Saturday, February 04, 2012

James M. Cain

James M. Cain, Masterpieces and Film Noirs
I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.
James M. Cain (1892-1977)

Continuing to be impressed by this master, I was in bed with a cold this week and was very grateful for the invention of audiobooks. I lay back with a clogged-up face and listened to the classic Mildred Pierce, brilliantly read. 

Mildred is a sympathetic character, especially at the start, with the economy, men in general and her own family working against her as she strives to make ends meet during the Great Depression, the novel hooked me in as the strange complexities and contradictions of her character came through.

The book was adapted from a non-violent psychological work into a 1945 crime thriller and classic film noir starring Joan Crawford with murder introduced into the plot (screenplay co-written by William Faulkner).

An Easterner, a newspaperman and a protégé of H.L. Mencken, Cain was against labelling, but he's usually associated with the hardboiled school of American crime fiction and seen as one of the creators of the roman noir. He did not write about detectives or publish in the pulps. The adaptation of Mildred wouldn’t have helped, and several other of his novels inspired highly successful films. His first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934, and Double Indemnity, serialised two years later, became two standard film noir classics.

James Garfield and Lana Turner 
smoldering in 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', 1946

So… choose the book! Even a classic film noir can misrepresent a masterpiece. Films suffer from censorship and time limits and most of the time a need to please the masses. I heard the new Mildred-mini-series starring Kate Winslet is truer to the novel, but in 5 episodes they would obviously only have time to translate the surface story, and not pay heed to the character study that made the novel so interesting.

Kate Winslet smoldering in the 
recent HBO Mildred Pierce mini-series 

I recently read the fun and surprising Serenade, my introduction to Cain, and I read about the camp 1956 'story of a farmhand who won fame as a singer and almost lost his soul as a man' film version with a completely different plot. The film poster below says it all. The novel's actual plot (which I won't give away) wasn't going to work in the days of 50s censorship.
50s technicolour, not very smoldering

It was the lack of sex and violence in the  1946 version of  The Postman Always Rings Twice that Jack Nicholson felt so important to the story that inspired him to set into motion a 1981 remake. 

Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange
smoldering in 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', 1981

The 1981 version had the two protagonists (Nicholson and Jessica Lange, worth their weight in gold in any film) convincingly drawn together by violent sexuality, but this film contains one of the most notoriously flawed bits of film making I've ever seen (I’ll be vague so not to do any spoilers). 

The film ends with the death of a character and sirens can be heard in the distant background. The death is random and doesn't seem to fit into the story, so the whole film feels pointless and unsatisfying. For years I thought it was an abrupt ending and a weak story until I read about the film's flaw and all of the rest of the plot that the audience is supposed to guess at! (click here if you're curious and don't mind about the spoiler)

One last bit of good news on Cain is that he has a new book coming out this year! Cain was working on The Cocktail Waitress at the time of his death. One Charles Ardai searched for a decade to track down the elusive manuscript and obtain the rights to print it.

James M. Cain and Long Lost Novels

Decades after his death, The Cocktail Waitress, a lost James M. Cain novel, has resurfaced. Ok, it’s not sensational, but the labour of love behind its publication is. Cain was 83 years old, his star had fallen, suffering from painful ill health, but he was a writer and every day put pen to paper. He was branching out, writing historical and children’s fiction, but when he knew he had only one book left in him, he went back to his roots, The Cocktail Waitress is a crime story that mirrors the classic Cain novels. He showed it to his publisher but wasn’t satisfied and kept hold of it, continuously tinkering. It disappeared after his death, clues as to its existence only lay in the odd correspondence.

The Cocktail Waitress was published by Hard Case Crime, an imprint of hardboiled crime novels founded in 2004 by Charles Ardai and Max Phillips, who felt the paperback crime novel style of the 40s and 50s needed to be revived. The covers feature original art done in the pulp style by artists such as Robert McGinnis and Glen Orbik. The collection includes both reprints of books from the pulp era and new novels written for the collection.

Ardai searched for a decade to track down the elusive manuscript, obtained the rights to print it, and edited a definitive version from all the different versions Cain had written. Ardai was such a fan of Cain’s work, he said – he even read the stuff that wasn’t that great. 'Without Cain, there would be no Hard Case Crime.' 

There’s an interesting afterword by Ardai at the end of the novel. On my previous blogpost on Cain, I pay reverence to an established a master, translated into eighteen languages and whose work is taught in universities. But back in the day, Cain was seen as full of sin, scandal, and lurid lowbrow. One critic called him a whore-y old sensation monger. His books were banned. Even Raymond Chandler, who adapted for the big screen the classic Double Indemnity, said, 'He is every kind of writer I detest, a dirty little child with a piece of chalk.'

Cain wrote of depravity, reality and sexuality of all flavours, but he wasn’t a sensationalist, he put the material to work, writing about life as it is lived, and language as it is spoken, the affect of crisis on the human soul and the ability of the human animal to survive.

A great read for those interested in writers and their process is his Paris Review Interview. Here, Cain argues with the fact that he’d been typecast as a hardboiled writer: ‘I don’t write whodunits. You can’t end a story with the cops getting the killer. I don’t think the law is a very interesting nemesis. I write love stories. The dynamics of a love story are almost abstract. The better your abstraction, the more it comes to life when you do it – the excitement of the idea lurking there. Algebra. Suspense comes from making sure your algebra is right. Time is the only critic. If your algebra is right, if the progression is logical, but still surprising, it keeps.’


Anonymous said...

Maybe the Nicholson/Lange film could be one for 101 Films You Should Have Seen?

Jasoni said...

No. Too flawed, even for a noir fan like myself. Why don't you go with the original? It's about time you reviewed some oldies :)