Classic Hollywood: Raising “Cain”

From Jane Austen to J.K. Rowling, many famous writers have had their novels transformed into movie hits.

But for a classic film noir fan like me, nobody spins a sordid tale into cinematic gold like James M. Cain. In Cain’s world, women are vamps, men are chumps and whacking suckers (for lust or money) is all in a day’s work. Having been a crime reporter, Cain ripped real-life homicides from the headlines, adding just enough shocking twists and sexual obsessions to create irresistible pulp fiction.

Who says “Crime doesn’t pay”? Cain made crimes of passion pay off big.

James Mallahan Cain was born on July 1, 1892 in Annapolis, Maryland. From the gritty realism of his books, you’d think the guy came from a family of grifters. In reality, Cain’s father was a college president and his mother was an opera singer. In 1934, after stints in the army, a run of journalism jobs in New York City, and a short-lived scripting gig in Hollywood, Cain published his first novel at the rapidly-nearing-has-been age of 42. Fortunately, in the hands of more seasoned screenwriters, Cain’s hard-boiled stories became box-office blockbusters.

Catch these juicy Cain classics, all available for streaming on YouTube:

* Double Indemnity (1944) – Barbara Stanwyck lures horndog insurance agent Fred MacMurray into a scheme to bump off her hubby for hot sex and cool cash. Snappy dialogue, nail-biting suspense, and a great performance by Edward G. Robinson as MacMurray’s best friend – but a killer’s worst nightmare – drive this steamy drama, masterfully directed by co-writer Billy Wilder. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

* Mildred Pierce (1945) – Joan Crawford carries the world on her massive shoulder pads in the pic that copped her a Best Actress Oscar. Crawford flips the script on her future rep as mean Mommie Dearest, playing the ambitious, long-suffering single-mother-turned-waitress-turned-restaurant-mogul-turned-world-class-doormat for a vicious, ungrateful daughter who’ll stop at nothing short of murder to get the dough and dude she wants.

* The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – Lana Turner and John Garfield pushed all the censors’ buttons in this screen-scorching melodrama about illicit lovers locked in a fatal attraction. She’s a bored housewife who slings hash at a roadside diner with a husband twice her age. He’s a smitten drifter who’s thinking with a body part located due south of his brain. Together, this doomed duo cooks up an “accident” that’s anything but.


Classic Hollywood posts appear bi-monthly on The Music Hall blog.