bound narrator surveys the apartments he can see from his window. In order to emphasize the visual mechanisms Woolrich uses to frame what the narrator sees, I omit, for the most part, the descriptions of the inhabitants of each apartment:

I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.

Just to pick a few at random: Straight over, and the windows square, there was a young jitter-couple, kids in their teens, only just married. They were always in such a hurry to go, wherever it was they went, they never remembered to turn out the lights… .

The next house down, the windows already narrowed a little with perspective. There was a certain light in that one that always went out each night too… .

The third one down no longer offered any insight; the windows were just slits like in a medieval battlement, due to foreshortening. That brings us around to the one on the end. In that one, frontal vision came back full-depth again, since it stood at right angles to the rest, my own included, sealing up the inner hollow all these houses backed on. I could see into it, from the rounded projection of my bay window, as freely as into a doll house with its rear wall sliced away. And scaled down to about the same size… .

The narrator/Woolrich begins by noting that the tenants’ “faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance.” This is a common technique used in painting or drawing: conveying distance by reducing or eliminating detail. However, this is not something writers commonly do.

Then, as the narrator surveys the apartment building across from his, he indicates the severity of his viewing angle by describing the “foreshortening,” the distortion that occurs when one views an object at an unusual angle: “Straight over, and the windows square… . The next house down, the windows already narrowed a little with perspective… . The third one down no longer offered any insight, the windows were just slits like in a medieval battlement, due to foreshortening.” Woolrich’s use of technical terms for drawing techniques—“perspective” and, of course, “foreshortening”—underscores his unusual emphasis on visual detail.

When the narrator visually arrives at the apartments that are at a right angle to his own, “frontal vision [comes] back full-depth again” and he can see “as freely as into a doll house with its rear wall sliced away. And scaled down to about the same size.” With this last sentence, Woolrich brings in yet another visual technique, scale, using relative size to show how far away something is.

His survey of the apartments concludes with a striking description of how the light behind the shade shifts as day begins to break: “Often their bedroom light was on late at night behind the drawn shade… .[A]round dawn, it was still peering wanly out behind the tan shade. Moments later, with the first brightening of day, it suddenly dimmed around the edges of the shade.” The subtle and complicated rendering of light is something I’d expect from a painter—say, Edward Hopper, a painter with whom Woolrich is sometimes associated and who also, incidentally, had a significant influence on Hitchcock’s film style.

In fact, Woolrich has been called “the Hitchcock of the written word” but that’s precisely backwards, or at least misleading. The claim, as I understand it, has to do with a shared interest in subject matter (psychological extremity, etc) whereas I see more overlap in visual style, with Woolrich doing it first in language—his story was written in 1942—and Hitchcock following suit in film 12 years later with Rear Window (1954). Woolrich had the more challenging task, working only with words; all Hitch had to do was follow instructions, so to speak. So I’d like to issue a corrective: Hitchcock is the Woolrich of film.

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