Archive for James M Cain

The Chauffeur Always Honks Twice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by dcairns

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RETOUR DE MANIVELLE is a French adaptation of a James Hadley Chase novel — apart from changing a few names, esteemed scenarist Michel Audiard doesn’t seem to have Europeanized it much, even leaving rich drunk Peter Van Eyck’s Cadillac unchanged. Even in French, the origins of Chase’s story are obvious enough — the James M. Cain “love rack” structure, in which a wild love affair is used as motor for an escalating suspense thriller. But Chase has come up with some ideas of his own, including an insurance scam involving the triangle of unwanted husband, scheming wife and dopey hero which DOESN’T actually include a murder. That *is* unusual.

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Without getting into second act spoilers, I can say that Van Eyck devises an improbably scheme to torment his cheating wife — he blows his brains out, leaving a vast insurance policy which doesn’t come into effect until the following day, and which specifically excludes suicide, So, in order to claim, icy hotwife Michele Morgan and horny chauffeur Daniel Gelin have to conceal the death, preserve the body, and then fake the suicide to look like murder (no chance of making the bullet to the skull look like an accident). This is complicated by sweet young Michele Mercier and third-act detective inspector Bernard Blier, who is awfully good value. His smart working cop has a clever answer for every occasion, but is continually led up the garden path by all the manufactured evidence strewn in his way, with ultimately black irony. Gelin, who I mainly knew as the young lover in LA RONDE (and for being Maria Schneider’s estranged father), is very effective in  tougher role.

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But it’s Morgan’s film — she excels at coldbloodedness, as she always does, but what really chills the marrow is when she acts sweet — because she plays it so convincingly, despite our knowing it’s all fake. She could give Robin Wright lessons in House of Cards, which is saying a great deal. She’s accompanied by a sculpted torso, a gleaming reminder of how the men in her life have objectified her, and is able to make the character both terrifying and, in a feminist light, sympathetic or at least understandable.

Unfortunately, as far as I could tell the plot ceases to make sense in the third act. Given the improbable set-up (“We are not concerned with whether the thing WOULD be done, only if it COULD be done,” said fictional detective Dr. Gideon Fell), everything has been just about plausible until then, so it’s a shame. But it does deliver us into the right emotional place, which counts for plenty.

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Directed by Denis de la Patilliere, with some low-key sexual frankness, expressive use of depopulated frames and a relish for the white, palatial and underfurnished mansion where most of the intrigue takes place. He had a long life and career and was predictably loathed by the Nouvelle Vague.

 

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.

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