Swans Commentary » swans.com October 24, 2011  



Shortcuts To Comfort: James M. Cain


by Peter Byrne





"Noir is the drama of class conflict and class resentment, powered by people who have lost social status or never had it, and who contrive violent shortcuts to comfort."
—Matt Zoller Seitz, Salon, March 24, 2011.
"Anyone still laboring under the fantasy that America doesn't have a class system should read Mildred Pierce."
—Sarah Churchwell, The Guardian, June 24, 2011.


(Swans - October 24, 2011)   America can't leave James M. Cain alone. * The HBO TV miniseries based on his novel Mildred Pierce is only the most recent Cain jolt to the national nervous system. An acute European saw Cain's relevance as early as 1943. That was only nine years after Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice was published in 1934 and three years before Tay Garnett filmed it in Hollywood in 1946.

Luchino Visconti was as far from James M. Cain as anyone could be, and not merely because he was an Italian living in Milan. He was rich since his mother was heir to the Erba pharmaceutical dynasty and he was an aristocrat thanks to his father who was both the Duke of Grazzano and Count of Lonate Pozzolo. To set him off further from Cain, he was a homosexual and moving to the political left, joining the Italian Communist Party during WWII. With his passion for music and the plastic arts Visconti was perhaps the most complete artist of his generation. The Italian esthete was bemused by Cain's California of insurance salesmen and bums.

Family connections meant the young Visconti hobnobbed with the eminent cultural figures of the period, among them Giacomo Puccini, Arturo Toscanini, and Gabriele d'Annunzio. It was through Coco Chanel that he met the great French director and Popular Front stalwart Jean Renoir. Still in his twenties, Visconti worked as Renoir's assistant. He made a brief visit to Hollywood but his fascination with America came from a strong undercurrent in Fascist Italy. Despite the regime's disapproval, writers like Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese translated and promoted William Saroyan, Edgar Lee Masters, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and others. Their own Italian fiction was influenced by American unfussy prose and social realism. This served as a purgative for the traditional high Italian style that had been contaminated by Fascist rhetoric and kept Italian writers at a distance from their own everyday experience.

So it was no surprise that Visconti seized upon Cain's earthy Postman, which was written in "degree zero" prose. (He read it in the French translation that Albert Camus claimed taught him how to write.) Helped by scenarist Giuseppe De Santis, Visconti took inspiration from the novel for the script of his first movie. Ossessione was released in 1943 but quickly withdrawn by the Fascist authorities precisely because it presented a real Italy. It would only reach a large public after WWII. Many consider it the first example of Neorealism, Italy's peerless contribution to world cinema.

Pioneer work or not, Visconti's take on Cain's novel is a masterpiece that it would be a mistake to consider derivative. The novel is a first-person account by one Frank Chambers of his irresistible lust for the unhappily married Cora. The two begin a liaison whose sexual violence is mutually congenial and leads to their collaborating in the murder of her husband. Cora dies in an accident, and Frank ends on death row. The narrative tells how they go about their crime, giving Cain a chance to indulge his gift for entering his narrator's mind and watching him wildly improvise a master plan that inevitably provokes his downfall. Cain then shows the effect of the crime on Frank and Cora's intimacy and details how the law catches up to them. The focus is always on the drama of the threesome, the couple and the victim. California enters not for its landscape but for its brittle moral climate.

Ossessione is much concerned with landscape. The film not only displays at length the country around Ferrara, but sketches in the plodding boredom of provincial life. The fatal couple, Gino and Giovanna, is not locked in sadomasochism but their love making is perturbed by the Gino's conscience. Visconti makes guilt part of his esthetic and Gino becomes the center of the story. Two characters are introduced that change the balance of Cain's novel. The "Spaniard" sounds a homoerotic note, naturally discreet as it had to be under Fascism. A rolling stone, he points up a contrast that may be a Mediterranean heritage: On the one hand, life on the open road, men on the move together, free of domesticity (i.e., women); on the other, settled family life with its monotony and crushing responsibilities. Visconti also adds a sympathetic young prostitute whose innocence tempts Gino but fails to lure him away from his obsession with Giovanna. Both women have been forced by poverty into their dependence on men and can be seen as elements of social criticism.

James M. Cain is not that sort of social critic. His people have never had status and he's less concerned with how they got that way than how they plan to remedy it with the big bang of murder. Tay Garnett kept to that view when he filmed Postman in Hollywood in 1946. Alas, the shapely but plain Cora of the novel who worked hard in the kitchen became a luminescent Lana Turner who stands around like a model on the ramp. Though Turner was imitating Jean Harlow, the violence of the love scenes -- teeth drawing blood and right crosses to the jaw -- disappeared. In a blush of Hollywood political correctness, the dodgy Jewish lawyer Katz is renamed Keats and the murdered man, despised by his wife as "a greasy Greek," becomes simply a bumptious Canadian. Cora no longer fears being mistaken for a Mexican. As the callow wayfarer, however, John Garfield is in the spirit of the original. Garnett like Cain kept his focus narrowly on the people of the immediate drama. His noir has no hint of opera or epic à la Visconti. The guilt he shows us isn't primal like the Italian's but shallow as the history of California.

Hollywood couldn't let go of Cain's Postman. In 1981 Bob Rafelson undertook a self-conscious remake with David Mamet working on the script. Rafelson didn't follow Visconti and completely re-mold and re-locate the story. His careful reconstruction lost the naivete, energy, and ragged edges of the Depression years. Cain wasn't made for art houses. Sadomasochism was restored with a vengeance. Watching Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson hard at it, we witnessed Cain's few, right words becoming a laborious exercise in soft porn.

Cain's second novel, Double Indemnity, was written in 1936. It's another first person confession. This time the narrator is Walter Huff, the male half of a couple who murder an unwanted husband. While Cora of Postman couldn't stand the oily touch of her aging spouse, Phyllis is a serial killer, a dominatrix not for fun but purely business reasons. Money rules in this novel and sex is only a concept. Huff claims he's besotted with Phyllis, but Cain doesn't convince us with any telling scenes. The truth would seem to be in Huff's remark on page 174: "I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake." The fact that he, the apprentice killer, is a Los Angeles insurance man who knows all the tricks, lets Cain sketch another plan for a perfect crime that goes wrong at first challenge. Huff is a more sophisticated Frank Chambers. A Californian pragmatist, he knows everything about insurance but misses the big truth about his partner in crime. The irony of the novel is in the know-it-all male's confidence in foreseeing all conceivable hitches in the murder plan.

Billy Wilder's 1944 film of Double Indemnitydoes a ruthless editing job on the novel. It sweeps out the spider web sub-plot. (Raymond Chandler had a hand in the script.) Cain forsook his habitual sobriety to make the dominant and duplicitous woman he loved to depict into something like a queen of evil. He had the guilty pair end in a very un-Californian limbo where they were doomed to torment each other in aeternum like a pair of Dante's delinquents. Wilder nixes this other-worldly horror show and brings the story back to gritty L.A. where it started and belonged. Barbara Stanwyck is quite capable of suggesting sufficient double-crossing egomania right there in her pseudo Spanish colonial house in Los Feliz. Wilder's admirable noir makes only one slight bow toward a redemptive ending. The multiple murderess who has misused and cuckolded her accomplice (Fred MacMurray at his macho-undone best) has a tender moment and says she really doesn't want to put a final bullet in him. All insurance angles forgotten, he murmurs "goodbye baby" and shoots her dead.

Both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity were so brief and linear that they are often classified as novellas. But when Cain published Mildred Pierce in 1941 the several years of its action and its 300 pages marked it as a novel in a conventional mode. So did its contents, which fit one traditional recipe of following out the destiny of a single person. The novelty was that Cain fixed on the life story of a 1930s housewife. He endows her with an independent outlook, which is just as well since her husband has opted out of gainful employment after a bankruptcy. Cain also lands her with the more problematic trait of a self-punishing devotion to her children. When her younger daughter dies as a toddler, Mildred doubles her dedication to the elder Veda.

The novel's action consists on one level of Mildred's long courtship of Veda. Cain tells the story so that readers want constantly to lean over the mother's shoulder and point out her daughter's perfidy. But of course Mildred doesn't have to be told: she knows. Cain has kept his sadomasochistic theme going. It was fleshy in Postman and about psychic dominance in Double Indemnity. In Mildred Pierce Veda cruelly punishes a willing victim in every way at every turn until she actually steals Mildred's husband, her stepfather. This Oedipal angle underlines Mildred's priorities. She will miss Veda, not her husband.

All these people are in a social cage. Mildred married a notch above herself. Veda's father, laid low by the Depression, refused to go down the social scale. He simple called it quits, hugged his lofty standards, and lived off others. Veda from childhood dreamt of wealth, high style, and upper-class life. Mildred, seeing that Veda was precocious, sharp and talented, bought into her daughter's fantasy. Though accompanied by vicious snobbery, it seemed aspirational and touched worthy matters like music, art, and fashion that were beyond Mildred's ken.

Moreover, Mildred herself has her own lower middle-class sense of superiority. Her gentility may be of the shabby sort but it's wounded by the bluffness of the working class when she's thrown on to the Depression job market. As Cain proceeds we realize that the mother-daughter relationship is only one aspect of his novel. The narrative is also a shrewd update of the prototypal American rags-to-riches saga. Mildred has all the odds against her. The Depression is raging. She has no vocational training and is surrounded by parasitical males. Yet by her individual gifts of business acumen and determination she becomes rich.

The novelty of Mildred's character is first of all that she's a woman at a time when female business figures were few. She is to all practical purposes a single mother and an example of female autonomy. For her place and time she also achieves a degree of sexual liberation and asks questions that will only arise in novels of a later time. Seduced by her first husband's friend who has taken advantage of her separation, she listens with distain to his excuse of male solidarity as he backs off after the event. She's stunned to feel she's a mere sexual object when her second husband tells her on page 386:

"Come what may, swing high, swing low, for better or for worse, you're still the best piece of tail I ever had, or ever could imagine."

Let's pass over the narrative twists and turns of Cain's thick and meaty novel. It was new ground for him as it contained no violent crime but only run-of-the-mill greed, selfishness, and mediocrity. However, the film that Michael Curtiz made of it in 1945 changed all that. Curtiz turned a traditional social novel into a jokey film noir. From the first frame we are plunged into a murder mystery whose enigma will only be cleared up an hour and a half later. Promotional copy for the film read, "Mildred Pierce -- don't ever tell anyone what she did." Not that it isn't a good film with Joan Crawford as the energetic Ur-mother. Of course there's no time to follow the steps of Mildred's business ascension from clumsy waitress to owner of a chain of restaurants. Here writer Cain's fine hand with improvised detail made her eventual wealth and power credible.

Curtiz further darkens Veda's portrait and makes her a torch singer. In Cain's novel she turns into a superb coloratura soprano and opera star. So the reader might be inclined to give her sadism some slack as part of an artistic temperament. But a film noir also needed a murder and Curtiz supplied it by having Veda kill her stepfather instead of simply running off with him to New York to a $2,500 a week radio engagement. As for him, he becomes more and less of a villain. Curtiz has him bringing about Mildred's bankruptcy, but also refusing Veda in the end, which makes her shoot him.

Cain's Mildred had discovered the two of them in bed together, whereas Curtiz only allows her to see them exchange a kiss. All the same, Mildred, noir version, is sucker punched once more and goes all out to save Veda till the spoiled girl finally gets away from her by going to jail on a murder charge. Noir was black, but 1945 Hollywood was still Hollywood. Curtiz couldn't let Veda or her treacherous stepfather get away with a happy end for themselves. That was reserved for Mildred who, daughterless, goes back in harness with her first husband.

With the HBO TV series of March and April 2011 -- five full hours -- we return almost word-for-word to the novel. The detour into noir territory is completely erased. Simply for reasons of space and time Todd Haynes can attempt to honor Cain's original conception. But in 2011 America blackness and crime are old hat and "relationships" fill our heads and airways. The whole five-part series can be seen as coming out of Veda's remark to Mildred in the Curtiz film: "It's your fault the way I am." Kate Winslet's Mildred is too sensitive for a home baker in the "Great" Depression. Cain's Mildred ended up fat and alcoholic. Veda's case has got stronger in the last fifty some years, and nobody believes we are going to get out of this Depression by making pies.



The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934, by James M. Cain
Double Indemnity, 1936, by James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce, 1941, by James M. Cain


Ossessione, 1943, director Luchino Visconti
Double Indemnity, 1944, director Billy Wilder
Mildred Pierce, 1945, director Michael Curtiz
The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946, director Tay Garnett
The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981, director Bob Rafelson
Mildred Pierce, 2011, (5 hour series) director Todd Haynes   (back)


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Published October 24, 2011