James M. Cain's Forbidden Box

This article first appeared in The Mystery Review, Winter, 1995.

I try not to think. Whenever I can make it, I'm out there with Cora, with the sky above us, and the water around us, talking about how happy we're going to be, and how it's going to last forever. I guess I'm over the big river, when I'm there with her. That's when it seems real, about another life ... When I'm with her I believe it." The Postman Always Rings Twice

This is the kind of stuff James M. Cain wrote. Spare. Clean. Essential. He wrote in the vernacular of 1930s California, the common man's idiom that his readers understood and related to on the most basic level of craft: story and dialogue. And when he was good, his writing approached poetry.

James Mallahan Cain was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1892. He was a journalist and a professor of journalism, the managing editor of The New Yorker magazine for a time, and, though unsuccessful, a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s and 1940s. But he always wanted to write The Great American Novel. In all, he wrote 17 novels, some short stories and some plays. But he is perhaps best known for three of his novels that were turned into film noir classics in the 1940s: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce.

When he moved to California in 1932 to write for films, Cain began exploring "voices" for his books and found he could most successfully tell a story in the first person. He also found his milieu. "Out there ... I began writing in the local idiom. Everything broke for me." In the Depression-bound, "dirty thirties" he discovered the story he would tell: two people who get away with a crime but can't live with it.

The first novel, and the last to be filmed, was The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934 to critical acclaim. A best seller, it was his first novel to reach print: three previous attempts had ended up in the garbage. Cain was to know more failure than success with his writing, but with the reception of Postman, which was banned in Boston and Canada for obscenity, he would remain in the literary limelight for the next 14 years.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was based on a true story, the Snyder-Grey case, in which a man and woman kill her husband for the insurance money. Cain wanted to write the book in a way that every episode would be affected by the love story. His friend, screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, helped him achieve this by giving Cain his theory of the "love rack." Before you can interest the reader in your story, you must interest him in your characters. Lawrence told Cain he had to love his own characters enough that the reader would want them to get away with murder.

In Postman, Cain introduced the themes he would explore for the rest of his writing life: desire and destiny, entrapment and death, betrayal and punishment. In an interview in Paris Review, Cain said, "I write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept ... I think my stories have some quality of the opening of a forbidden box." One of the things inside that "forbidden box" is sex, the kind of sex that makes women bad and drives men crazy. It is the kind of sex that inspires violence and is at the same time inspired by violence. In essence, it is sex that drives the plot of Cain's novels. David Madden, Cain's biographer (James M. Cain, 1970, Twayne Publishers Inc.) said, "Cain ... wrote not only about but mainly to the masses, giving violent impetus to their forbidden dreams, dramatizing their darkest temptations and their basic physical drives."

The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank and Cora, a drifter and a young woman married to a man she doesn't love. When they meet, the attraction between them is intense. Their lovemaking is violent, the "hurt me" kind of sex that has trouble written all over it. Their desire for each other is so powerful they plot to murder Cora's husband, Nick, a harmless Greek immigrant with a fondness for wine and song. They do it for love but it's a bad love, seething with animal intensity that Cain describes in terms of pain and blood. Frank talks about the way he can smell Cora, and when he shows her his love he uses his fists. Cora wants Frank to bite her, to rip her, to make her hurt. Frank's first glimpse of Cora tells us we're in for a rough ride. It doesn't waste a word:

"Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made we want to mash them in for her."

In the film (1946, directed by Tay Garnett), it's John Garfield and Lana Turner; Garfield, tough yet vulnerable, with those dark burning eyes; Turner, blonde, bold and beautiful, a vision in white. This is a movie that smolders in your mind long after you watch it. The 1981 remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange is so detached from Cain's raw impulsiveness that it is dreary and unexciting, despite the more graphic sex scenes. In the 1946 version, Garfield and Turner ignite the screen with their tense sexuality. Cain's message is there. These are people living in a world created by violent conditions, for whom there is no escape from destiny. Joyce Carol Oates summed it up for us (in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, 1968, S. Illinois University Press) when she wrote: "It is as if the world extends no farther than the radius of one's desire. Within this small circle, accidental encounters have the force of destiny behind them ... [and] ... repentance always follows when they obey the urges that lead to disaster."

Once murder has been done, Frank and Cora begin to turn on one another. They get away with killing Nick, but they're not smart enough to deal with the consequences. They each have something on the other and, like two trapped animals, they become entwined in a life and death struggle for survival.

"We're chained to each other, Cora. We though we were on top of a mountain. That wasn't it. It's on top of us. And that's where it's been ever since that night."

Cain then takes us down a road of betrayal and double crosses that has a sickening inevitability to it. This is a morality play with a double whammy. As Ross Macdonald wrote: "Everything that happens in this novel happens twice, the first time with a twist, the second time with a reverse twist."

In Double Indemnity (1936), Cain does the same thing. Instead of Frank and Cora, it's Walter and Phyllis. In the movie (1944, directed by Billy Wilder), instead of Garfield and Turner, it's Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

"She was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn't noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn't exactly know. But all of a sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep straight up my back and into the roots of my hair. 'Do you handle accident insurance.'"

Walter Huff (Neff in the movie) is an insurance agent, a man too clever by half who's looking for a way to beat the system just to prove how smart he is. When he meets Phyllis, whose husband is a client, she opens up the forbidden box that holds Walter's destiny.

"I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back. But that was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing was peeping over the edge, and all the time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging me a little closer, trying to get a better look."

Walter's a goner and we think he's so smart we don't even notice that it's Phyllis who's pulling all the strings. In the film, Stanwyck's Phyllis knows just how much slack to give Walter so he'll think he's the one in control. Film critic Pauline Kael refers to her as "a living entrapment device." But once her husband is dead and the insurance company becomes suspicious, Walter begins to realize what their little caper is going to cost him.

"I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die. I had done all that for her, and I never wanted to see her again as long as I lived. That's all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate."

Both Postman and Double Indemnity are narrated by their doomed heroes, whose plain speech and flat delivery communicate an aura of defeat. These men are ordinary joes for whom the American Dream has turned into a nightmare. They people a pitiless world, a stripped, barren landscape in which lust replaces love and banality smothers passion. So much is casual in this world, seemingly accidental, but in fact, it is a world driven by the grander themes of destiny and justice. According to Joyce Carol Oates, it is "a world immense with freedom, women hellish and infantile by turns, money, power, the tantalizing promise of adventure."

Cain understood the essential truth about men and women. He understood their obsessions and their lowdown, animal imperatives probably better than any other writer of his genre. His biographer, David Madden, called him "the 20-minute egg of the hard-boiled school." He could be tough and tender, writing of cold love and hot sex. And when he descended to cliché, it was deliberate. "I tried to write as people talk," he said. "Many of life's most moving things are banal."

On the surface, Mildred Pierce (1941) may seem like an entirely different kettle of fish. Mildred doesn't act like Cora and Phyllis. These women, according to Pauline Kael, are "calculating, hot little animals." They are "dirty charmers who can persuade a man to do anything." All Mildred Pierce wants is a good life for her family, especially her favorite daughter, Veda, an ungrateful little wretch who is more vile and calculating than any of Cain's other women. Mildred is so obsessed with Veda, so proud of her beauty and talent, she can't see what a cold-hearted bitch she really is. Mildred, like Cora, needs love to hurt because she believes she's unworthy at some level. That's why she's attracted to Monty, a rich, spoiled do-nothing.

"This loafing wasn't a weakness, it was a way of life, and it had the same effect on her that Veda's nonsense had; her mind rejected it, and yet her heart, somehow, was impressed by it; it made her feel small, mean and vulgar."

Mildred Pierce is the story of the American Dream gone terribly wrong. It's about money and sex and obsession. The movie (1945, directed by Michael Curtiz) opens with a murder, but in the book, there is no murder. Mildred's obsessive love for her daughter Veda enslaves her to the great god of money and in the end she loses everything to her obsession. She is punished as surely as Frank and Cora and Walter and Phyllis are. She is as doomed as they are by her desire for money. She is as entrapped as they are by her ordinariness.

Joan Crawford, a star of extraordinary proportions, won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mildred Pierce. Film critic Leslie Halliwell described the movie as "a woman's picture par excellence ... with a star suffering in luxury on behalf of the most ungrateful daughter of all time." How true. The film does Cain a disservice, leaving out the sex without romance that sends Mildred down the guilty path of destruction, and giving us romance without sex. We get glamor instead of the tawdry banality of plain hard work. Crawford's Mildred is savvy and sophisticated. Her weakness is just a veneer, another costume from the wardrobe department. Cain's Mildred is street smart and a sucker at the same time. Her sophistication is a veneer, like the evening gown she buys for New Year's Eve. Underneath, Mildred is as much a victim of her sexual hunger as Frank and Walter.

"She pushed his arms away, trying to repulse him. But she was taken by surprise, and her struggles had no steam in them. Try as she would, she couldn't resist the physical effect he had on her, and when she finally yielded, the next hour was more wanton, more shamefully exciting than any she remembered. And yet, for the first time, she felt an undertone of disgust."

Ironically, Cain was never invited to write the screenplays for his own novels. He never made a success in Hollywood and that may partly have to do with his highly individual way of writing dialogue. Cain moves his plots with dialogue and the pacing of his stories is determined by the way his characters speak. Those characters reveal themselves through their words. They tell us what their feelings and their motives are and we believe them because they are so ordinary. But as Raymond Chandler, who wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity, told director Billy Wilder, real people just don't talk like that.

"What would you do this for?"

"You, for one thing."

"What else?"

"Money."

"You mean you would - betray your company, and help me do this, for me, and the money we could get out of it?"

"I mean just that. And you better say what you mean, because when I start, I'm going to put it through, straight down the line, and there won't be any slips. But I've got to know. Where I stand. You can't fool - with this."

Double Indemnity, filmed in 1944, is a classic film noir that reflects all that was good about James M. Cain's creation. It is incisive and spare, tawdry and loveless, calculating and cutthroat. It has Attitude. Siphoned through Raymond Chandler's literate sensibility, Cain's story is transformed into a tough, taut dance of death. Pauline Kael put it this way: "Chandler's dialogue is in his heightened, laconic mode, and the narration is often so gaudy and terse that it seems an emblem of 1940s hardboiled attitudes."

In 1947, Cain returned to Maryland and wrote nine more novels, only three of which were published. He died in 1977 of a heart attack, but his popularity endures as new generations of readers discover him through reprinted anthologies of his novels.

Was James M. Cain an artist or just one of the best pulp fiction writers America has produced? The debate continues over the seriousness of Cain's work. Ross Macdonald, writing in The New York Times Book Review, cited Cain's ability to "transmute blood into symbol" as the "stuff of art," concluding that Cain was "a conscious and deliberate artist" whosePostman had "moral and symbolic overtones."

Some would say Cain was a writer's writer who paved the way for future artists, someone who helped define a genre. John D. MacDonald sums it up like this:

"There is a special debt we owe them, a debt to Chandler, Hammett and Cain. They excised pointless ornamentation, moved their stories forward with a spare, ruthless vigor and so superimposed the realities we already knew with characterizations we could believe, that they achieved a dreadful, and artistic, inevitability ..." The New York Times Book Review, 1976

Other Books by James M. Cain

Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942)

Career in C Major and Other Stories (1943, short stories)

Past All Dishonor (1946)

Sinful Woman (1948)

Three of Hearts (1949, British only omnibus including first UK publication of Love's Lovely Counterfeit, Past All Dishonorand The Butterfly)

Jealous Woman (1951)

The Root of His Evil (1952)

Galatea (1953)

Mignon (1962)

The Magician's Wife (1965)

Rainbow's End (1975)

The Institute (1976)

The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction (1981)

Cloud Nine (1984)