Nameless in the Shadows of Cornell Woolrich ' s " I Married a Deadman "

"I Married a Deadman" echoes the sense of doom and personal impotence found in much of Cornell Woolrich's fiction. Francis Nevins called Woolrich "the Poe of the 20th century and the poet of its shadows, the Hitchcock of the written word" (Francis M. Nevins. “Tonight, Somewhere in New York”. Carroll & Graf, New York, 2005. p. 1). Between 1938 and 1950, 15 films and at least 20 radio plays were produced based on his fiction. But even though Woolrich was a significant influence on the development of film noir's themes, characters, and world view in the 1940s, his novels have been out of print most of the last 60 years.

Published in 1948, "Deadman" is the last novel of Woolrich's main creative period and could be described as one of his most cynical; life is a game we are destined to lose, possibly because of the hopeless webs fate uses to ensnare us. What truly elevated "Deadman" is Woolrich's gift of prose, but it has been argued the existential dread of his prose was never captured in the three subsequent film adaptations of this novel.

One example of Woolrich’s talent for prose is the impersonal way he treats his main character early in “Deadman”. The nineteen year old Helen Georgesson has a name, but because she lived “a dreary, hopeless nineteen, not a bright, shiny one” Woolrich withholds her name from the narration. Helen is “she”. Helen is “the girl”. Helen is simply “her”. She is alone, she is pregnant, and she is being shipped back to where she came from “a hundred years ago – last spring”, San Fransisco. It was as though she had no name until an accident, a twist of fate, caused the name on her hospital chart to read Mrs. Patrice Hazzard.

Helen was a girl who lived a poor life in the shadows, but Patrice was a woman who lived a wealthy life in the light. Ironically, Helen’s life depended on the darkest shadows when it was forced into this bright new life; only the shroud of shadow could hide her true identity.

Because of his homosexuality, Woolrich must have understood the dichotomy of walking between the shadows and the light. Helen is not called by any name at all until she is called by another woman’s name, and it is possible Woolrich felt his own public personna was a similarly borrowed identity. But much like Helen, Woolrich’s own borrowed identity seemed better than none at all. This fragment was found in Woolrich’s papers after his death in 1968:

“I was only trying to cheat death. I was only trying to surmount for a while the darkness that all my life I surely knew was going to come rolling in on me one day and obliterate me. I was only trying to stay alive a brief while longer, after I was already gone. To stay in the light, to be with the living, a little while past my time.” ("Blues of a Lifetime. The Autobiography of Cornell Woolrich." ed. Mark T. Bassett. Bowling Green State University Popular Press. Bowling Green, 1991. p. 152)