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James M(allahan) Cain (1892-1977)

 

American journalist, screenwriter, and novelist, identified with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and others as a central member of hard-boiled school of crime fiction. However, James M. Cain's own opinion was "I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise". Three of Cain's novels - The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), which captured the downbeat atmosphere of the Depression, Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941) - were also made into classics of the American screen. His books continued to appear after World War II, but none gained the success of his earlier work. By his own admission, Cain considered himself first and foremost a journalist.

"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." (Cain in preface to Double Indemnity)

James Mallahan Cain was born in Annapolis, Maryland, the son of James W. Cain, a distinguished educator, and Rose Cain, an opera singer. In 1903 the family moved to Chesterton, where his father served as President of Washington College. Cain attended the same college, earning his B.A. at the age of eighteen, and masters in 1917.

For a period, Cain worked as a clerk, a meat-packer, a singer, and a teacher of English at the College's prep school. As a result of this stint, he became an expert on grammar and punctuation. In his spare time he wrote stories, sending them off to magazines, and getting all of them back. During the last year of World War I he served in the U.S. Army as the editor of the 79th Division newspaper Lorraine Cross in France. Decades later he returned to his war experiences in the short story 'Taking of Mountfaucon'. "And what we was walking over was all shell holes and barbed wire, and you was always slipping down and busting your shin, and then all them dead horses and things was laying around, and you didn't never see one till you had your foot in it, and then it made you sick. And dead men. The first one we seen was in a trench, kind of laying up against the side, what was on a slant. And he was sighting down his gun just like he was getting ready to pull the trigger, and when you come to him you opened your mouth to beg his pardon for bothering him. And then you didn't."

After the war Cain was employed by the Baltimore American (1917-18) as a police reporter, and then by The Baltimore Sun (1919-23), where he covered political and industrial strife in the West Virginia. His reporting of the trial of William Blizzard, a young coal miner, gained national recognition. Blizzard was being tried for his role in miner's rebellion. Cain's work was noticed by the editors of The Atlantic Monthly and H.L. Mencken of the Sun newspapers.  In spite of Mencken discouragement, Cain took a leave of absence from The Sun, and spent some time trying to write his Great American Novel, which revolved around a taboo subject, incest.

From 1923 to 1924 Cain was Professor of Journalism at St. John's College, Annapolis. After two semesters Cain lost his job in a dispute with the president of St. John's. In addition, his marriage came apart and he was confined for a period to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Sabillasville, Maryland. In 1924 he became the editorial writer for the New York World under Walter Lippmann (1889-1974). Cain conducted a column which formed the basis for Our Government (1930), a sharp analysis of the American policy.

In 1928 H.L. Mencken, Cain's mentor and friend, whom he met while working for the Baltimore American, published in American Mercury his story 'Pastorale'. Menken called Cain "the most competent writer the country ever produced". Following the end of the New York World, where Cain wrote acclaimed editorials, he joined in 1931 New Yorker staff. However, he found the environment uncongenial and moved to Hollywood after Paramount Studios offered him $400 a week, compared to the $200 he made at the New Yorker. "... there was a bit of a gap between what went on in his mind and what came out of his mouth," Cain said of Harold Ross, the editor and founder of the magazine. B.A. Bergman, who worked for the Hearst syndicate, hired him to write a regular column for $85-a-week, but Hearst did not like Cain and forced Bergman to discontinue the column. Virtually it meant that his career as a journalist came to a halt. It was not until his 80s, when Cain started writing articles again for The Washington Post.

From 1932 to 1947 Cain lived in Southern California writing for films, although his original contract at Paramount lasted only six months. In Hollywood Cain was never hailed as a great screenwriter but he was know for his wickedly sharp ear for dialogue. Raymond Chandler called him "a Proust in greasy overalls". His short stories were published in such magazines as the American Mercury, Redbook, Esquire, and Ladies' Home Journal. Several of these pieces were collected in The Baby in the Icebox (1981).

Cain secured writing credit only on three films. His most important works, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, were adapted for the screen by other writers. Cain's style was sparse, and he believed that it was the way novels should be written at the time of the Depression. Disgusted by Hollywood's treatment of writers, he launched a campaign with the left wing of the Screen Writers Guild to set up American Authors' Authority to protect the copyrights of all writers and to seek better deals with the studios. Though Cain had been little interested in social criticism, at least in his novels, this society was denounced as a bureaucratic and Stalinist threat by James T. Farrell, who had been active in the Trotskyist movement.

The original title of The Postman Always Rings Twice was Bar-B-Q, but Cain's publisher, Alfred Knopf, disliked it – there was no postman in the story; it was an eternal triangle drama with a femme fatale, foolish husband and a greedy lover. The protagonist is a California drifter, Frank Chambers, who falls in love with Cora Papadakis, the wife of a diner owner. "Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn't any ravaging beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips struck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her." Frank and Cora murder the husband and make his death look like accident. Cora dies in a car crash and ironically Frank is convicted of murder for her accidental death. The book, which was based loosely on an actual case, was daring enough to be banned in Canada and Boston, and to arise a trial for obscenity. A Broadway version was closed after 72 performances in 1936.

Luchino Visconti's unauthorized adaptation of the novel, entitled Ossessione (1942), was his first film as a director. Visconti had been assistant director on three of Jean Renoir's production's, and the camera style of the French director can be seen in this film, too. Made while Mussolini was still in power, Ossessione's world of gloom and corruption was banned by the censors. Morever, there was the copyright problem, and the film was not exhibited outside Italy until 1958, when it was revived and recognized as a precurser of Italian Neo-Realism.

Lana Turner played Cora in Tay Garnett's film version from 1946. The screenplay was written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch. Cain was impressed with Turner's performance, saying it was even finer than he had expected. The 1981 remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange was more faithful to the book than Garnett's adaptation. Nicholson did not soften his character, Frank. "He's a sadist who solves every problem with violence," Nicholson once said in an interview. "I don't particularly want a guy who murders a man the fucks his wife on top of her husband's body to be all that charming." The sex scenes arose much attention in the United States, where the film was dismissed by the critics and failed at the box office, but in other countries it was a hit.

Double Indemnity, a tale of an adulterous couple who try to commit the perfect insurance murder, appeared in abridged form as an eight-part serial in Liberty (1936) magazine. Cain used some detail for his work from the 1927 Snyder/Gray murder case. Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, a corset-salesman, murdered Albert Snyder - they used window-sash weight, chloroform, and picture wire. The murder weapons attracted much attention when they were put on display at the New York Police Academy. In Cain's story Phyllis Nirdlinger seduces Walter Huff, a salesman with General Fidelity in Los Angeles. Her husband signs his policy application and Walter kills him, but stages it as suicide. Walter's boss Keyes has his own suspicions about the whole matter. Walter finds Nirdlinger's daughter Lola attractive and plans to shoot Phyllis, but she tries to get him first. Lola and her boyfriend are blamed. Walter confesses all to Keyes, who secretly arranges them on the same cruise, where he expects they will kill each other. Huff, like Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, is caught in a trap by sex and violence. The story was filmed by Billy Wilder, who hired Raymond Chandler to write the script. Cain also participated in story conference and wrote: "A young guy named Joe Sistrom was Paramount's producer on the picture... He sat there unhappily in a sulk and then suddenly said, "All characters in B pictures are too smart." I never forgot it. It was a curious observation, putting into words – vivid, rememberable words – a principle that when a character is too smart, convenient to the author's purposes, everything begins getting awfully slack in the story, and slick. Slack is one fault and slick is another. Both are bad faults in a story." (in On Sunset Boulevard by Ed Sikov, 1998)

Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder (1944), starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, screenplay by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, cinematographer John F. Seitz. Wilder first offered the role of corrupt insurance man to Alan Ladd and George Raft. The director signed Raymond Chandler to write the screenplay for him. Charles Brackett with whom he had worked earlier, did not want to touch the book. Chandler altered the story, changed names, and used flashback. "...Cain's dialogue in his fiction in written to the eye," Chadler explained. "Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's dialogue it in the same spirit as he has in the book, and not the identically same words." Cain's comment was generous: "It's the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder's ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story by taking out the office dictating machine – I would have done it if I had thought of it. There are situations in the movie that can make your hands get wet." (On Sunset Boulevard by Ed Sikov, 1998) In the original ending to the film, MacMurray is convicted for murder and Robinson witnesses his death at a gas chamber in San Quentin. The game between a self-assured male protagonist and a cunning woman has inspired such directors as Robert Siodmark (The Killers, 1946), Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, 1947), and Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, 1981).

Cain's novel Mildred Pierce was also filmed, and won an Oscar for Joan Crawford. Cain's book centered on a ambitious career woman, who loses her wealth through the intrigues of her ex-husband, her partner, and selfish daughter. The story is told in a third-person narration, but Cain later confessed that it did not suit him - his book did not have the right bite. The protagonist is portrayed mostly in sympathetic light in spite of her hard character. Michael Curtiz's film adaptation from 1945 is essentially a film noire, "where it's a woman, Crawford, rather than a man, who is led by a greedy, manipulative, evil femme fatale – in this case, the woman's daughter, Blyth – down a fatalistic path of deception, money for greedy people, murder, and doom (only here an optimistic ending is added)." (Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic, 1986)

Love was a constant source of troubles in Cain's novels and his personal life from the beginning of his career. His divorces cost much money and he had occasionally difficulties in paying the bills. When the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst made it known that he did not like Cain, that source of income was cut off. It was not until in his 80s, when Cain began writing articles again for The Washington Post.

Cain's marriage in 1920 to Mary Rebecca Clough, his childhood sweetheart who worked as a teacher, dissolved three years later. He then married in 1927 Elina Sjösted Tyszecka, whom he had met by accident in New York one night. She was of Finnish origin and had two children from her previous marriage. Cain fell for her wildly, "on basis of a pretty face and Finnish gravity," as he recalled. "She had a beautiful mind – sardonic, ironic, and sometimes almost savage in its comprehensions of basic things. That helped a lot with the kind writing I did."  They divorced in 1942, but Cain had a very positive relationship with the children. Cain's third wife (1944-1945) was Aileen Pringle, a silent-screen star, who was acquainted with Mencken. "A very amusing move gal," he had called her. After divorce Cain married in 1947 the opera singer Florence Macbeth Whitwell (died, 1966). Leaving California, they settled in Hyattsville, Maryland, where Cain remained for the rest of his life.

Cain's works from the late 1940s onward include Butterfly (1947), a story of incest, illegitimacies, and murder in Kentucky, The Moth (1948), his personal favorite set in Baltimore, and historical novels Past All Hishonor (1946), and Mignon (1965), set in the years after the Civil War. While not writing, Cain occupied himself with the study of Shakespeare's sonnets and classical music. He had dreamed in his youth of becoming a singer, but his mother had told him that that he did not have a grand opera voice nor the temperament needed. In 1970 Cain was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. James M.Cain died of a heart attack on October 27, 1977, in University Park, Maryland.

Shortly before his death, Cain finished the novel The Coctail Waitress, which was not published until 2012. The narrator is a newly widowed woman, who, to pay the bills, takes a job as a waitress. She becomes the object of desire of two very different men, an old widower, whom she marries, and a young dreamer, whom she cannot resist. To clear her name of accusations of being a femme fatale who knew ways of murdering a husband without a shred of evidence, she tells her own story. The published novel was drawn together by the editor Charles Ardai from multiple manuscripts. "This book is not vintage Cain, but it is Cain nevertheless, and that makes it a worthwhile read," said Michael Connelly in his review (The New York Times, September 21, 2012).  

Cain generally preferred a first-person narrator, avoided moralizing, and his characters were often self-destructive, or used by stronger women. Many stories were set in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb. An admirer of the short-story writer and sports reporter Ring Lardner, he imitated Lardner's style in 'Icebox' (1933), which made into a film undder the title She Made Her Bed. In France Cain was regarded as one of the most important American writers. The Postman Always Rings Twice is said to have inspired Albert Camus' existential novel The Outsider. Noteworthy, Raymond Chandler was not very enthusiastic about Cain and wrote (unjustifiably) to his publisher: "James Cain – faugh! Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naix, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way."

For further reading: Literature and Morality by J.T. Farrell (1947); Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, ed. by David Madden; see: Joyce Carol Oates (1968); Cain by David Madden (1970); 'Double Indemnity: A Policy That Paid Off' by John Allyn, in Literature/Film Quarterly, 6:2 (1978); Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain by Roy Hoopes (1982); 'James M. Cain: Playwright and Novelist – In That Order', in 60 Years of Journalism by James M. Cain, ed. by Roy Hoopes (1985); Cain by R. Hoopes (1987); James M. Cain by P. Skenazy (1989); The Crime Novel by T. Hilfer (1990); On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 2oth Century, Vol 1., ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); James M. Cain: Hard-Boiled Mythmaker by David Madden and Kristopher Mecholsky (2011)

Selected bibliography:

  • 79th Division Headquarters Troop: A Record, 1919 (with Malcolm Gilbert)
  • Crashing the Pearly Gates, 1926 (play)
  • Theological Interlude, 1928-29 (play, in American Mercury)
  • Citizenship, 1928-29 (play)
  • Our Government, 1930 (play)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1934
    - Vahinko kello kaulassa (suom. Eero Huhtala, 1979) / Postimies soittaa aina kahdesti (suom. Eero Huhtala, 1990)
    - Films: Le Dernier tournant / The Last Turning (1939), dir. Pierre Chenal, starring Fernand Gravey, Michel Simon, Florence Marly; Ossessione (1943), dir. Luchino Visconti, starring Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, Dhia Cristiani; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), dir. Tay Garnett, screenplay by Harry Ruskin, Niven Busch, starring Lana Turner, John Garfield; The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), dir. Bob Rafaelson, written by David Mamet, starring Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange; Szenvedély (1988), dir. György Fehér, starring Ildikó Bánsági, Djoko Rosic, János Derzsi; Buai laju-laju (2004), dir. U-Wei Haji Saari, starring Eman Manan, Khalid Salleh, Betty Banafe; Jerichow (2008), dir. Christian Petzold, starring Nina Hoss, Hilmi Sözer, André M. Hennicke. SEE ALSO other classical depiction of the end of the American dream in the 1930s: They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1935), based on the novel by Horace McCoy.
  • Double Indemnity, 1936
    - Nainen ilman omatuntoa (suom. Heikki Salojärvi, 1982) / Kaksinkertainen korvaus: kolmiosainen jännityskuunnelma (radio play, suom. Timo Kanerva, 1994)
    - Films: Double Indemnity (1944), prod. Paramount Pictures, dir.  Billy Wilder, written by Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson; Double Indemnity (1954, in Lux Video Theatre), dir. Buzz Kulik, starring Laraine Day and Frank Lovejoy; Double Indemnity (1960, episode in ITV Play of the Week), dir. Cliff Owen, starring Loretta Baker, Shirley Butler and Doreen Cannon; Double Indemnity (1973, TV movie), dir. Jack Smight, starring Richard Crenna, Lee J. Cobb and Samantha Eggar  
  • Serenade, 1937
    - Film: Serenade (1956), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by Anthony Mann, starring Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine, Vincent Price
  • Algiers, 1938 (additional dialogue, based on the novel of Henri La Barthe)
    - Prod. Walter Wanger Productions, dir. by
    John Cromwell, starring Charles Boyer (as Pepe le Moko), Hedy Lamarr, Sigrid Gurie
  • Blockade, 1938 (additional dialogue)
    - Prod. Walter Wanger Productions, dir. by
    William Dieterle, starring Henry Fonda, Madeleine Carroll, Leo Carrillo
  • Stand Up and Fight, 1939 (screenplay, with Jane Murfin, Harvey Fergusson, Laurence Stallings/uncredited additional dialogue)
    - Prod. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), story: Forbes Parkhill, dir. by
    W.S. Van Dyke, starring Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Florence Rice
  • Mildred Pierce, 1941
    - Films: Mildred Pierce (1945), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, screenplay Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner/uncredited, Catherine Turney/uncredited, dir. by Michael Curtiz, starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson and Zachary Scott; Mildred Pierce (1956, in Lux Video Theatrer), dir. Norman Morgan, starring Virginia Bruce, Patric Knowles, Zachary Scott; Mildred Pierce (2011, TV mini-series), dir. Todd Haynes, with Kate Winslet (Milded Pierce), Brian F.O'Byrne, Melissa Leo, Morgan Turner
  • Love's Lovely Counterfeit, 1942 (in Three of Hearts,1949)
    - Film: Slightly Scarlet (1956), prod. Benedict Bogeaus Production, screenplay Robert Blees, dir. by Allan Dwan, starring John Payne, Rhonda Fleming, Arlene Dahl
  • The Embezzler, 1943
    - Film: Money and the Woman (1940), prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. by William K. Howard, screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr., starring Brenda Marshall, Jeffrey Lynn, John Litel
  • Career in C Major and Other Stories, 1943
    - Films: Wife, Husband and Friend (1939; story: 'Two Can Sing'), prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, screenplay Nunnally Johnson, dir. by Gregory Ratoff, starring Loretta Young, Cesar Romero, Warner Baxter, Binnie Barnes; Everybody Does It (1949; story: 'Two Can Sing'), prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, screenplay Nunnally Johnson, dir. by Edmund Goulding, starring Paul Douglas, Linda Darnell, Celeste Holm, Charles Coburn
  • Gypsy Wildcat, 1944 (screenplay, with Joseph Hoffman, James P. Hogan, Gene Lewis)
    - Prod. Universal Pictures, story: Ralph Stock, dir.
    Roy William Neill, starring Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Peter Coe, Nigel Bruce
  • For Men Only: A Collection of Short Stories, 1944 (ed.)
  • Three of a Kind: Career in C Major, The Embezzler, Double Indemnity, 1944 (Career in C Major and The Embezzler published as Everybody Does It, 1949)
  • Past All Dishonour, 1946 (in Three of Hearts, 1949)
  • Sinful Woman, 1947 (with Jealous Woman, 1955)
  • The Butterfly, 1947 (in Three of Hearts, 1949)
    - Film: 1982, prod. Par-Par Films, screenplay Matt Cimber, John F. Goff, dir.  Matt Cimber, starring Stacy Keach, Pia Zadora, Orson Welles
  • The Moth, 1948
  • Three of Hearts, 1949
  • Jealous Woman, 1949
  • The Root of His Evil, 1951 (as Shameless, 1958)
  • Galatea, 1953
  • Mignon, 1965
  • The Magician's Wife, 1965
  • Cain x 3, 1969 (with a new introd. by Tom Wolfe)
  • Rainbow's End, 1975
  • The Institute 1976
  • The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction, 1981 (edited by Roy Hoopes)
    - Film: She Made Her Bed (1934; story: 'The Baby in the Ice-Box'), prod. Paramount Pictures, dir. by Ralph Murphy, starring Richard Arlen, Sally Eilers, Robert Armstrong
  • Cloud Nine, 1984
  • The Enchanted Isle, 1985
    - Film: Girl in the Cadillac (1995), prod. Overseas FilmGroup, screenplay John Warren, dir. by Lucas Platt, starring Erika Eleniak, William McNamara, Michael Lerner, Bud Cort
  • 60 Years of Journalism, 1985 (edited and with introductions by Roy Hoopes)
  • Career in C Major and Other Fiction, 1986 (edited and with introduction by Roy Hoopes)
  • The James M. Cain Cookbook, 1988
  • The Coctail Waitress, 2012 (afterword by Charles Ardai) 

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