It opens, this thing, on death row. A nameless penitentiary squats next to a river that turns over and over, churning like the guts of the suckers wasting away inside its walls. Three hours to go until the lights flicker and the warden once again flips the switch on the vacancy sign. It’s Number Five’s turn tonight, and he’s got no taste for the meal that arrives hot under a silver platter. Number Three puts on a record, hoping to take Number Five’s mind off the ticking of the clock, which echoes so loudly that not even the crashing of the river can drown it out. The other doomed men whisper to him from up and down the block, “Talk boy, tell us how you got here. Talking takes your mind off things when you’re up close to it.” So Number Five hunkers down onto the rack, probably for the last time, and gives. It has to do with a dead man, a wallet full of big bills, and a pair of dancing shoes.
“Where you been?” he remembers asking her.
“Around the world in a rowboat.” She said, her lips barely moving, tired after yet another night on her feet, eyeballing the bed and longing for the numbness of sleep. Give her a few hours and she’ll come back to life, having momentarily forgotten the too-tight heels, the threadbare dress, those same old tired records, and the wretched breath of lonely, clutching men.
It stings to look at her, to think about what she does for the rent. He isn’t pulling his own weight — they live off her sweat and tears. They both used to be real dancers, but that was a lifetime ago. The city was magnificent when the war was on, bright and abundant with six-week contracts, every grinning theatrical man’s door wide open. Not now though. In the months since it ended and the naval yard in Brooklyn began to teem with men again — older now, their eyes different — the nightclub gigs dried up and the city boiled down to this one room apartment and the dark alleys that surround it on all four sides.
He remembers his anger that night, the tangy flavor of it, remembers throwing one new dancing shoe, then the other after the alley cats bleating on the fence outside their window. The shoes were a gift from her, a sign that she still hoped, but to him they were just another reminder of his failure. He shut his eyes thinking he’d either get the shoes back in the morning or he wouldn’t, but when he dragged himself out of bed they were already there, leaning neatly up against the flat’s scarred door. He should’ve figured the shoes’ reappearance was fishy. If he wasn’t such a dumb cluck he would have thrown them in the incinerator.
Maybe he should have gotten wise later that afternoon, when he found the wallet and the money on the street. Third-rate hoofers like him didn’t catch breaks, there was something else at work here. It was if the thing had been put there just for him, where only he would find it. He had pounded this stretch of sidewalk, from one dour theatrical man’s locked door to the next, so often that he could do it through the haze that his life had become. He could have, should have turned it in — he wanted to, really — but she lit up when she saw the bills. She thought of the money as their ticket out, to the coast and maybe a chance in the movies, and what good was a man if he couldn’t give his girl the things she wanted?
But the cops had his number. They had taken a plaster of the footprint at the murder scene — in the alley right outside the apartment window. They knew it was a tap shoe. They knew the damn thing belonged to a man of his size and build. They started watching him and waiting for him to spend the money. It was a Bakelite radio that fouled them up, and not even a good one. Can’t a man buy his wife a radio without being hauled in for murder? Not in this nightmare. Now in a few hours, at midnight, this first Tuesday after Christmas, the lights will flicker and a day or two later some other sap will take his place, and the others will call him Number Five. He’ll have a story of his own to tell, and a river that listens.
I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948)
Directed by William Nigh
Screenplay by Steve Fisher
Story by Cornell Woolrich
Starring Don Castle, Elyse Knox, Regis Toomey
Cinematography by Mack Stengler
Released by Monogram Pictures (Walter Mirisch Productions)
Running Time: 70 minutes