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Friday Night Spotlight - Noir Writers
Remind Me

Eddie Muller on James M. Cain

If there's a single author who could be called the architect of Dark City, it's James M. Cain. Unlike Hammett and Chandler, he didn't write about detectives, and unlike Cornell Woolrich, he wasn't interested in how fate tortures the innocent. Cain spun tales of average people who commit horrible crimes to get what they want--a fairly good working definition of "noir."

He was an Eastern newspaperman, who after a brief stint as managing editor of The New Yorker moved to Hollywood in the early thirties to try his hand at screenwriting. He earned good dough as a script doctor, but never sold a single original screenplay. Before packing it in and moving back east, Cain created a brutal, desperate, and sex-filled manuscript called Bar-B-Q--which was, essentially, a cheap and tawdry kiss-off to his literary ambitions. Published in 1934 under the title The Postman Always Rings Twice, the book became a sensation, forever changing Cain's fortunes as a novelist, and eventually the course of film history, as well.

Movie interest was immediate, but Hollywood's chief censor, Joseph Breen, vowed that Postman would never be delivered to American movie screens. Regardless, MGM bought the rights for $25,000, only to leave it on the shelf for more than a decade due to the restrictions of the Production Code. Cain's breakout in the movies wouldn't come for almost another ten years.

Billy Wilder read Double Indemnity--Cain's blatant knockoff of his own Postman--in early 1943 and immediately became obsessed with bringing this tale of infidelity, murder, and retribution to the screen, in an A-list production with big-name stars. His usual writing partner, blue-blooded Charles Brackett, found the story so sordid he refused to collaborate. In a stroke of genius, Wilder hired detective novelist Raymond Chandler to help adapt Cain's story. Although Wilder and Chandler despised each other, their handling of this once untouchable material was the spark that ignited the film noir movement in Hollywood, both artistically and financially. The film was a box office bonanza. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Suddenly studios were scrambling for similarly sexy and sinister scenarios.

Cain had pretty good luck with movie adaptations--Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (finally adapted in 1946 following the box office success of the two others) are all regarded as classics. His best novel (in my opinion), Serenade (1937) was on the slate at Warner Bros. for years--a Jerry Wald production, with Anne Sheridan to star and either Michael Curtis or Vincent Sherman directing--but when it was finally made in 1956, with Mario Lanza, it was a disaster. All of Cain's provocative sexual dynamics had been drained out. It's a great book, still waiting to be given its proper screen treatment.

I've chosen to show: Double Indemnity (1944, novel), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, novel).

By Eddie Muller

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