27 August 2009

“The Boy Cried Murder” a.k.a. “Fire Escape”

The Lightning Bug’s Lair recently posted a review of the classic Hitchcock film Rear Window, which is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, My Favorite U.S. Author™. This got me itchin’ to re-read one of Woolrich’s similar tales, “The Boy Cried Murder,” which is better known under the reprint title “Fire Escape.” It was also made in a very great, but sadly mostly unknown film.

“The Boy Cried Murder” is one of Woolrich’s finest works of pure suspense. He combines his skill writing from a child’s point of view (“If I Should Die before I Wake,” “Through a Dead Man’s Eyes”) with a plot similar to “It Had to Be Murder” ( “Rear Window”’s original title), right down to a body cut up and packed into a case. Taking a cue from the Aesop fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” Woolrich crafts the story of young Buddy, who, while sleeping on a fire escape to get away from the horrid July heat in the city, witnesses the couple living upstairs on the sixth floor stab to death a man while trying to rob him. But Buddy can’t convince his parents that he’s telling the truth because he has a history of making up outrageous stories. Not only do his parents refuse to believe his tale, but his father beats him for “lying.” Buddy sneaks out to go to the police, but this is the Woolrich Universe, where cops are basically callous thugs. They don’t believe Buddy any more than his parents do.

Then the story drops the suspense hammer. When the cops take Buddy back home, his parents force him to apologize to the couple upstairs—apologize to a pair of murderers. Then his parents lock Buddy in his room—even nailing shut the window—and leave him for the night. “He was alone now. Alone with crafty enemies, alone with imminent death.”

The tension that follows is among the best orchestrated that Woolrich ever wrote. But what really stands out about “The Boy Cried Murder” is its unflinchingly bleak view of childhood. Buddy is a sharp and imaginative boy, but to all adults he’s a troublesome liar. This is a world in which no adult is on your side: strangers, police, even your own parents. The scene of Buddy begging his father not to leave him alone during the night when he knows the murderers will come for him is almost unbearable to read because of the father’s cold disregard for his son’s impassioned pleading. “Wasn’t there anyone in the whole grown-up world who believed you? Did you have to be grownup yourself before anyone would believe you, stop you from being murdered?” Woolrich never wrote a better story from a child’s view, and never a grimmer one.

(I also would like to suggest that would-be murderers never try to dismember a corpse with a straight razor. Just don’t waste your time. Hey, hafta have one whopper in a Woolrich story, right?)

The story is so good that within a few days of its publication, RKO purchased the film rights and turned it into a minor-classic film noir called The Window. Released in 1949, it was directed by Ted Tetzlaff and stars Barbara Hale, Paul Stewart (playing one of the killers, of course), Arthur Kennedy, and tragic child actor Bobby Driscoll (he died from a drug abuse soon after his thirty-first birthday). I had an opportunity to see this film a few years ago at a special Woolrich double feature at the Egyptian in Hollywood (the other movie was the middling adaptation of Deadline at Dawn) and was amazed by it; it’s as good as some of Hitchcock’s suspense films and stays very faithful to the story—although the parents are made more pleasant people in the film version. The entire audience was riveted and gasping out loud during the tenement finale. Barbara Hale was present at the screening and talked to us about it afterward. Unfortunately, The Window has yet to make it to Region 1 DVD. Someone ought to get on this.

The story has gotten re-filmed a few times. The 1984 film Cloak & Dagger was originally going to be a straightforward adaptation of the short story, but was changed so significantly during scripting that Woolrich’s name only appears in the legal disclaimer in the end credits.