Saturday, June 27, 2015

James M. Cain: The Cocktail Waitress; Robert Benton: The Late Show

A perplexing, somewhat dated 
late career novel and a small, understated gem

     While browsing at Landmark Booksellers in Franklin, TN, I found James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, otherwise known as ‘the lost final novel’ on the cover.  Landmark Booksellers is worth a look when visiting Nashville; it sells new, used, and rare books and sometimes even has a group sitting around talking politics and philosophy.  It’s in a Colonial Revival mansion with various rooms, akin to The Book Loft in Columbus’s German Village and one of the coolest landmarks in that city, each space housing different books by type and genre.

     Actually, the first time I read Cain was in high school with a four novel collection I found at The Book Loft.  Yes, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943, though first serialized in 1936) are suspense classics that present desperate and down on their luck characters in the 1930s resorting to schemes that start simply and go disastrously wrong.  Neither book is as lurid or sexy as the simultaneously prurient and puritanical movies adapted from them.  Bob Rafelson’s 1981 version of Postman, however, sort of goes over the edge and Jack Nicholson was a little too old and ugly in the lead; he didn’t seem that different from the aging husband that he and Jessica Lange planned to kill.  
Barbara Stanwyck
Billy Wilder’s 1944 version of Indemnity updates the action by a decade, thereby leaving behind the Depression-era overtones, and masterfully casts Barbara Stanwyck in the lead.  Rather than playing the neurasthenic wraith of the book, she is sexy, smart, and kinky.  She is so thwarted in her ambitions by a patriarchal society that she thinks up a complex plan, which just happens to be evil, because she’s so bored.  It’s one of those movies where you think, “if only she’d had a chance at a great career, what could she have done?”

     Serenade (1937) was turned into a Mario Lanza vehicle, which I’ve never seen.  It must have been bowdlerized to make it to the screen in the ‘50s because the main character is a bisexual male opera singer, who’s saved by a selfless South American woman.  Cain had wanted to be a singer, but didn’t possess the talent.  At the time, I couldn’t get enough of the book, but I’m not certain I’d feel that way now.  The one that 
blew me away was Mildred Pierce (1941).  It’s a domestic drama about a working mother who makes it big because of determination, grit, and some luck.  Things fall apart because of her Achilles heel:  her wretchedly selfish – even wicked – older daughter that she protects extravagantly.  The daughter finally pulls something so mean that Mildred’s had enough.  The book makes perfect sense, while the Joan Crawford vehicle has to turn into a memory suspense thriller with a murder in order to adhere to the hypocritical Hays Code and for the movie studio execs to be interested.  It’s one of those movies where I thought, “if only Barbara Stanwyck had played the part, this could have been so much more convincing.”  Todd Haynes hewed much closer to the book in his TV version with Kate Winslet.  We haven’t seen it, but the book is a couple of hundred pages, while Haynes’ version is five hours!

James M. Cain
     The Cocktail Waitress (published in 2012, but mysteriously written sometime much earlier) is told from the first person point of view of the eponymous character.  It’s a difficult work to place historically because it wasn’t found until after Cain’s death in 1978, but it feels like it’s decades old.  Here’s a sequence from the first chapter between Joan (the waitress) and her sister-in-law Ethel at a funeral:

     I said:  “Ethel, I apologize for my tone.  I’ve been through quite a lot, and being accused of murder, or something that sounds a lot like it, is more than I can take.  So – “
“It’s O.K.  I make allowance.”
“Now, may we get on?”
“If you’re talking about Tad, everything’s taken care of, and there’s nothing to get on to.”
“Then, I thank you.”
But I sounded stiff, and she snapped:  “Joan, there’s nothing to thank me for, Tad’s my own flesh and blood.  He’s welcome and more than welcome, for as long as may be desired.  And the longer that is, the better I’m going to like it.”

40s Hot Pants?
     They sound like hardboiled dames from the ‘30s or ‘40s, but Cain makes reference to the waitresses wearing hot pants, which I didn’t think came into style until the early ‘70s.  So, there’s the simultaneous double-time of Bette Davis’s Dead Ringer (1964), which felt like 1944 and with the twin characters supposed to be at least ten years younger merged with an episode of Charlie’s Angels (around 1977), where Jaclyn Smith’s Kelly would be skimpily clad, stuck in an impossible male controlled situation, but getting out in the nick of time because of Kate Jackson’s Sabrina and Cheryl Ladd’s Kris.  A college friend of mine thought Angels had its cake and ate it too by presenting strong women solving crimes, but also looking pinup sexy.  The older, established writers and producers of Angels made the more mature supporting characters sound like something out of the ‘40s, while the leads sounded like the ‘70s.  

     The cover of The Cocktail Waitress compounds the issue by making the waitress resemble Keri Russell dressed like Jaclyn Smith in ’77 with a side view of her breasts reminiscent of Jane Russell.  She is regarded by an older man, who’s smoking, and the viewer is put in his place.  Again, this feels double-sided, but so is Joan, the waitress, who ends up with two dead husbands and a dead boyfriend.  Is she a black widow or a victim or what?  Two-thirds of the way in, the book reveals a couple of details that place it in around 1960 or ’61, one of those being the original opening of the musical The Fantasticks.  The other has to do with a notorious medication, which plays brilliantly into the end of the novel.  It reminds the reader that Cain always displayed a ‘justice is blind’ attitude towards his characters.

Art Carney in The Late Show
     Another work that deals with the ‘40s noir movie through the prism of a later – in this case, 1970s – lens is Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1977).  It’s a great title because it simultaneously references the old movies that would play after the news in many TV markets in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the main character Ira, played by Art Carney, is a semi-retired private eye who limps, gets worn out easily, and is slightly deaf, so this may be his swan song, and it underlines that the values of the ‘40s have gone out of style, but so have the beatnik values of the early ‘60s and late ‘60s Woodstock that are personified in Margo, played by Lily Tomlin.  She hires Ira to find her cat, kidnapped by an acquaintance because she owes him money.  The acquaintance is up to his neck in trouble with a fence and the movie is off and running.

     It’s also about cheating, greed, corruption, and psychopaths; just like the best of the noirs, but it’s not elegant like them.  These are working, or not so working, stiffs who live in grubby homes and motel rooms and drive vehicles that might not make it to the next gas station.  They’re aware their dreams haven’t worked out, but they keep plugging away. 
Cassidy, Tomlin and Carney
The lighting feels natural – it’s under lit – and the color hasn’t held up well, though that feels appropriate, but the performances by Carney, Tomlin, Bill Macy, Eugene Roche, and Joanna Cassidy cannot be dimmed.  They seem like they’ve lived in this world and paced those streets.  The texture is casual, almost as if it’s a throwaway, but it comes into deadly focus with an original car chase over lawns in a lower-middle class neighborhood and the final image of a bus stop bench underlines the irony of the entire proceedings.

No comments: