Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bite me, you nut: A descent into James M. Cain's world

The Postman Always Rings Twice is supposed to have shocked readers upon its publication in 1934, and Raymond Chandler famously wrote:
"James Cain … is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way."
To read Postman today, with Chandler’s assessment in mind, is to be thrown back to a time when readers could be shocked by bits like:
"I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers. … `Bite me! Bite me!'”
and
“Come here, before I sock you.”

“You nut.”
Passages like that require an act of imagination on the part of readers today, lest they induce ironic or condescending smiles. Does Cain’s narrative provide the ground for that imagination to take root? Possibly. (I’ve read just a few chapters.) Maybe the trouble with Cain is not, pace Chandler, that he was too dirty but rather that he was not dirty enough.

But Chandler and Hammett require no such imaginative leap; their best work remains as immediate as it was sixty, seventy, and eighty years ago. Same with the scant published work of the great Paul Cain. Why is this?

Though his name is often linked with Chandler’s, James M. Cain did not write for the pulps. Instead, he was a journalist and then a screenwriter, and, though I'm not up on my American magazines, it looks to me as if his short stories appeared not in pulp magazines like Black Mask, but rather in the slicks. Lacking a background in the pulps, did he have literary ambitions different from Hammett's, Chandlers's, or Paul Cain's? Could such a difference account for the occasional datedness of his prose?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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38 Comments:

Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

James Cain was a slumming High Catholic, which we don't see anymore. "Let's look out our window at the animalistic poor." Re-reading Postman you'll see a lot of racism against the Greek. And only animals have such demonic lust. Which explains all the animal imagry. OTOH, notice at the end of the first chapter of Postman, the two have become partners in MURDER. Now, look at the firts chapter, and see almost all of it is intense dialogue, with very little else. Oh, and the opening line of Postman triggered Camus to write The Outsider (aka The Stranger.) (I do think the European translation of the title is stronger than the American.)

August 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew Postman was said to have inspired Camus, but I didn't know it was the first line in particular. That line is the best thing in the book so far.

August 23, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Could such a difference account for the occasional datedness of his prose?

What accounts for the datedness of his prose is that it's over seventy years old and it's no more dated than Hammett's or Chandler's.

The Chandler comment you cite famously came in letter to his publisher. It was not intended for public consumption. He was talking behind Cain's back, not an activity that ever makes a man look good.

I think that letter was written in 1943, possibly when Chandler was stuck for four months in a little office with Billy Wilder having taken a big paycheck from Hollywood for adapting that 'offal of literature' called Double Indemnity. I suppose, one can forgive a writer who has begun to regret his decision to adapt another writer's work for hating that writer, especially when he'd rather be around the corner in Lucy's getting drunk.

August 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I did not intend the Chandler letter as an example of his prose style. Also, datedness of prose style is surely depends on who's doing the reading.

Hammett's characters will, of course, use expressions that speakers no longer use today. The difference for me is these will occur in incidental conversation. Rather than asking, "What did he look like?" for example, the Continental Op might ask, "What kind of looking man was he?"

With "The Postman ... " the datedness sticks out because it occurs in passages that are absolutely central to the book, or at least to the sexual frankness of it that were supposed to have been so shocking at the time.

Hammett may seem fresher because his dispassionate prose style is more in fashion today...except that I found Paul Cain's prose style similarly undated, and he was not quite so dispassionate.

August 23, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I haven't read it, but I bought a copy just last week (with an eye toward plugging the gaps in my noir collection). I can't wait.

August 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's the reason I'm reading "The Postman Always Rings Twice", to plug a gap in my crime-fiction education. I'll be interested in learning what you think of it, especially if you've read Hammett and Chandler.

August 23, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't really think Chandler's criticism is fair, and it smacks a bit of envy. I don't think his style is dated so much as it shows a sort of personal quirk or kink that mars his prose. It wouldn't keep me from reading more of him.

August 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll refrain from taking sides because I've read so much more of Chandler (and Hammett) than of Cain. I'm unsure that this notion of datedness in prose style is susceptible of systematic study or definition. But I very frequently find myself alert to the question when I read anything from the early or middle years of the last century.

Chandler's criticism of Cain may smack of prudishness rather than (or as well as) envy. Note his discussion of the pornographic pictures in The Big Sleep.

August 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Chandler was able to deal with Cain more temperately when the occasion called for it:

"A curious matter I'd like to call to your attention -- although you have probably been all through it with yourself -- is your dialogue. Nothing could be more natural and easy and to the point on paper, and yet it doesn't quite play. We tried it out [while writing the screenplay for Double Indemnity] by having a couple of actors do a scene right out of the book. It had a sort of remote effect that I was at a loss to understand. It came to me then that the effect of your written dialogue is only partly sound and sense. The rest of the effect is the appearance on the page. These unevenly shaped hunks of quick-moving speech hit the eye with a sort of explosive effect. You read the stuff in batches, not in individual speech and counterspeech. On the screen this is all lost, and the essential mildness of the phrasing shows up as lacking in sharpness. They tell me that is the difference between photographic dialogue and written dialogue. For the screen everything has to be sharpened and pointed and wherever possible elided.
"

August 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That was from a 1944 letter from Chandler to Cain forwarded to me by an off-blog commenter.

August 23, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

It is interesting, and I've noted it before, that dialogue that works well on the page isn't always effectively read aloud.

On a very tangential note, I just noticed on Martin Edward's blog that the book he's discussing, Murder at 23:10, was written in part by a man named Martin Guinness, whose cousin was engaged to Chandler at the time of his death. Such is the small world of the crime novel.

August 23, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I wanted to stay out of this one, but...

Chandler wasn't a prude. But he was a Victorian man. Unlike many of us today, Chandler saw a great difference between making love and fucking. Between human sexual desire--and its components of tenderness and sensitivity to the needs of one's partner--and animal lust. We can smirk at this sentimentality if we want to, but I think it goes a long way to explaining Chandler's thoughts, revealed in his fiction, on pornography and sex without gentleness and tenderness.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I have never studied that matter. Commentators often praise Hammett by noting that John Huston lifted much of his dialogue for The Maltese Falcon directly from the novel. I've read the book and seen the movie several times each, but I've never applied the sort of analysis Chandler brings to bear in his letter to Cain. To do so might be a worthwhile exercise.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: No need to stay out of this one. We could all learn something about Victorians. Expose a Victorian to pornography, and I'd expect shock. But Chandler has Marlowe react with disgust, even revulsion. The possibility that a human being could know what he was looking at yet still be repulsed by it is not easy for our jaded minds to assimilate easily, I think.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Elizabeth, I'd think you of all people should not stay out of it.

Peter, I haven't studied the matter either, but I remember the moment I realized that written dialogue didn't necessarily sound the same when spoken. It was when I attempted to read a page of William Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own aloud to my book group. It had looked so likely on the page...

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I always had the idea that Gaddis was one of these dense, forbidding, awe-inspiring writers -- not the kind, in other words, whose dialogue would leap off the page.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Solo

Good point. And its funny also to see what Billy Wilder was saying about Chandler behind his back during this period.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Billy Wilder on Raymond Chandler with a bit of Billy WIlder on Raymond Chandler on James M. Cain.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Frolic, though long, had tons of dialogue, and wasn't very dense or forbidding.

I'm thinking that Chandler, Wilder and Cain were none of them any better than they should be.

August 24, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Re that link of Wilder on Chandler, 1996.

Every time Wilder told that story, and Chandler was more and more dead, it got more and more sensationalized. Wilder knew his interviewers wanted the dirt on Chandler and Marilyn Monroe (also dead) and he was more than happy to give it to them, even if it meant embellishing the facts or making things up.

Ex. Chandler did attend the premiere of Double Indemnity but in a 1977 telling of the story, Wilder claims that Chandler left the minute the curtain went up because he did not want to be seen with his elderly wife. This is probably true and the same observation was made by a couple of other contemporaries of Chandler. Chandler also took his secretary, I guess she ought to know, to a screening of the film, I believe the same week.

solo, re "especially when he'd rather be around the corner in Lucy's getting drunk." I presume you got this tidbit from a Wilder interview? This is another of the aging Wilder's lapses in memory. Lucy's El Adobe did not open until 1964, about 5 years after Chandler died. Chandler could and did get drunk at many places, but Lucy's wasn't one of them.

Perino's was a favorite; it was practically a straight shot south from Paramount and when Chandler got tanked up, he could just point the snout of his car and head East on Wilshire with a little jog up Fairfax and then over to Drexel.

And Chandler's snide letter regarding Cain was written in October 1942, about nine months before he ever met Wilder at Paramount.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if another restaurant existed on the same site as Lucy's, which did, indeed, open in 1964. The Lonely Planet Guide's online version for Los Angeles repeats the apparent lie that Raymond Chandler made movie deals there, and I expect it will correct and acknowledge its mistake as readily as the New York Times does.

Meanwhile, a bit from the Wikipedia entry on "Double Indemnity" suggests that Billy Wilder may have been a sadist as well as a fabulist:


"As Wilder noted, "He was in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I think he had a tough time with me — I drove him back into drinking ...Offended, Wilder responded by saying, "We didn't invite him? How could we? He was under the table drunk at Lucy's..."

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, Seana, I'm agreeing that Billy WIlder may have been no better than he ought to be and may, in fact, have been a lot worse.

Perhaps my opinion has been unduly colored by Andrew Sarris initial ranking of Wilder as a "Less Than Meets the Eye" director, but I have never been that crazy about his movies. Sure he was versatile, but so was Howard Hawks, and his movies were better than Wilder's.

August 24, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

And Chandler was able to deal with Cain more temperately when the occasion called for it

It's not entirely surprising that Chandler was more temperate when he wrote to Cain. After all, one can hardly write a personal letter to one's fellow writer that opens with the salutation: Dear Offal of Literature, can one?

On Double Indemnity Chandler was right about Cain's dialogue, Wilder was smart to recognize Chandler was right, and Cain was honest and decent enough to admit that both of them were correct. Everybody came out of that picture looking good, and the rest of us chickens have been enjoying the end product ever since.

Chandler's drinking habits are well known, but perhaps my gibe about him rather being in Lucy's than writing the script was a cheap shot. Well, I like cheap shots, especially when they're accompanied by a beer chaser. As mine usually are.

And thanks to Elisabeth for the info on the date of Chandler's letter. It's good to have somebody around here who knows what they're talking about.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cheap Shots at a Dead Man probably is more attractive as a would-be hard-boiled title than as a real-live phenomenon.

Of course, if I believed that Cain and Wilder were greater artists than Chandler, rather than vice versa, I might more willing to brush aside the cruel gibe as just good-natured kidding.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re Elisabeth’s knowledge and willingness to do research, it’s no shock that Lonely Planet has Raymond Chandler making movie deals at a restaurant that did not open until five years after he died (an error—surprise!—
that it had not corrected as of this writing). Lonely Planet has, after all, apparently published guidebooks written by authors who never visited the countries they wrote about,

August 24, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Perhaps my opinion has been unduly colored by Andrew Sarris initial ranking of Wilder as a "Less Than Meets the Eye" director

The operative word in this sentence being 'initial'. Clearly, you know that when somebody held his hand he revised his opioion later.

Wilder was accused of cynicism and nihilism. Not popular traits in the All-You-Need-Is-Love-'60s.

It would have been better to ask how a man got such movies made in a schmaltz factory like Hollywood. But the Sarris criticism is understandable in some ways. Wilder was a major figure. The only way minor critics can make a name for themselves is by taking down a major figure like Wilder. Even if they have to act like Don Quixote to do it.

The best of Billy Wilder has stood up far better than the best of Andrew Sarris.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sarris did change his mind and elevate Wilder into his pantheon. I give him great credit for being so willing to revise his opinion even though I may not agree with his decision to do so.

I am dubious about the auteur theory. In fact, I have no bloody idea how it's supposed to work or whether it reflects realistically how movies are made. But I think he had a superb eye for great, good, and overrated movies even if he could not offer a sound theoretical basis for his judgments.

In his revised opinion, he credited Wilder for being one of, and maybe the last, great writer/directors, which suggests a greater understanding of the real mechanics, as opposed to the theory, of making movies. But I'd still have to see a lot more Wilder and think hard about what I saw to ever regard Wilder as up there with Hawks, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Welles, Keaton, and so on.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo: In an unrelated matter, I have been listening to Legendary Sessions: Chano Pozo, Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito and His Orchestra.

August 24, 2012  
Anonymous saolo said...

I had listened to Machito before and liked him. Chano Pozo is new to me. Damn, that's good stuff. You realise you have condemned me to several hours of trawling YouTube. Never mind, there are worse fates.

You posted about a Hong Kong film a while back. HK cinema is often called commercial (not a bad word in my book) but it does have its own arthouse director in Wong Kar Wai. I don't care much for his movies but his musical taste is interesting. How could anyone not love this version of Perfidia by Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra?

Declinism is a hugely popular concept and I utterly loathe it. And yet that Cuban music I know and love stops shortly after the 70s. Maybe I'm the one that's at fault.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have another good version of Perfidia, by Chico O'Farrill.

I din't believe in declinism. I prefer to believe that everything is shit and always has been. That way I can delight in the occasional exceptions.

August 24, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you watched Orfeu Negro, Peter? It was awarded an Oscar back in the '50s, for Best Foreign Language Film.

It was directed by some Frenchman but more importantly it had a score by Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá

I liked the movie, but I have never been able to find anything about Brazillian music that I liked. Somehow, it just gets on my nerves.

August 24, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Oops, that Anon was me, and I wan't even trying to be anonymous. Maybe Google was telling me something.

August 24, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

O'Farrill

Jazzy but good nevertheless. Damn, those Irish seem to get everywhere.

I love this Venezuelan piece by the ensemble called L'Arpeggiata, with Luciana Mancini on vocals.

There is a hilarious piece here on the Irish contribution to the liberation of Venezuela, appropiate because it was somewhat under the command of Montilla.

August 24, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Non-anon: Yes, I've seen that movie as well as the more recent remake. I'm not the world's biggest bossa nova fan (at its worst, the music can sound annoyingly mannered), but "Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes wrote wonderful songs.

A discussion somewhere on this blog touched on the contributions of Irishmen to Latin American history. Bernardo O'Higgins' name may have come up.

Chico O'Farrill's music was interesting to listen to after all the other Cuban stuff I'd been hearing. It's more elaborate and melodically complicated, but some of it has some of the same montuno rhythms.

August 25, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The auteur theory is crap. Was it John Ford who said something along the lines of, if a good picture gets made, it's a miracle (or is it an accident?) because there are so many variables involved. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort of which the director, however important, is just a part.

There may have been a restaurant pre-Lucy's at that site. I shall investigate. Funny how no one mentions a restaurant (with bar) that was on the same side of the street as Paramount and practically next door. Nicodell's, opened in 1928. Then all the drunk writers and directors wouldn't have to worry about crossing the street to get back to the Writers' Building at Paramount.

Oh, and speaking of crap, if anyone is thinking of going to Lucy's El Adobe to soak up some Hollywood glamour... The food is lousy. They know it, too. they are riding on their "fame" as a celebrity hangout. You'll be much better off getting a cheeseburger at the Raleigh Studios Cafe, on Bronson, just down from Paramount's original entrance on same. Raleigh Studios is the site of one of the oldest, continually-in-use studios in Hollywood, too, with buildings facing Bronson dating to the 1910s. And the burgers at Astroburger (on the same side of the street as Paramount, on Gower Gulch @ Melrose) are pretty tasty, too -- L.A.'s best drive-through eatery. And don't forget the o-rings!

August 27, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The auteur theory is crap. Was it John Ford who said something along the lines of, if a good picture gets made, it's a miracle (or is it an accident?) because there are so many variables involved.

So perhaps Sarris' "pantheon" directors -- John Ford among them -- just happened to have been involved with more miracles or accidents than others. I suspect that auteur theory, at least in America, has an exceedingly odd history. As far as I know (which may not be very far), Sarris' book The American Cinema is the best-known expression of the theory in this country. Yet the book is not at all theoretical. Instead, it's a series of short entries on directors grouped and ranked according to the theory. Some of the articles will offer examples of why Sarris considers one director better than another, but nowhere is there a lengthy exposition of the theory.

And, as I remarked elsewhere, Sarris' judgment was exceedingly good. He never overpraises weird directors just to be daring, for example. And that is why I respect Sarris even though can't say much one way or the other about his theory.

August 27, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

There may have been a restaurant pre-Lucy's at that site

Lucey's (forgive me for the earlier misspelling) seems to have been a Hollywood hotspot between the '30s and '50s. Apparantly, Humphrey Bogart had some of his legendary binges there.

Google Books has a snippet from The Billboard (as it was then) announcing that the swank eatery would have an entertainment policy for the first time in its history and that (Nat) King Cole and his Trio would do a three week spell there. That was in 1949, so the place had obviously been around for quite a while.

Billy Wilder's memory was not after all entirely defective.

August 29, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In that case, Lonely Planet is guilty of a misleading misspelling

August 30, 2012  

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