James M. Cain – This Celebrated Hardboiled Writer and Hollywood Proved a Potent Combination
Mystery Scene, Winter 2020
In the world of crime fiction, the name James M. Cain is as ubiquitous as the crisp pop-pop-pop of gunfire and the discovery of a dead body in the opening chapter of a crime novel.
Cain’s writings about rough-edged men, women who are craftier than they appear, and themes like adultery, blackmail and murder, made him the go-to guy for thirties-era fans of the un-put-downable quick-read. He also became known for hot-to-the-touch topics: at a time when few others would dare, Cain didn’t hesitate to write about incest and homosexuality.
But it isn’t easy to compile a dossier on James M. Cain. He defies encapsulation.
Not all of his fiction was crime-related. He didn’t even think of himself as a crime writer. As a journalist, he covered everything from politics to unions to … food. The latter was, in fact, a favorite topic. He wrote detailed articles on baking the perfect huckleberry pie and how to expertly carve a duck.
His own appetites were impressive.
During a luncheon interview a reporter made note of Cain’s order: two glasses of sherry, plates of oysters, a crab cake dinner, two beers, an extra crab cake, a slice of liederkranz cheese, and coffee.
He had a big appetite for the ladies, too. They reciprocated, though he was by no means a looker. “A big, shaggy fellow with graying hair,” is how a Hollywood journalist once described him.
As a subject, James M. Cain can overwhelm. The 1982 biography by Roy Hoopes, which enjoyed the author’s cooperation, is a doorstopper at 684 pages. There are myriad academic papers and essays scrutinizing Cain in conjunction with his settings, his love of the open road, his treatment of women (he’s either a misogynist or a feminist), the significance of food in his works, and on and on.
There are countless odes to his status as a tough-guy writer. David Madden, author of the recent The Voice of James M. Cain: A Biography (Lyons Press) – his fourth book about Cain – calls him “the 20-minute egg of the hard-boiled school,” an institution in which the Big Three are Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Thanks to Hollywood, Cain also deserves serious props as a noir VIP.
Though his most famous work preceded noir’s emergence as a true genre, the 1940s film adaptations of his books Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice forever shine a spotlight on him. (Albeit with low-key lighting and shadows – those noir requisites.)
Cain used to gripe about Hollywood’s versions of his works, and the motion picture business in general. He knew about it first-hand, as a contract screenwriter. Years after leaving California, Cain once admitted, “Don’t get the idea that writing for movies is easy money. It ain’t. But I wanted the money.”
His move West proved prescient. Hollywood and Cain would be a potent combination.
Now, Cain wasn’t exactly chopped liver before he made the trek to Tinseltown.
The native of Annapolis, Maryland, was a son of privilege. His father was the president of Washington College, which Cain attended. His mother was an opera singer. In fact, James Mallahan Cain also wanted to become an opera singer–until his mother informed him he wasn’t good enough. (Theirs was a complicated relationship.)
Graduating from college at 17, he tried various jobs–including selling insurance and teaching high school–then became a newspaper reporter in Baltimore. Drafted into World War I, he was stationed in France, where he wrote for his division’s newspaper.
Coming home, he resumed his work as a reporter, but eventually moved to New York as a protégé of H.L. Mencken, contributing to the iconic writer-editor’s magazine, The American Mercury. Cain also worked for famed newspaperman Walter Lippmann, penning editorials for the New York World.
In a 1929 piece about “talking pictures,” Cain wrote, “If you’ve seen one crime movie, you’ve seen them all, and you haven’t seen very much at that.”
Still, like many literary giants of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, Cain allowed himself to be lured to Hollywood. Once he got there, and was assigned a cubicle at Paramount Pictures in the writers’ building, he discovered the studio knew nothing about his background. His first assignment: a rewrite of The Ten Commandments, which Cecil B. De Mille had produced and directed as a silent in 1923.
It was a car trip to a tourist attraction that triggered the short story that would become the basis for the first adaptation of a Cain work. Located in Thousand Oaks, California, the Goebels Lion Farm was run by a veteran animal trainer who leased his four-legged attractions to the movies. Awed by the jungle cats, Cain authored The Baby in the Icebox, about a husband who sics a hungry tiger on his wife. It ran in the January 1933 issue of American Mercury.
The film version, called She Made Her Bed, was strictly ho-hum. One critic thought that the eight-month-old baby who co-starred – the son of leading man Dick Arlen – gave the best performance.
Then came Cain’s discovery that a woman he had seen working at a gas station had been accused of murdering her husband. That triggered an idea for a novel. And, what a novel! It was published in 1934. Cain was 42.
The Postman Always Rings Twice opens with one of the most oft-quoted lines in crime fiction: “They threw me off the hay truck around noon.”
Narrated by drifter Frank Chambers–a then-daring move, since the character would go on to commit murder–the book doesn’t waste any time. Chambers ambles into the Twin Oaks Tavern, a “roadside sandwich joint,” to get a meal. He spies Cora Papadakis, unhappy wife of the owner. She’s not traditionally beautiful, but, notes Chambers, “she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”
When the lip-lock takes place–within the first dozen pages–she cries “Bite me! Bite me!”
Chambers complies. “I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.”
And then they team to knock off the husband.
Critics turned handstands. “The story is written like a streak of lightning. A hot adrenalin fluid shoots through its pages,” enthused one San Francisco reviewer, who wondered if the book would leave Dashiell Hammett green with envy.
The breathless coverage led to Postman’s purchase by MGM, for a then-startling $25,000. In breaking the news, a Hollywood columnist predicted the film would never be made, because the powerful Hays Office, overseeing the industry’s required self-censorship, had already deemed the book unfilmable due to its lurid storyline.
The prediction was accurate. Postman sat on the shelf at MGM for nearly 10 years. Meantime, Cain adapted it himself in 1936 as a Broadway play. To help finance the project, he wrote and sold another story of illicit love, murder, and betrayal, which ran in eight installments in Liberty Magazine: Double Indemnity.
It wasn’t until five years later that Double Indemnity was published as a novella. By this time, at least three films based on Cain’s writings had come and gone without fanfare and devoid of what his readers had come to expect from him. Wife, Husband and Friend, a 1939 romantic comedy, showcased Cain’s love of opera. When Tomorrow Comes, released the same year, reunited Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer (they’d starred in Love Affair) in what the Los Angeles Times called “a pensive and sacrificial love story.” The 1940 Money and the Woman had B-players in a tale of embezzlement.
When Double Indemnity first made the studio rounds it was expected to fetch a high price (akin to Postman’s) for the film rights. But the Hays office quashed any prospective deals, saying the project couldn’t be filmed because it was “a blueprint for murder.”
The plot mines the notorious real life 1920s-era Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray case. Lovers, they conspired to knock off her heavily-insured husband. The couple later turned on each other. Sentenced to death, both died in the electric chair.
In Cain’s take on the story, insurance adjuster Walter Huff meets sultry Los Angeles housewife Phyllis Nirdlinger, who seduces him into killing her husband. The death must look accidental, in order for her to receive the insurance pay-off. But, Huff’s mentor, claims manager Barton Keyes, suspects something is amiss.
When director Billy Wilder was putting together his film version for Paramount (after the Hays Office eased up on its concerns), Cain was under contract to another studio, and unavailable to adapt his own work. So Wilder brought in that other crime king, Raymond Chandler, to collaborate on the script. Wilder and Chandler didn’t get along, but their teaming resulted in a classic–a film that has long been celebrated as the first film noir.
Starring Fred MacMurray (playing against type), Barbara Stanwyck (in a severe blonde wig) and Edward G. Robinson as the tenacious investigator, the picture bucked the era’s standards by giving a blow-by-blow account of the commission of a crime.
It also broke with convention by opening with MacMurray’s character speaking into a Dictaphone, saying, “I have killed a man.” After letting the audience know right up front whodunit, the film flashes back for the why.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Double Indemnity is the only adaptation of his work that earned Cain’s approval.
It was the first of a three-punch Cain combination.
Next came Mildred Pierce, Warner Bros.’ 1945 adaptation of Cain’s 1941 book about psychological battles between mother and daughter and the men in their lives.
Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) added a murder. The crime–and subsequent punishment–were a necessity; the era’s censors required villains, and villainesses, to face justice.
The noirish melodrama was another hit, with Joan Crawford winning a Best Actress Oscar in the title role. As her heinous daughter Veda, the memorable Ann Blyth earned a Best Supporting Actress nod.
In 1946 The Postman Always Rings Twice at last made it to the screen. There had already been a French version, 1939’s Le Dernier Tournant (aka The Last Turning) and the Italian Ossessione (aka Obsession), made in 1943. (Both were unauthorized.) And Albert Camus had cited the novel as inspiration for his existential work, The Stranger.
The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote that the picture gave its leads the best roles of their careers, adding, “The build-up of incident and character has the rhythm of a throttled-down machine, and the moments of cold, deliberate violence suddenly burst with accelerated force.”
Audiences loved it. Predictably, Cain didn’t.
The author left Hollywood in 1950, accompanied by his fourth wife, opera singer Florence Macbeth. (Cain had arrived in Hollywood with wife number two. After a divorce, he married veteran actress Aileen Pringle. That union lasted two years. Then he wed Macbeth.) The Cains moved to University Park, Maryland, where he worked on a Civil War opus.
Hollywood, meantime, butchered several of his novels – most notably Cain’s audacious
Serenade. Published in 1937, it was matter-of-fact with its murky saga of a tenor who’s lost his ability to sing, who meets and has an affair with a prostitute in Mexico. Regaining his voice, he returns with her to the United States–where she and his male lover vie for his affection. The 1956 film version, starring Mario Lanza, skipped the homosexuality.
Following the death of his spouse in 1966, Cain–who was childless–continued writing from the couple’s small, rundown house. He’d been forgotten by Hollywood and, it seemed, just about everyone else.
“It was kind of sad,” says biographer Madden, who stayed in contact with Cain over the years. “He didn’t complain, but you could tell he was lonely.”
Madden remembered the imprinted stationary Cain used: along with his phone number were the words, “Station to Station does it–I’m the only one here.”
In a 1969 Washington Post interview, Cain, then 76, confessed that his Hollywood days were drenched in drink. Neighbors had been looking in on him since his wife’s death. Their little dog was a frequent visitor. “Skippy is a barker. The postman never even rings once at Jim Cain’s,” wrote reporter John Carmody. “Jim Cain meets him out on the sidewalk.”
A year later came a surprising burst of attention–following the publication of Cain x 3, a collection of Postman, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity, and a rave from Ross Macdonald in the New York Times Book Review. “For 20 years they all forgot about me and now they’re calling up for interviews,” Cain commented wryly to the Baltimore Sun. Photographed holding the dog from next door, he talked about his knack for writing vernacular, his failings as a screenwriter (“I was no good [at it]”) and the uncertainties that beset every writer. Of his historical novel, Mignon, set during the Civil War, he said, “I worked harder on that than anything else I’ve done. It took me 10 years and nobody liked it. You never know.”
He died of a heart attack in 1977 at age 85, missing out on a 1980s Cain Hollywood revival that included an okay remake of Postman starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, and a serious stinker, The Butterfly, with Pia Zadora. As an homage, the erotic thriller Body Heat liberally borrowed from Double Indemnity.
Today his writings continue to be adapted and remade. A 2011 Mildred Pierce mini-series for HBO starred Kate Winslet.
Cainesque works abound, from the films of the Coen Brothers to the writings of Laura Lippman, his influence remains white-hot. Did we mention that The Postman Always Rings Twice is included in the prestigious Modern Library’s listing of the top 100 Novels?
Cain’s final work, the long-lost novel The Cocktail Waitress, was published in 2012 following an investigative quest carried out by Charles Ardai, editor for the publishing imprint Hard Case Crime. Stephen King provided a blurb, calling it “A true rarity. A reader’s novel that is also a literary event.” In his review in the New York Times, Michael Connelly was more circumspect: “The book is not vintage Cain, but it is Cain nevertheless, and that makes it a worthwhile read.”
Told in the first person, The Cocktail Waitress finds its femme fatale protagonist coming to the grim realization that what she’s been aspiring for is within reach: “And then at last I began to realize how terrible a thing it was, the dream that you make come true.” It was a recurring Cain theme.
As Cain once put it, “I write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination … I think my stories have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box.”
Once Hollywood got inside those boxes, Cain’s legend was enshrined.
Interviewers often asked Cain what he thought about what Hollywood had done to his novels: “I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right up there, on the shelf.”
Like a plot twist straight out of … well, Cain, his relationship with Hollywood came to an ironic ending–symbolized by those long and inescapable shadows cast by the film versions of his most famous works.