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Old September 8 2011, 02:41 AM   #698
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Location: Charlottetown, PEI, Canada
Re: Movies Seen in 2011

James M. Cain triple-feature over the last few days, since I read his novels recently.

120. Patton (A)
121. Pan's Labyrinth (A+)
122. The Debt (B+)
123. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (A-)
124. The Pawnbroker (A-)
125. Double Indemnity (A)

Billy Wilder's third and breakout film in Hollywood. The first of Cain's novels to make it to the screen, based on the second of the three. It's fairly faithful, though the ending was changed a bit. Unlike most Hays Code-mandated endings, it doesn't deal out justice that would otherwise have been escaped. Instead, it just makes it more immediate. I guess the two criminals despairing and committing suicide wasn't conclusive enough; instead we get a murder and an arrest (with implied execution). Wildera also bulks up the role of Barton Keyes, to good effect (and featuring a strong performance from Edward G. Robinson, though Chief Wiggum is such a dead-on parody of his mannerisms that I have a bit of difficulty taking him seriously at times), and jettisons some of the more complicated bits of Cain's resolution (particularly, everything to do with Zachetti's backstory). Fred MacMurray is an interesting choice for the lead role. He talks about money and the woman as a lure, but as played by MacMurray he's a bit of a cold fish and doesn't seem to have that much of a sex drive - it seems like the third thing that he mentions, the intellectual attraction of seeing whether he can fool the insurance system, is the main attraction. Barbara Stanwyck is also very good. The changes to the ending also lead to an interestingly brutal dispatching of her character, though I wasn't sure whether her final hesitation was built up that well. Nonetheless, a very strong noir and definitely the best of the three.

126. Mildred Pierce (B+)

The ever-versatile Michael Curtiz at bat here, trying his hand at noir (he did just about everything in the course of his career, leaving little in the way of an auteur's signature other than being very good at making movies). The Hays Code-mandated changes to the story become more prominent in the later Cain adaptations; they're most evident here, because, alone of the three novels, here Cain has the bad guys get away with it, which obviously couldn't stand. But that's really just the beginning of it. Cain's original novel wasn't actually a noir, it was a family melodrama (which I guess isn't that far from many noirs), but it's been converted here into revolving around a climactic murder that didn't happen in the novel. It's a different story, albeit one that plays with many of the same themes (the recent Kate Winslet miniseries was, I understand, much more faithful). The bitterness of the ending is blunted considerably (not just in justice being served, but Mildred and Bert's reunion is weary but at least financially stable, compared to in the novel, where they're poor alcoholics living together in misery). For what it is, though, it's a well-done movie, with a strong lead performance by Joan Crawford and a very good Ann Blyth as the rotten Veda.

I understand that some people have interpreted this movie as a big "stay in the kitchen" lesson, but I don't see that at all, personally (it certainly isn't in the novel, and while the movie's been changed in many ways, I don't think it supports that conclusion).

127. The Postman Always Rings Twice (C-)

The last (1946) and least of the 40s Cain adaptations, based on the first of the three novels. The director's chair has gone from being occupied by one of Hollywood's all-time greats to one of its most adept studio directors to, on this film, Tay Garnett, whose resume stretched from the 1920s to the 1970s, but is remarkably unremarkable. This is his most famous film. As previously stated, I think the Hays Code hit Cain's works much harder than the novels of his contemporaries, Hammett and Chandler - Cain's protagonists were generally criminals rather than private eyes, and his depictions of sex were a lot more explicit and central to his characters. The previous two films managed, on the whole, to work the bowdlerization in acceptably. Here the ending is just all wrong, but it's all wrong in an especially fascinating way.

One of the most famous provisions of the Hays Code was that people had to be punished for their crimes: that wasn't a problem with this story, because both Frank and Cora die by the time it's over; in Frank's case, after getting away with murdering Cora's husband, he's found guilty of murdering Cora, which he actually didn't do. It's a wonderful bit of irony. But here there's an incredibly convoluted add-on that seems intended to assure the audience that Frank is actually being executed for the crime he committed, not the one he didn't commit, I guess to preserve faith in justice system. And it's made into this bizarrely redemptive moment for Frank, with swelling music and the prospect of being together with Cora wherever they go. Misses the mark by a mile (and, despite the Code, ends up being considerably more sympathetic to our criminal protagonists than was Cain). Before the ending, it was competent but unexceptional (Garnett's not nearly the stylist that Wilder and Curtiz were, so the shooting of the movie is pretty generic). Lana Turner is very good as Cora, I will say.

Oh, and the movie also attempts to explain what the title means - it's aiming for profundity, but doesn't really work.
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