Tuesday, March 9, 2010

From a Personal Film Library 6


He was one of those hard boiled writers who were invariably in our back pockets. The paperback revolution of the late thirties brought edification and entertainment at an affordable price. And it brought us Cornell Woolrich, W.R. Burnett, and James M. Cain.

We were working class boys and we knew about Woolrich long before Truffaut did, and about Burnett long before the academics. And when we talked about Cain it was about The Moth, or The Butterfly, about Double Indemnity, or the offbeat Serenade. And, of course, we read about that postman who always rang twice: Cain’s oblique take on the Appointment in Samarra theme. Postman was published the year I was born.

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon” has led to four filmed manifestations; I have seen three. The Visconti, Garnett and Rafelson versions are well known. Segments of Pierre Chenal’s elusive Le Dernier Tournant (1939) appear on You Tube, but without subtitles. In 1936, Postman rang once on Broadway, ran for 72 performances and left town. (Richard Barthelmess as Frank Chambers could not have helped.)

But Cain wore other hats, one of which was that of a human interest writer for The New York World. He contributed to diverse publications throughout his life and wrote about people, about animals and about food. The James M. Cain Cookbook provides a sampling. I guess you could say he taught Mildred Pierce how to cook.


  1. Fascinating; I had no idea that Cain had those other professional sides to him. In Britain we tend to think of him as Chandler's poor cousin, or a kind of pulp Hemingway: this reminds me just how unfair that is.

  2. Matthew:

    It has been much the same over here, particularly in academe. Chandler and Hammett reign and with good reason, but that should not diminish the contributions of the others.
    I think the late Julian Symons on “Postman” (in “Bloody Murder”) has it right saying it is a “taut tart tale of sex and money told with an absolute concentration on the bare, relevant material of crime.”

    I really like Symons’s books (although I suspect we might have been at odds over other matters). My wife gave a speech at a seminar once and mentioned that three of her favorite authors were Julian Symons, Graham Greene, and John Buchan. Symons read the speech and sent her a gift of one of his scarcer books saying he appreciated being mentioned in that company. Our Symons collection includes his manuscript for “The Blackheath Poisonings.” It was televised for Masterpiece Theatre to a mixed reception. I have not watched it in years.