Unsafety Curtain

David Cairns Woolrich Week has ended, but for those of you feeling an acute shortage of confusion and misery in your life, I still have a couple more radio dramas for you.

The Black Curtain is a classic episode of Suspense, well received enough that they performed it three times. It’s a perfect radio story, the abstraction introduced by the listening experience is a great match for Woolrich’s signature absurdity and narrative violence. Plus, it has an amnesia plot.

People who defend audio drama often say things about how it “involves you right in the story,” or “makes the listener do the work of imagining the scene.” All true as far as it goes, but it fails to measure the difference between feeling oneself immersed in something pleasant and predictable like a Lone Ranger story, and Woolrich’s worlds of confusion and obscurity.

Black Curtain also shows why Woolrich was in some ways even more successful on radio than film. No matter how many shadows, crossfades, and fog machines a movie director employs, narrative cinema is an incorrigibly realistic medium; we are watching someone else who has been photographed doing stuff . But the important stuff in audio drama really is unseen and overheard, and this creates an element of irresolvable uncertainty.

Plus, no Woolrich movie could have counted on a hero as urbane and classy as Cary Grant. Mr. Leach starred in the first two versions of the story, and listening to two versions of the same script can give us a sense of how Suspense was evolving in the first years of its long run.

Suspense Black Curtain 1 1943 Dec 12 with Cary Grant

Suspense Black Curtain 2 1944 Nov 30 with Cary Grant

The third and final version was the first of the one hour episodes hosted by Robert Montgomery. In this show, Montgomery also plays the lead. Though he doesn’t match Grant’s performance, the longer story is powerful, and Lurene Tuttle is a marvel as the female lead. One of the joyous surprises of listening to vintage radio for the classic film lover is getting to know the elite group of professional radio actors, people like Tuttle, Cathy and Elliott Lewis, Jack Kruschen, and many more, and hearing how often they match and even outdo the great Hollywood stars before the microphone.

Suspense Black Curtain 3 1948 Jan 3 with Robert Montgomery

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