The Black Curtain was Woolrich's second thriller to be published after he had spent the better part of the 1930s writing short fiction for pulp magazines. The story begins as Frank Townsend wakes up on Tillary Street (the city is never identified, but we assume it is New York, though the Tillary Street of Woolrich's imagination bears little resemblance to the real Tillary Street in Brooklyn) after having been knocked unconscious by a piece of molding that fell from a building. He identifies himself as Frank Townsend but notices that the initials in his hat are D.N. Finding his way home, he learns that his wife Virginia has moved. When he locates her, she tells him that he left for work on January 30, 1938, and never came home until today, May 10, 1941!
Assuming that amnesia was caused by one blow to the head and cured by another, Frank wonders where he has been for more than three years. He gets his old job back but is soon pursued by an ominous man with a gun, barely escaping him by dashing through the closing doors of a subway car. He is forced to give up his job to avoid his pursuer and, when the man locates his residence, Frank and Virginia make a daring escape. Sending Virginia away for her own safety, Frank returns to Tillary Street, hoping it will hold clues to his recent past and help him understand why he is being pursued.
|Richard Basehart as Townsend|
The killers catch Frank and tie up him and Ruth, intending to kill them both, but Emil sets fire to his mattress and the house goes up in flames. Frank is saved but Ruth is killed, the man who had been pursuing him turns out to be a policeman, and Frank is able to explain everything that happened and clear his name. As the novel ends, he rides the train back home to his wife, finally able to resume the life that had been interrupted.
|Lola Albright as Ruth|
Joel Murcott adapted The Black Curtain for television in 1962 and made enormous changes to the story in order to fit it into a running time of about 50 minutes. Unfortunately, most of the changes are not for the better. The show begins with Phil (not Frank) Townsend being hit over the head by a blackjack wielded by a young tough who robs him on a dark city street one night. A taxi happens on the scene and scares the young man and his friend away; the cab driver then helps Townsend to an all-night drugstore, where Phil recalls that he had just been discharged from the Army that morning and was on his way to City Hall to get married when he got out of a taxi and felt dizzy.
The cab driver takes Phil to see his girl, but she has married and had a baby since Phil disappeared. It is September 23, 1962, and he has been gone for three years. She went to the police and even hired a private detective but never found Phil; instead, she married the private eye. The cabbie and Phil visit an all-night diner and Phil sees an inscription on his watch that tells him that his other name was David and that a girl named Ruth loved him. The cabbie advises him not to go to the police and suggests he spend the night in a cheap hotel.
|The coach tackles Carlin|
Meanwhile, the man who shot at him turns out to be a private investigator who is tracking him down. Hiding in the apartment, Phil and Ruth talk (and talk and talk) and he learns that he worked for her uncle. The private eye is a man named Frank Carlin, who was hired by Ruth's uncle to look into the murder of the uncle's wife, whose body was found in Phil's apartment above his employer's garage. Phil had chronic migraines and would either pass out, grow violent, or go blank; after one of these events, he confessed to murder.
|Ruth lures Carlin|
The TV version of "The Black Curtain" is so different from the novel that it is necessary to relate the plot of each one in order to make sense of the changes. One of the aspects of the novel that I find most disturbing is the way that Townsend forgets about his wife, who has already had to fend for herself for over three years during the Great Depression, and takes up with a young woman/lover. The TV show solves this, surely pleasing the censors, by making Virginia not his wife but his former fiance. She is now married and has a baby, so there is no concern about adultery with Ruth or abandonment of Virginia.
|Harold J. Stone as the cabbie|
|Townsend is hit on the head|
Having the private eye take on such a key role in the story does not work at all. In the end, he turns out to be Virginia's husband and Phil's pursuer, having covered up for the real killer after he was hired by Virginia to find Phil. It's too much to put on a single character, especially one who gets little screen time or dialogue until the end. In adapting Woolrich's novel for TV, Murcott made the mistake of trying to simplify some things while making others overly complex. The result is a boring mess, something Woolrich's stories rarely are. They may depend on wild coincidences, but they are entertaining, something "The Black Curtain" on TV is not.
|Lee Philips as Carlin, the private eye|
The thrilling escape made by Frank and Virginia in the novel is made by Frank and Ruth in this version, which compresses events but follows the novel's general plot. The old man's Morse Code eye blinks are simplified to "blink twice for yes and once for no," which works better, but the biggest shock of all comes at the end, when the old man identifies Ruth as the killer! She murdered a man who would not leave her alone and kills herself at the end when the truth comes out. Having the hero's love interest turn out to be the killer is a wonderful way to wrap up the story and it packs a hardboiled punch that the novel and TV show lack. (Although I have not seen the movie Street of Chance, online reviews state that it was the first to change the identity of the murderer to Ruth.) Listen to this great half-hour of old time radio here.
|George Mitchell as the druggist|
A third radio production of The Black Curtain marked the first episode of the expanded, hour-long Suspense series on January 3, 1948. George Corey again wrote the script; this time, Robert Montgomery stars. The story takes place in 1944 and is padded, making it less exciting than the half-hour versions that preceded it. There is a clever bit of business early on when Townsend learns that he missed the start of World War II, much like Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the American Revolution, but the additions made to stretch the broadcast to an hour do not improve it. Listen and decide for yourself here.
"The Black Curtain" was directed by Sydney Pollack (1934-2008), who had a long and successful career as a director and sometimes an actor. He began as a TV director from 1961 to 1965, then switched to movies from 1965 to 2005, winning an Oscar for Out of Africa (1985). He directed two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
The unfortunate score by Lyn Murray (1909-1989) was one of 35 he wrote for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; among his many credits were Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955).
|Gail Kobe as Virginia|
Lola Albright (1924- ) co-stars as Ruth; her career began in movies in 1947 and added TV in 1951. She was a regular on Peter Gunn from 1958 to 1961 and was in three episodes of the Hitchcock series.
The helpful cabbie is played by Harold J. Stone (1913-2005), a wonderful and prolific actor who was on TV and in movies from the late 1940s to the mid 1980s. His career has been discussed in connection with "The Night the World Ended," "Lamb to the Slaughter," and "The Second Verdict," which represent three of the five times he appeared on the Hitchcock show.
In only his second acting credit, James Farentino (1938-2012) portrays the young tough who mugs Townsend and hits him over the head, setting the story in motion. This was the first of Farentino's two appearances on the Hitchcock series, and he frequently was seen on TV and in the movies from 1962 to 2006, including twice on Night Gallery.
The druggist at the all-night pharmacy is played by George Mitchell (1905-1972), who also appeared in Henry Slesar's "Forty Detectives Later," as well as two other hour-long episodes. He was in movies from the mid-'30s to the early '70s and on TV from 1949 to 1973. He was on Thriller twice and The Twilight Zone four times.
Finally, the private detective, Carlin, is played by Lee Philips (1927-1999). He acted in TV roles from 1953 to 1975 and in movie roles from 1957 to 1965; he continued to work in the industry as a TV director from 1965 to 1995. He was on the Hitchcock show four times, The Twilight Zone twice, and The Outer Limits once.
Watch "The Black Curtain" for free online here. It is not yet available on DVD.
Overview: Woolrich on Hitchcock on TV
Cornell Woolrich was not well served by the Hitchcock TV show. Of the four episodes that adapted his stories and a novel, only one is memorable, and none capture the suspense for which he was famous.
"The Big Switch" is an average episode from the first season with good performances, but it fails to live up to "Change of Murder," the story from which it is taken.
"Momentum" is a weak episode that strips the original story of the title attribute.
"Post Mortem" is the most successful of the lot, due to a strong script by Robert C. Dennis and a terrific comedic performance by Joanna Moore.
"The Black Curtain" is a failure that turns an entertaining novel into a boring hour.
The best adaptation of Woolrich's work connected with Hitchcock is, of course, the masterful 1954 film Rear Window. The TV shows don't even come close to its brilliance.
CORNELL WOOLRICH ON ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS/THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR EPISODE GUIDE