In the excellent, perceptive introduction to Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945), Woolrich’s biographer, Francis Nevins gives an overview of the author’s life and career. There are some great quotes about Woolrich’s work here, but I can’t include them all, so here’s just one:
All we can do about this nightmare world is to create, if we can, a few islands of love and trust to sustain us and help us forget. But love dies while lovers go on living, and Woolrich is a master of portraying the corrosion of a relationship. Although he often wrote about the horrors both love and lovelessness can inspire, there are very few irredeemably evil characters in his stories. For if one loves or needs love, or is at the brink of destruction, Woolrich identifies with that person no matter how dark his or her dark side.
Nevins explains that although Woolrich (1903-68) “knew overwhelming financial and critical success [but] his life remained a wretched mess.” Woolrich, a homosexual who tried marriage once, lived with his mother for a great deal of his life, but after her death in 1957, he was a recluse–miserable from the sounds of it–while he struggled with diabetes and alcoholism. Woolrich also seems to have a death obsession. Perhaps that’s not quite the right term I’m looking for, but certainly he had an awareness that death waits in the wings for all of us, and that life, to a great extent is an attempt to avoid or deny the inevitable. I think that’s a fairly normal realisation for those who live with chronic disease, but Woolrich seemed to be aware of the inescapable nature of death even as a child, and that knowledge of imminent death seems to have found its way into Night Has a Thousand Eyes–a story in which an obsession with death so plagues two of the characters that in an attempt to avoid Fate they rush headlong to meet their deaths before Death can come for them.
The story begins with an earnest young New York homicide detective named Tom Shawn walking along the river as he does every night after work:
You can’t dream in a bus, with your fellows all around you. And so-every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night about one, a little after. Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once.
Woolrich sets up his story immediately with the idea of permanence, predictability and routine, and this is a brilliant move as these elements of life are those about to be challenged and even, perhaps, eradicated by Fate.
Tom is a good, honest, and hard-working young man who is grounded in reality. That night in the park, he comes across some money discarded on the ground. Once again, character is fate. A lesser man would pocket the money and chalk the find up to luck, but Tom is curious. He follows a money trail which leads to an expensive handbag and a diamond wristwatch, and eventually he finds Jean, a distressed, wealthy young woman, beautiful, of course, who is about to commit suicide. He saves the woman, and in the emotional aftermath, she tells a strange tale involving her father.
Jean Reid and her debonair, handsome father are extremely wealthy New Yorkers who lead an enviable life, but all that ‘good fortune’ is apparently swept away when psychic predictions surrounding the Reids begin to come horribly true. After Mr. Reid’s death is predicted, he becomes fixated on the date. Paralyzed with fear, he loses all his confidence, undergoes a frightening personality change, and holed up in his mansion, he can no longer function.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes is an iconic tale which deals with issues of Fate and Predestination. In creating the Reids, Woolrich offers us two characters who have the best that life has to offer: looks, confidence, money, power, intelligence and good health. The Reids are the sort of people who make their own destinies–or so they think. When confronted with a power that seems to erode their worldly position, Jean and her father are rendered helpless for the first time in their lives. They are reduced to the same sort of powerlessness felt by their impoverished, plain, dull and worn-out maid, and suddenly, money and prestige mean nothing. It’s not simply that Mr. Reid is terrified of his own death (and that is definitely his ostensible, palatable fear), but it’s also that their entire value system no longer exists. Their money or connections cannot help them avoid the horrible Fate predicted for Mr. Reid by a shady psychic, and there’s the subtle issue of privilege bowing to a greater power underlying the tale. The novel doesn’t spend a great deal of time on character–although many of the secondary characters are great sideshow creations. The psychic is a particularly interesting character as with his sort of gift, you’d expect some sort of enlightened individual, but when Woolrich pulls back the layers of deceit on this character, we find a shrivelled, unpleasant, bitter little man. Primarily, however, this is a plot-driven story which builds with incredible tension that keeps this story rolling to the last page. Unlike Black Wings Has My Angel, Night Has a Thousand Eyes has an archaic feel which grounds the novel firmly in its times.
I recognized that the focus of this pall of fear and grief that hung over me was not the catastrophe itself or even the loss that it had wrought; it was the fact of having been forewarned against it. There was a curious sort of clammy terror in that, there was horror, there was-I don’t know what. There was a nightmare feeling heavy upon me, and not even the fact that the destructive climax was already past and no longer still ahead could lessen it any.
Review copy from Open Road Media
8 responses to “Night Has a Thousand Eyes: Cornell Woolrich (1945)”
Guy – Your commentary makes me think how for some great authors, the tortures and torments of life were the fuel for their genius. I like dark tales that are ultimately about death and dealing worth its inevitability.
I understand that this was made into a film starring Edward G. Robinson. I have not seen it. Have you Guy?
I am an Edward G fan, but for some reason, I haven’t seen the film. I don’t even have a copy.. The intro mentions the film, describes it and Francis Nevins says it’s sadly altered.
This sounds fantastic. I laredy liked the title of the book. I have never read him and always meant to. Is it a good starting point, do you think?
It’s uncanny how sometimes, in books, or real lives, people try to avoid catastrophe and in doing so trigger it. It sounds as if a biography of Woolrich would be interesting as well.
Yes, Caroline, it’s a great title, isn’t it? I’m not an expert on Woolrich, but this seems like a great starting point to me. The intro to this edition has enough biographical information to set the groundwork, but I bought the bio after reading the book. It’s huge!
It sounds a natural for a 1940s black and white film and it would be good to get hold of a copy. Interesting counterpoint between psychic gifts and the inevitability of fate. I can see why you liked it
It’s always been a theme for tales, knowing about you own death, taking measures to avoid it and heading right to it anyway. Very Ancient Greek Tragedy.
I have seen the movie but it is a totally different story. The movie is short and covers may be one third of the book. Many characters don’t even exist in the movie. I hope someone tries a new script based on the book. I think it is worth trying.
Thanks for the comment. I haven’t seen the film but I like to try and watch film versions of the books I read.