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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”