Archive for James M Cain

Grease Monkey Business

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2012 by dcairns

The Coen Brothers, back when BLOOD Simple was new, were asked about modern noir and in particular the new version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. Not yet having learned the form of good manners that seems to prevail in the film industry, whereby filmmakers rarely badmouth each others’ work (in this, as much else, Ken Russell was un vrai enfant terrible), they remarked that Pauline Kael’s criticism of the film seemed to them dead right.

Kael had basically said that the scene in James M. Cain’s book when a man is murdered just as he sings out into a valley, and his voice echoes back after his death to alarm his murderer, was pure cinema, and that nobody with an ounce of cinematic sense could possibly omit it from a movie adaptation. Now, Bob Rafelson, that film’s director, showed considerable cinematic sense, or at least flair, in his work –

But he must bear some responsibility for leaving out that compelling detail, and for truncating the book’s grimly ironic ending. (Though in fairness, his film delivers on some other key moments.) But if we have to point the finger of blame, I’d sooner point it at David Mamet, who does seem to me to display an anti-cinematic impulse in nearly everything he touches. An exception can be made for THE UNTOUCHABLES, where Mamet’s speechifying and DePalma’s showy excess hold each other in a kind of goofy equilibrium.

Anyhow, both Cain’s murder scene and his ending are intact in the FIRST version of Postman, which might not be the version you’re thinking of. Check it out at The Forgotten.

Super Mario

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2010 by dcairns

Familiar to me mainly by reputation and from his appearance as a clay character in Peter Jackson’s HEAVENLY CREATURES, Mario Lanza made a late attempt at a comeback for Anthony Mann with SERENADE, loosely based on a novel by James M Cain. It’s quite an odd piece of work.

The early, rags-to-riches stuff lacks pep, and Lanza at this stage makes an unconvincing boyish youth. He plays an aspiring opera singer taken under the wing of society vampire Joan Fontaine (always satisfying in wicked mode). We meet her as she’s dumping a prizefighter, and she duly walks out on poor Mario as he makes his debut in Otello — rather than inspiring him to greater heights of conviction in the role, her absence causes him to wobble out of the theatre altogether, mid-performance. Finding her apartment empty, Mario learns she’s absconded with an up-and-coming sculptor, and claws her face off

(About two minutes in.)

When it comes to playing fraught human wreckage, Mario is unexpectedly adept, and we can forget his age now as he convincingly gives us a singer who has lost his voice, his self-belief and his reason to live. Resuscitated down Mexico way by the love of beautiful Sarita Montiel, he attempts to climb back to the top, but Fontaine is waiting for him.

The small crowd of screenwriters employed on this seem to have pulled off miracles of bowdlerisation, transforming Fontaine’s character from a gay man to a predatory society dame, and Montiel’s from a prostitute to a matador’s daughter. Montiel’s characterisation of Fontaine as “degenerate” seems like a hangover from the source book.

Homosexuality, ejected from the servant’s entrance, crashes through every window and floods down the chimney. Vincent Price plays Fontaine’s campy pal with sneering relish (but he’s actually kind of nice, underneath it all), and he gets absolutely all the good lines. The heroine who straightens Mario out (a touch inconclusively, as in the book) likes to drag up in her dead dad’s toreador duds, and assumes bullfighter stance to threaten her rival with a sword at a swank New York cocktail party (I never seem to get invited to parties like that). The silliness is augmented by other melodramatic contrivances — it seemed capricious of God to send a thunderbolt to make Mario and Sara stay together, only to send a bus to knock her down a few days later…

Cigar-smoking Sara Montiel likes to claim she was the love of Lanza’s life, though she was married to Mann… Rather than firming up A.M.’s rep for heterosexuality, this union may undermine it: “If he were Spanish, marrying Sara Montiel would be like marrying Judy Garland,” observes David Wingrove, Shadowplay informant.

Mann seems much more excited by the psychological mayhem and tense confrontations of the second half, although his enthusiasm comes and goes. Lanza fans will appreciate the large quantity of loud singing laid on for our enjoyment, and I appreciated it too whenever it synched with a valid plot motivation, which admittedly was about 75% of the time. With its two-part structure, use of San Francisco as a major location, broken-down hero, and hispanic influence, the movie seems at times like a faint pre-echo of VERTIGO, a film still waiting to be born at this point.

“And then I saw her…”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2010 by dcairns

“And then I saw her, coming out of the sun…”

“She waited until it was late… then she walked in, out of the moonlight…”

“…and then I saw her, walking up the road in the headlights…”

OUT OF THE PAST is as near to a perfect film as I can conceive of. Screenplay is credited to Geoffrey Homes, from his novel Build My Gallows High. Homes was really Daniel Mainwaring, who has a slew of credits but nothing that even hints at the excellence of this. I’d like to read his book though. I hear his femme fatale is called Mumsy McGonagall or something though, which doesn’t quite have the soft allure of Cathy Moffat, Jane Greer’s character name in the movie.

Uncredited work was also done by Frank Fenton, who started in England with, among other things, an awful travesty of PG Wodehouse called STEP LIVELY, JEEVES! (where there’s no Bertie Wooster and Jeeves is an idiot) but went on to some reasonable credits including HIS KIND OF WOMAN and RIVER OF NO RETURN. But they have none of the epigrammatic wiz of OOTP’s dialogue. (“I hate surprises, myself.”)

An uncredited James M Cain must surely be responsible for the injection of genius, including, I suspect, the series of entrances from the light by Cathy, which form a kind of refrain. If the other writers managed to get lines in there, by some remarkable alchemy, all the good lines have been preserved and no bad lines taken their  place. Homes can perhaps be credited with the unusual structure, which redeems the stock noir elements by reconfiguring them in an odd shape. How stock are they? Well, Mitchum’s man on a run is discovered working in a gas station by a hood who enters a diner, exactly like in THE KILLERS. There’s no reason why Mitchum, a man on the run and a former private eye, should be able to start a new life as a car mechanic. Where did he get the skills? But it works symbolically — the garage is a little bit of urban grime transported to rural small-town America, so it’s the place where he fits in. (The third “start a new life in a garage” movie is LOST HIGHWAY, where Bill Pullman literally regenerates and rejuvenates from a felon into a grease monkey.)

This particular cliché is amusing and odd, and it isn’t by any means overused (I think Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT trots it out again though, and there may be others — do you know of any?) and as I say, the film’s crazy structure stops any feeling of over-familiarity. In addition to the rural and Mexican idylls, which add an unfamiliar feeling, and the fact that no private eye hero ever fell down on the job as badly as Mitch does here, we have this strange shape: leisurely intro in small town, flashback that eats up half of act one, taking in the first job Mitchum undertakes,the Mexican romance, and a time-lapse leading up to the first murder, then we come out of the flashback at the halfway mark and we get the second job, in San Francisco with a whole new plot and femme fatale (flaming Rhonda Fleming), and then our third act with climax bringing us full circle to the countryside and the original characters. Impressively, it follows the standard proportions of the Hollywood drama without giving you that familiar feeling of knowing where you are in the story.

Plus director Jacques Tourneur, among a hundred thousand felicities, offers this shot –

“The kid” played by Dickie Moore, is a very cool character. Here, the shot is beautiful in itself, and part of its beauty comes from the long lens which softens the background, but also gives us the sense of observing from a distance with Mitchum. It feels very modern when you see it in action.

But ultimately, what’s beautiful about this film goes beyond what can be expressed by talking about individual elements — Tourneur never had such strong material before or since, though I am second to none in my admiration of CAT PEOPLE, NIGHTFALL, NIGHT OF THE DEMON et al. This is the one where his poetic sensitivity rebounded off the material in THE most beautiful way.

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