Fiction & Film: Raising Cain

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Dan Hedaya, as the jealous cuckold in Blood Simple.

Because “The Mark of Cain” was already taken? Yeah, maybe. That was the title of an excellent piece on precisely what I had planned to discuss today—in this, the first in a series I call “Fiction & Film.” My topic for today? The link between crime fiction writer James M. Cain and the Coen brothers (whom I can’t get out of my head, going back to November). “Raising Cain” also happens to be the name of a bad Brian DePalma film (starring—wait for it—John Lithgow and Lolita Davidovich), but it’s also suitable for a discussion of violence and bloody mayhem (given the biblical Cain’s infamous history).

There’s a lot of raising Cain in the recent Fargo series (especially if you consider the massive body count in Season 2). But I’m more interested in the particular Cain style—language, dialogue, plotting, and pacing—that’s evident in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, including the noirish Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). For today, though, I want to go back—way back—to the beginning. Let’s make it Simple. Blood Simple (1984).

The Fiction   

Whaddya get with Cain narration and dialogue? Short, rapid-fire sentences, even during the narration, which tends to be minimal, though enough to put the image in your head. Then, when we move to the dialogue, the sort of verbal fencing that makes us believe that “talk” and “action” are one in the same damn thing.

Consider Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice—I mean, the novel, written in 1934 and the source material for so much film noir. Here’s a random excerpt—because I don’t want to spoil the book (or the adapted film), but also because I don’t want to even give you context… figure it out for yourself, hey buddy?

“They caught me down the road.”

“You were hardly out of sight.”

“Stepped right off the ladder on to the fuse box. Well, that’s the way it goes. Them poor dumb things, they can’t get it through their head about electricity, can they? No sir, it’s too much for them.”

“Tough, all right,”

“That’s what it is, it’s tough. Killed her deader than hell. Pretty cat, too. Remember, how she looked when she was creeping up the ladder? I never seen a cuter cat than she was.”

“And pretty color.”

“And killed her deader than hell. Well, I’ll be going along. I guess that straightens us out. Had to check up, you know.”

“That’s right.”

“So long. So long, Miss.”

“So long.”

[This comes from CAIN X 3, which contains Postman, along with Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.]

There’s a lot of tension built into those lines, including the very strategic allusion to key details (the ladder, the open window, the “cat” and its metaphorical importance throughout the book). The speakers (Frank Chambers and a cop) are vying for territory, battling for an edge, and they do it by grabbing hold of the other guy’s word: “Tough, all right” – “That’s what it is, it’s tough”; “So long” – “So long.” Makes you wonder why the situation is “tough,” what that word means to each speaker, and if there isn’t something ominous in that repeated salutation, “So long.” That’s the mark of Cain; that’s noir dialogue at its best.

The Film

So what about the Coens?

What better place to start than Blood Simple. According to the Coens, they “wanted to write a James M. Cain story and put it in a modern context.” If you’ve read Cain’s Postman and watched Blood Simple, you know that they both centre on the story of a woman who betrays an older man by having an affair with a younger one. There are no exchanges in Blood Simple quite as compact and subtle as the passage from Cain’s short novel quoted above, but the film is scattered with bits of dialogue that contain the sort of short, clipped, tense sentences that are characteristic of Cain’s style.

For a sample, here’s the opening exchange between the illicit lovers, Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand), driving along a lonely road at night (sound familiar?):

[This is quoted directly from the script, available here:]

WOMAN

…He gave me a little pearl-handled .38 for our first anniversary.

MAN

Uh-huh.

WOMAN

…Figured I’d better leave before I used it on him. I don’t know how you can stand him.

MAN

Well, I’m only an employee, I ain’t married to him.

WOMAN

Yeah…

(Pause, as an oncoming car passes. Finally:)

WOMAN

…I don’t know. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with him. Like maybe he’s sick? Mentally?… Or is it maybe me, do you think?

MAN

Listen, I ain’t a marriage counselor. I don’t know what goes on, I don’t wanna know… But I like you. I always liked you…

(Another car passes.)

MAN

…What’re you gonna do in Houston?

WOMAN

I’ll figure something out…

[End of quoted script.]

The ellipses in the script indicate the halting, secret nature of the exchange, and the ominous nature of what’s under the surface: betrayal and, quite possibly, murder.

Elsewhere in Blood Simple we get a little allegory, like in the Cain passage, where a character’s allusion to human or animal nature foreshadows plot. Here, for your reading pleasure, is the first exchange between the cuckolded husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), and the slimy PI he hires, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh, in a brilliant performance):

MARTY

You know in Greece they cut off the head of the messenger who brought bad news.

(A smoke ring floats into frame from offscreen.)

VISSER

Now that don’t make much sense.

MARTY

No. It just made them feel better.

(Marty rises and goes to a safe behind his desk. Visser laughs as he watches Marty.)

VISSER

Well first off, Julian, I don’t know what the story is in Greece but in this state we got very definite laws about that…

(Marty, hunched over the standing safe behind his desk, tosses in the photograph and takes out a pay envelope.)

VISSER

…Second place I ain’t a messenger, I’m a private investigator. And third place—and most important—it ain’t such bad news. I mean you thought he was a colored. (he laughs) …You’re always assumin’ the worst…

(Visser blows another smoke ring, pushes a fat finger through the middle of it, and beams at Marty.)

VISSER

…Anything else?

MARTY

Yeah, don’t come by here any more. If I need you again I know which rock to turn over.

(Marty scales the pay envelope across the desk. It hits Visser in the chest and bounces to the floor. Visser looks stonily down at the envelope; no expression for a beat. Then he roars with laughter.)

VISSER

That’s good… “which rock to turn over”… that’s very good…

(Sighing, he leans forward to pick up the envelope. He rises, straightens his cowboy hat, and walks over to a screen door letting out on the bar’s back parking lot.)

VISSER

Well, gimme a call whenever you wanna cut off my head…

[End of quoted script.]

Again, perhaps this lacks the subtlety of the dialogue about the electrocuted cat, but there’s still the sense of two characters vying for territory through language. In the case of the slippery Visser, power is gained by taking the other guy’s words and using them to his advantage: I’ll gladly be the insect, the monster, you’ve paid me to be.

The Fiction & the Film

The Coens have taken the noir and shaped it into something new, but they first had to raise a little Cain to accomplish that.

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