14 April 2008

Cornwell Woolrich’s Killer Fashions: “I’m Dangerous Tonight”

Cornell Woolrich’s dabblings in the supernatural constitute an intriguing corner of his suspense fiction. In these fantasy excursions, the otherworldly elements remain on the fringes, never a total certainty but just possible enough to shake the world view of the protagonists. The cruel fate of the world is a major theme in his fiction, and in these stories it receives actualization in the form of supernatural forces.

Woolrich’s best works in this vein are “Dark Melody of Madness” (often reprinted as “Papa Benjamin”) and “Speak to Me of Death” and its novel expansion Night Has a Thousand Eyes. A lesser fantasy work, interesting if extremely flawed, is “I’m Dangerous Tonight.” This novella, which runs about ninety pages in paperback, appeared in the general interest pulp All-American Fiction in 1937. It feels like a work that Woolrich might have tried to expand into novel format, since it has similar elements to “Street of Jungle Death,” which he turned into Black Alibi. There’s enough material in the novella to make a full novel, but perhaps Woolrich could see the weaknesses in the story and did nothing more with it.

“I’m Dangerous Tonight” welds together two stories that don’t make a comfortable fit. First there’s a standard detective story melodrama. An agent for the Justice Department, Frank Fisher, is hot on the trail of a cocaine ring which was responsible for his brother’s death. The key member of the ring that Fisher wants to nail is Belden, who escapes to Paris where Fisher has to extradite him. Fisher bungles the case and loses Belden, then plunges into an alcoholic-soaked depression until he sees another chance to bust open the ring. The second story is about a sinister dress that may have been made by the Devil himself. A French designer claims she had a visit from the Evil One—in his hokiest community theater guise, goatee included—who provided her with the material for the dress. Anyone who comes in contact with the material is consumed with feelings of hatred and sadism, a drive to destroy what they love most. The dress hops from woman to woman, turning each into a classic femme fatale. A woman betrays her criminal lover to the police. A suburban housewife arranges to murder her husband for the insurance money. An innocent singer changes into a gangster’s moll.

The two stories weave together, and not always smoothly. The dress dominates the front half, but drops out for a long stretch when Fisher tries to pull himself out of his funk. As silly as the demon-dress concept sounds, Woolrich does make it work through his intense descriptions of the hatred that it elicits. That beneath every seemingly normal human boils a cauldron of destructive impulses is a giddily noir idea. (If only the author didn’t tie it to a very goofy version of the Devil who isn’t the least bit scary.) The pulp melodrama of Frank Fisher isn’t anything thrilling, and in the later parts of the story the momentum starts to die, enlivened only with a shot in the arm when the dress makes its reappearance.

I originally read this story in the hardcover collection, hard to find and expensive, The Fantastic Stories of Cornell Woolrich. I now have it collected in the paperback Vampire’s Honeymoon, but this edition suffers from a number of glaring typos.