Pull it, switch it, top it

INTERVIEWER

But there are devices one can use to set up a story, aren’t there? Such as the love rack, or the algebraic analysis of a story.

CAIN

Devices, yes. Like the old switcheroo. I used quite a few in my book called Past All Dishonor. It’s about Virginia City in the Civil War days of the big whorehouses. It’s about a boy who fell for a girl who worked in a house. Every guy in town could have her for ten bucks except him, and the reason was that she half-loved him. This was a very nice situation, and I was able to do something with it. I was able to top it, and that’s always what you try to do when you have a situation: You pull it, you switch it, you top it, which is the old Hollywood formula for a running gag.

James M. Cain in the Paris Review.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any memory of the origins of The Postman Always Rings Twice?

CAIN

Oh yes, I can remember the beginning of The Postman. It was based on the Snyder-Gray case, which was in the papers about then. You ever hear of it? Well, Grey and this woman Snyder killed her husband for the insurance money. Walter Lippmann went to that trial one day and she brushed by him, what was her name? Lee Snyder.* Walter said it seemed very odd to be inhaling the perfume or being brushed by the dress of a woman he knew was going to be electrocuted. So the Snyder-Grey case provided the basis. The big influence in how I wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice was this strange guy, Vincent Lawrence, who had more effect on my writing than anyone else. He had a device which he thought was so important—the “love rack” he called it. I have never yet, as I sit here, figured out how this goddamn rack was spelled . . . whether it was wrack, or rack, or what dictionary connection could be found between the word and his concept. What he meant by the “love rack” was the poetic situation whereby the audience felt the love between the characters. He called this the “one, the two and the three.” Someone, I think it was Phil Goodman, the producer and another great influence, once reminded him that this one, two, and three was nothing more than Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end. “Okay, Goody,” Lawrence said, “who the hell was Aristotle, and who did he lick?” I always thought that was the perfect Philistinism.

INTERVIEWER

How did it work?

CAIN

Lawrence would explain what he meant with an illustration, say a picture like Susan Lenox, where Garbo was an ill-abused Swedish farm girl who jumped into a wagon and brought the whip down over the horses and went galloping away and ended up in front of this farmhouse which Clark Gable, who was an engineer, had rented. And he takes her in. He’s very honorable with her, doesn’t do anything, gives her a place to sleep, puts her horses away and feeds them . . . He didn’t have any horses himself, but he did have two dozen ears of corn to feed hers. Well, the next day he takes the day off and the two of them go fishing. He’s still very honorable, and she’s very self-conscious and standoffish. She reels in a fish (they used a live fish—must have had it in a bucket). She says, I’ll cook him for your supper. And with that she gave herself away; his arms went around her. This fish, this live fish, was what Lawrence meant by a “love rack”; the audience suddenly felt what the characters felt. Before Lawrence got to Hollywood, they had simpler effects, created by what was called the mixmaster system. You know, he’d look at her through the forest window, looking over the lilies, and this was thought to be the way to do it; then they’d go down to the amusement park together and go through the what do you call it? Shoot de chute?

 



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