Sunday, June 29, 2014

Serenade (1937)

James M. Cain's Serenade was written right after The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and it definitely has a lot of their brisk, hard-boiled forward momentum. And despite its many strange elements it is still, more than anything, a crime novel in a decided noir style, recognizably Cain. Yet it is ultimately served well by the strange elements: an Aztec-Mexican prostitute, a shrewd and talented American opera singer, and various lurid mid-century details of drunkenness and debauchery, notably a crazed power-mad homosexual stereotype who arrives late. At which point it heads off directly into the macabre and the caricatured with just about enough unholy zeal to get it across the finish line. Until then, and after a brief prologue in a purple Mexico, it tends to be most interesting when it is about the career of the opera singer, John Sharp, who is on the comeback trail. Sharp talks and behaves more like an automaton, as he wheels and deals with figures of great power in the entertainment / culture industries of the '30s in Hollywood and New York, which is frankly weird. But if the tone is slightly jarring, the details are always interesting, based on Cain's own keen appreciation for the world of opera. The whole thing is way overheated from start to finish, larded up with arguably too many caricatures. But I thought it was remarkably sensitive to Juana, the Aztec-Mexican prostitute, who plays hard against expectations and has a lot of complexity behind her accent, frequently observing that things seem "fonny." Serenade goes over the top at its climax, in a scene that very much surprised me, and clarified the love relationship between the principals. I guess it might suffer overall in some of its extremes when you reflect on it, but the inflamed language and incident pretty much had me all the way. I also liked and was surprised by some of the ways Cain treats homosexuality here, though of course it had to be explicitly licensed by the theatrical opera settings. In the '30s, evidently, everyone understands that's where you find "them," and "they" are all here: transvestites, lesbians, and gays, oh my. But behind that a remarkable clarity sometimes peers out, which I like about Serenade quite a bit. "There's nothing to tell," Sharp says when he is finally confessing his gay affair of years earlier to Juana. "Every man has got five per cent of that in him, if he meets the one person that'll bring it out, and I did, that's all."

In case it's not at the library.

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