Calamai, Stanwyck, and Crawford Go Wonderfully Bad in Cain’s Crime Tales


In James M. Cain’s most celebrated crime novels, the prose is hard-boiled, the characters of easy virtue. Tales of torrid triangulation, dotted with square pursuits, in Depression-era Southern California, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941) mix lust with griddle grease, pheromones with
actuarial tables. The three page-to-screen transfers of canonical Cain playing at
Metrograph on Sunday and Monday are the rare adaptations that have become their own sacred texts despite the radical surgery performed on the source material. Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), his version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, is a key forerunner of Italian neorealism; Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) are film-noir paradigms that showcase their lead actresses in their most iconic roles.

Ossessione, Visconti’s debut feature, was not the first movie to take on The Postman Always Rings Twice, the most frequently filmed of Cain’s novels. The slim pulp classic — about a drifter named Frank who cuckolds then murders his diner-owner boss with Cora, the man’s wife — had earlier inspired Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turn), a French drama from 1939. (Postman adaptations have traveled widely outside U.S. borders; German director Christian Petzold’s 2008 Jerichow is the most recent rethink.) Nor is Visconti’s the best-known rendition: That would be Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), starring John Garfield and Lana Turner as the criminal lovers, the dazzlingly peroxided actress then at the height of her stardom.

Owing to the demands of censors — the Motion Picture Production Code in Garnett’s case, the Fascist Italian government in Visconti’s — both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Ossessione are heavily bowdlerized versions of the novels (as are all Cain adaptations of the Forties). No sanctimonious official could ever have
allowed the dramatization of passages like this one, indelibly laying out the woozy s/m dynamic between Frank and Cora: “I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.” But Visconti’s film, much more so than Garnett’s, captures the savage lust that consumes the adulterous couple — here renamed Gino (Massimo Girotti) and Giovanna (Clara Calamai) — the second they lay eyes on each other. Yet for as much heat as these two performers generate in front of the camera, a similar erotic charge was clearly sparked behind it: Visconti, who never hid his same-sex leanings, lingers on Girotti’s impeccably sculpted, sweat-glistened body, often filming the actor shirtless.

Just as significant as the paramours in Ossessione is the landscape of Italy itself. Visconti shot several scenes outdoors in Ferrara, the rugged northern city where Gino and Giovanna first meet, and in Ancona, the seaport in the central area of the country where they are reunited; the practice of shooting on location, especially in more impoverished parts of the nation, would become a hallmark of later neorealist films. And paradoxically, in his exacting attention to place, even if thousands of miles away from the novel’s roadside sandwich joint, Visconti honors Cain’s Golden State geo-specificity.

No locale figures quite as prominently in Cain’s work as Glendale, the Los Angeles County town where both Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce are (at least partially) set. Wilder’s adaptation of the former, which he scripted with Raymond Chandler, Cain’s crime-novel contemporary, boasts the suburb’s most notorious resident: Phyllis Dietrichson (surnames were changed from the original), played by Barbara Stanwyck, then the highest-paid woman in the U.S. — and, under a platinum-blond wig, the most fatale of femmes. Like her distaff predecessor in Postman, Phyllis is married to a man she despises, one she will kill with the aid of another who is instantly besotted with her. When Pacific All-Risk Insurance Co. salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray, in the second of four films he made with Stanwyck) first sees Mrs. Dietrichson, she greets him in little more than a towel and an anklet. Phyllis’s lack of scruples immediately turns the accident policy specialist on; Stanwyck’s flawlessly venomous delivery of the line “I’m rotten to the heart” likewise stirs perverse pleasure in audiences. Her Phyllis stands as the screen incarnation of a Cain character that hews closest to the source — an archetype of depravity perfected by a performer who began her career specializing in indomitable, sex-bartering cynics.

Though she might appear more virtuous than Double Indemnity‘s venal seductress, the title character of Mildred Pierce, on both the page and the screen, is not without her pathologies, particularly in her floridly self-abasing devotion to her awful older child. As much a paragon of maternal melodrama as it is of film noir, Curtiz’s picture also famously served as a comeback vehicle for star Joan Crawford, who would win an Oscar (her only one) for her performance as a divorced mother who tirelessly builds up a restaurant empire. When not pulling pies out of the oven, the bootstrapping businesswoman squeezes in time for carnal pursuits with Monte (Zachary Scott), an effete Pasadena toff. Mildred’s greatest love, though, is for daughter Veda (Ann Blyth), a spoiled monstrosity who takes everything from Mom — even Monte. Sparing no sordid detail of these mutating dyads, Todd Haynes’s masterful 2011 miniseries of
Mildred Pierce is unquestionably the most faithful of all Cain adaptations. But Curtiz’s film offers its own singular spectacle: an actress, desperate to rehabilitate her image after being dropped by MGM in 1943 and tainted for years by the label “box office poison,” laboring harder than the workaholic martyr she’s playing.

‘James M. Cain Weekend’


May 29–30