MEETING JAMES M. CAIN

I’ve a met few legendary people in my time…

Every weekend of my high school years, I used to drive across the Potomac to Washington DC and go to the movies, to the revival houses. There were a half dozen of them at least — The Circle, The Biograph, The Janus, The Outer Circle and The Inner Circle and The American Film Institute.

They used to show double and triple features of everything from the Marx Brothers to French New Wave, from Film Noir to Universal Horror. I didn’t have to wait to see them in film school. I saw them all, from Murnau to Milius, in the Rep houses. Sure the prints were bad and used to break with great regularity. But I saw them in a theater, with an audience, the way they were meant to be seen.th-9

 

The American Film Institute was in Kennedy Center in those days. It was a make-shift theater, all done up in orange as I recall, with the hoods and fenders of cars mounted on the walls for some reason. Within the steeply raked theater, I saw some of the greatest movie ever made.

 

And I met James M. Cain.

 

It was around 1975, and I was around seventeen. I’d read DOUBLE INDEMITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and MILDRED PIERCE and even BUTTERFLY, because I was, well, weird and I loved roman noir. Of course I’d read all of Hammett, most of Chandler and John D. MacDonald too.tumblr_mcqxhmU88X1rrnekqo1_1280

But Cain was different. For one thing, Cain didn’t write about private detectives. He wrote about ordinary people, caught up in crime and temptation, trapped in a web of their own making. For another thing, he was alive. And he lived in Maryland.th-5

 

So when the AFI scheduled a screening of DOUBLE INDEMNITY and said that Cain would be there in person, I had to go. I’d seen INDEMNITY before, of course, but never in a theater. And certainly never in the presence of the Master himself.

 

Under these circumstances, I saw the movie in a whole new light. The differences between the book and movie proved even more striking. The book is short and tight and almost a screenplay in itself, but Raymond Chandler did a marvelous job adapting it and making it even tighter. Chandler twisted the ending around completely, still having it make sense.

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When the film was over, Cain took the podium. He was old, only two years from his own death, but he was spry and surprisingly chipper. He said he’d never seen the film before. I don’t know if I believed him. He asked if anybody had any questions. I asked him what he thought of Raymond Chandler’s adaptation. He said he thought it was pretty good. Somebody else asked him if that framing device of Walter Neff (‘Walter Huff’ in the book) telling the whole tale into a dictograph (as he slowly bled to death) was in the book. He said, “It wasn’t, but it would have been if I’d thought of it.”

 

Marvelous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phoef Sutton

Phoef Sutton

Published novelist - living in South Pasadena, California with his wife Dawn and his daughters Skylar and Celia.
Phoef Sutton
  • Dwayne Epstein

    I love stories like this! Way to go, Phoef!

  • Douglas McEwan

    Fascinating. One hopes he was telling the truth, so that you WERE there when he saw it for the first time. Having read the book (I have this elderly hardcover book, minus its front cover, that I inherited from my dad, which contains Cain’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY, CAREER IN C MAJOR and THE EMBEZZLER), I believe the movie’s conclusion an improvement over the book’s. Contrariwise, my only major dissatisfaction with the Jack Nicholson version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (Which I’ve also read. So short that it’s barely a novella) is that it stops before the true ending. (The famous MGM version cleans it up, cools down the sexual heat – where is the book’s unforgettable scene where killing Cora’s husband gets them both so turned on that they have sex on the spot, right beside the corpse? – and replaces Mexican Cora with ultra-blonde non-actress mannequin Lana Turner, but it gets the ending right.)

    An experience like that is always unforgettable. For me, I once sat through REAR WINDOW, seated in front, two seats to the right, of Sir Alfred Hitchcock. I also once got to sit and talk, one-on-one, with Joseph Heller, whom I worship.

    In the book I wrote on classic monster movies, my essay on SON OF DRACULA, included this: “Kay is a piece of work, deliberately inviting Dracula to her home, feeding her own father to him, marrying him, and then asking her boyfriend to kill her husband. One wonders if she’s also taken out life insurance on Dracula from Fred MacMurray. If James M. Cain had ever written a Gothic, Kay Caldwell of Dark Oaks would have strutted in on long legs, elegantly displayed by a slit up the side of her form-fitting shroud.”

    • I love SON OF DRACULA.

      • Douglas McEwan

        I am fond of it. It’s bizarre: a plantation in the deep south where no one at all has a southern accent (But you have Frank Craven from OUR TOWN, the quintessential New Englander), and Cheney seems awfully well fed for a vampire, but it was also the first vampire movie to examine the idea that for some folks, becoming a vampire might not be too small a price to pay for eternal life.

        Curt Siodmak wrote it. He then recommended his brother Robert to direct it. His brother had been fired from Paramount for publicly referring to his work there as “Paramount Shit,” and was living on Curt’s sofa. His first day on the set, Robert fired his brother. No wonder SON OF DRACULA is, at root, the tale of two siblings, one nice and one not at all nice.