Okay, so right now I'm in the middle of this OBSESSION with hard-boiled fiction, and have been burning through some wonderful novels by Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others, which naturally led me to a name often mentioned in the same breath: James M. Cain. He wrote this [his first novel], Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. He also wrote—and obviously I cannot WAIT to read the book then watch the movie of—BUTTERFLY with Pia Zadora. Holy moley.
Anyway, this was the first Cain novel I had read, and while I generally enjoyed it, the story is in an odd shape, and I generally just think it's a little shockingly cold-blooded and doom-laden to really take in the first time. Then I watched this film, then I read Double Indemnity [a goddamned bang-up book], and over the course of the two weeks since I've read it, the novel's stock has risen astronomically—and I'm pleased to say that the famed 1946 version of the film is both an amazingly skillful adaptation and a wonderful film.
So the novel was published in 1934, and a note on the IMDb says that it took 12 years to create a screenplay tame enough to pass the notorious production code at the time—a story that sounds at once a little to pat to believe and yet entirely plausible, given what's in the book! We open with John Garfield as Frank Chambers being dropped off by a guy who has given him a ride. He announces via voice-over that he's a drifter who has been aimlessly traveling down the highway, and just decided to stop at this gas station / diner for a bite. The guy who gave him a ride—who just happens to be District Attorney Kyle Sackett, who lives right down the road—asks him why he doesn't settle down somewhere, and Frank replies that he doesn't worry about the future, he just drifts. He spies a "Man Wanted" sign hanging outside—which could be seen to have a double meaning—and goes in to eat. As he's sitting there a lipstick container drops and rolls over to him. He grabs it, looks up—and sees Lana Turner's legs. He follows upward and sees the rest of her, looking quite fetching in a short bathing-type ensemble. It's funny, as these famous legs would be considered "thunder thighs" compared to the stick-women of today. She holds out her hand to accept the lipstick—but he holds it out, forcing HER to come to HIM. This is what the movie does to establish their relationship—in the book, she says "Bite me!" and he bites her lip hard enough to draw blood! But obviously they can't do that in a movie in 1946—in fact, they didn't work up the guts to do it in the 1981 remake, which was supposed to exist in order to bring all the sex to the fore. So this little game of dominance will have to do. Then Nick, the owner of the diner comes out, and immediately pegs Frank as the guy they've been looking for to live there and help—and with his gander at Turner as Cora, Frank Readily agrees. Then Nick asks him to come meet his WIFE. Frank gulps, but decides to take the job anyway. There's one of those effectively portentous shots of the "Man Wanted" sign burning on the fire.
So the flirtation continues. First Cora tries to order Frank around, but he only takes orders from Nick. He impulsively kisses her, and when he's done, she impassively re-applies her lipstick. Nick is playing guitar one night and insists that Frank dance with her. Frank asks her why she married the much-older man who she obviously doesn't love, and she explains matter-of-factly that she is so beautiful that from the age of 14, every single man she met would come on to her, and she married Nick just to put a stop to it. And of course Lana Turner is so beautiful you can believe it. By this time, they are full-on making out.
Frank convinces her to run away with him—just leave everything and walk away. But what he means is WALK, for miles, and leave everything behind. This is fine for Frank, who has always been just a drifter, but Cora wants to move toward a decent life, not to a crappy life eating whatever they can find and constantly moving, sleeping in cruddy holes, so she forces them to return. This is one of the more poignant scenes in the novel, which I think might work a little better there, since you can convey the slow change in feeling over a long length of time, much more of a challenge in a film, as they realize how hopeless their situation is—and have to walk miles back, having already given up in despair. They also have to rush to make it home before Nick gets the farewell note they left!
They make it back, and try to be good, but you know how that goes. One night Nick is drunk, and Frank says "I'd like to see him get plastered like that and go off a cliff," which raises her eyebrows. A few nights later, she brings up the topic that some accident might befall him. I love the little detail that she just barely mentions it, but then there's a blare of music on the soundtrack, letting us know the import of what she's suggesting. They decide that they have to go through with it—they have to do whatever it takes to be together. They plan it this way—When Nick takes his bath, Cora will knock him unconscious, and slip his body under the water. She will climb down a stepladder, so the door will be locked from the inside. Frank will pretend to be washing the car outside, and honk the horn if anything happens. He hands her a bag full of ball bearings as she irons, both of them waiting for Nick to get in his bath. Then suddenly they hear the water running above….
SPOILERS > > >
That last sequence was great and filled with suspense, but it's nothing compared to the actual murder attempt. It's almost a shame to tell you about it, but it's so delicious. There's lots of great tension as Frank jumps at every car that goes by. The he spies a cat messing with the ladder. He goes over to shoo it away, and at that moment—while he's far from the horn—a policeman pulls up on a motorcycle! And then—well, I'm not going to tell you any more!
Suffice to say, Nick is not dead. He thinks he just had an accident. But the incident did draw the attention of both the police and the District Attorney, and now if any accident happens to Nick, especially around the house, it'll look very bad for Frank and Cora. Nevertheless, Nick is going to be in a hospital for a week, and they treat the time as a vacation, going to the beach, making love whenever they want, and falling in love—knowing they'll need to leave it, forever, in a week.
At the end of that week, Frank leaves. He knows that he can never stand to be around Cora and not have her, but in three months, he happens to run into Nick, who insists that he come back. This again, the passage of three months, and then a return, work better in the novel, as they give the story a herky-jerk shape that can work better as a literary conceit than in a film—although it is remarkable how well it holds up here. Here also a major change from the novel occurs—Nick decides that he and Cora are going to move up to Northern Canada, where Cora can nurse his sister, who has recently become paralyzed! Cora is notably not asked what she thinks about this plan, and even when she gets down on her knees and says "But give me a chance to tell you what I think about it," Nick doesn't want to hear—as a wife, she is a possession. Nick is all smiling and delighted, singing to himself, not caring a whit what his wife thinks about this plan. She follows him to bed, arms rigid. Later, Frank finds her alone downstairs and, without her mentioning it, says "All right! [i.e. we'll try to kill him again] …I can't leave you!" In the book, Nick never suggests that he and Cora go away, they just realize, over time, that they must be together, and risk another murder attempt. But Nick's plan to not just go away, but go to NORTHERN CANADA and nurse his PARALYZED SISTER is a brilliant way to speed up the process, to invent a situation in which they HAVE to act, and soon. This is one of the more effective and honorable screenwriting tricks I know of. The other thing this scene puts one in mind of, is that, S&M overtones left out or not, the novel cannot convey the heat and lust that two people on screen can, as in the scene where Frank finally gives in.
Okay, I realize that I have to move this along, or there will be no reason for you to watch the movie. Although—you DID notice that we're dealing in spoilers here, right? They try another murder attempt, this one successful, and are hauled in to jail right away. The movie obviously omits some of the more shocking elements of the novel: for one, Frank has to beat Cora in order to make it look as though she was in the car with Nick when it went over the cliff. For two—the whole situation makes them both insane with desire and they have sex right next to Nick's fresh corpse! Another difference is that in the book, they have a few days after the accident before they watch the accident story crumble, and are arrested, and—there's a wholly unexpected surprise! Although one not totally out of the blue to those familiar with Cain's other works.
< < < SPOILERS END
We now, one hour in, have the appearance of Hume Cronyn, and truly one of the best, funniest, cleverest performances I know of, that, in its relatively short screen time, nearly makes off with the entire movie. He plays Cora's lawyer, Arthur Keats, who insists that both Frank and Cora know that HE is in charge, and they will both do absolutely nothing but what he says, and only what he says. Sackett, his old rival, is going to be his opponent in the case, and is quite confident that he can win. Sackett and Keats make a bet for a dollar over who will win. How Keats goes about the case, and the many clever reversals that take place along the way, is amazing and very entertaining to see. One thing that I think is supposed to come across better, but doesn't really, in either the novel or the movie, is that once Keats makes the bet with Sackett, his old rival, he simply wants to win the bet, and the fates of Frank and Cora are entirely secondary.
I'm afraid it's this way for the rest of the film—directions that only half-worked in the novel, and only half-work in the film. The problem is that the audience needs time to think about the CONCEPT of what is happening to the characters, which is not something you can do while rushing through a book or watching a movie—and probably accounts for why both grow in estimation the more one reflects on them afterward. There are more goings and comings, including a whole affair one of them has with a newly-introduced character, that can seem completely random, but each have their place, and all lend to the general air of desperation that surrounds these characters and this story.
The very end I also feel could have been done better, to get across the full significance of what was happening, but it's still not bad. It is, however, one of those things that seems good when you later piece together what happened, not so much right when you're watching it. The movie tacks on a little speech explaining the film's title, which is not mentioned in the book at all. The best explanation I can find, by the way, is a biographical note about Cain. He used to be an insurance salesman, like the hero of Double Indemnity, and thus was familiar with the ways in which people would try to rook the company. Women would often take out accident policies against their husband, without his knowledge—which became the crux of Double Indemnity—and would have the postman ring twice when insurance documents arrived, so she could keep this mail unknown to her husband. So the postman ringing twice became a sort of shorthand symbol of a wife's duplicity, usually owing to a sexual betrayal.
Overall, the movie is great. I know I enjoyed it much more owing to having read the novel first, however. Many on the IMDb complain about the second half meandering and feinting in a number of seemingly pointless directions, but this is what I mean by ideas that work better in a literary way—when you think about what they mean—rather than on a flat plot level. Many of the strange directions the characters embark on, and just as soon give up on, only add up to a portrait of how desperate these characters are, how simply they look for easy answers that never work out, and ultimately how doomed they are by fate. I'm just afraid a lot of it works better in retrospect.
Many say that Lana Turner is not the greatest actress, but she didn't bother me at all, and I think just the sheer force of her beauty can make you believe that Frank would be driven as mad as he is. John Garfield also conveys the rootlessness and selfish impulsivity of his character, which is necessary to believe that he would allow himself to be ensnared so badly in this can't-win situation. We've already discussed the wonderful turn by Hume Cronyn—worth getting the movie for in itself—and Leon Ames as Sackett brings the exact air of sanctimonious morality needed for his role. Anyway, if you want to see a classic noir that tells a great story and maintains its steamy reputation and oppressive atmosphere even today—you won't be sorry you gave this one a chance.
Yes! It's a great, classic noir with wonderful performances. You could do much worse than to read the novel, as well.