There are a few things we tend to forget to talk about when we talk about film noir—beyond the simple fact that these sepulchral, sometimes slipshod, perspiry little films, so resolutely tethered to their time (from the WWII years to, oh, the release of Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss in 1964) and place (America, America), do not go out of fashion and instead seem to grow in popularity the further we get from the genre’s Elvis years. We do forget that this greatest of organic genre manifestations, redolent with cultural dread and historical anxiety, suffers few or no masterpieces—no one film rises up very far beyond the others. Particularly slick and expert noirs, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), tend to get singled out, but only because noir is all the films, the mass explosion of dark ire, taken en masse. All told, film noir constitutes an entirety of vexed American identity, an aggregate statement that no one film does or could possibly make.
Thus, noir is not on the whole a school of auteurs—beside Tourneur and Ulmer and Ray there are scores of startling and resonant genre opuses directed by nobodies, like John Auer and Hubert Cornfield and Bretaigne Windust, and we wouldn't be devotees if we thought any individual equal to the spirit of the genre itself.
That is, except for the writers, which brings us to James M. Cain and another neglected aspect of the genre—that its roots did not first sprout in the beleaguered heart and mind of America during the Homeric life-scorching of WWII. We’re not talking about indirect influences, like German Expressionism or French poetic realism. We’re talking about how Cain—one of noir’s idea men, with Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and David Goodis—published his seminal books years before the war, in the ‘30s, The Postman Always Rings Twice coming in 1934 (the same year of It Happened One Night, The Gay Divorcee, and The Thin Man), and Double Indemnity being serialized in Liberty Magazine just two years later. America didn't need Okinawa and Normandy and Buchenwald and Guadalcanal to feel the dream carbonize into ashes inside them—it was already happening, by dint of the previous war, the Depression, the years of industrial misery and political goldbricking in between, or all of the above.
You could say Cain was the first match struck: his vile, vice-ridden tales preceded everyone of significance but Hammett, who was decidedly, genteelly pre-noir anyway. Along with his fellow pioneers of “roman noir,” Cain was the aquifer of viciousness and Weltschmerz from which film noir drank—even before film noir was a thing. Postman loitered on shelves for a dozen years before Hollywood figured out how to film it within the constrictions of the Production Code (the task fell to Tay Garnett, John Garfield, and Lana Turner in 1946), giving the French and the Italians a head start, first with Pierre Chenal’s Le dernier tournant in 1939, and then Luchino Visconti’s seething Ossessione (1943), a film that invented neorealism and did it under the twitching noses of Fascist censors. In all three instances, the movies paled before the cayenne burn of Cain’s book, but at the same time something new had been introduced into the filmgoing bloodstream. It’s a simple dose of narrative modernism: here and in Double Indemnity, we are presented with two identifiable protagonists who are all about trying to secretly, selfishly murder a third person—the trampy woman's luckless oaf of a husband—and there we are, hoping they’ll do it.
That the hard-bitten world around them allows them to succeed, and then allows fate to bite them back and hard, etched the idea of noir into human culture for good. Sympathetic venality was one thing—drop it into a pool of existential acid, where the shadows and rules of the Godless world condemn us to misfortune and futility, and you had a vision that ruled the 20th century, answering the post–WWII hunger for normalcy and sanity with an eloquent pipe-length across the cheekbone. Cain got there first, with the balls enough to know that we’re all a little Frank and Cora and Walter and Phyllis inside, even if we’d be loath to admit it, and that final justice by way of death is not justice at all, just the last ruin in a dog’s short life.
Mildred Pierce, both Cain’s 1941 novel and the 1945 film, occupied the same universe, but trains in on a hair-raising mother-daughter Iliad that is so transgressive and yet so convincingly conceived it feels like an archetypally modern story—before the Age of Cain, the truths it tells were volcanic rocks too hot to hold. The tides of spite, desperation, craven maternal neuroses, matricidal longings, and bitter destruction that play out inside this one doomed family are still startling—but of course, Cain’s book is even worse, including a Mildred vs. Veda brannigan in which Mom strangles her minotaur of a daughter nearly to death. In the Warner Bros. film, which was an A-picture built around “box office poison” Joan Crawford, a contented resolution is arrived at by the ending title card, but in Cain, the umbilical cord is ground for sausages, and the good news looking forward for his blighted heroine is life—poor, drunk and, thankfully, daughter-less.
Cain published thirteen more novels after that, stretching to right before his death in 1977, but none of them had the same traction. Simply, it seems, the world caught up with him, and he was no longer the herald of damnation he’d been in the 1930s. Hollywood, however, still paid attention: Cain stories fueled Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1946), Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet (1956), Anthony Mann’s Serenade (1956), and Douglas Sirk’s Interlude (1957); many others during the neo-noir phase of the 1980s (including 1982’s Pia Zadora vehicle Butterfly, bizarrely enough); and plenty of additional adaptations (including three of Postman, for a total of six). But you can’t go back—even Bob Rafelson’s seethingly humid 1982 version of Postman is a nostalgic gloss on the early-century awakening to human predation and sour destiny, not the real McCoy. Cain’s moment has evanesced, a memory of innocence lost, like an old family photo in which you can see, with a clarity you couldn’t at the time, that regret and malice were thick on the walls.
May 29 and 30, 2016 is James M. Cain Weekend at Metrograph, featuring screenings of Ossessione, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce.