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03.29.11

A Ride Through Mildred Pierce's Noir Neighborhood

A California company offers a bus tour of the Los Angeles haunts that inspired the noir classic now unfolding on HBO. Sean Macaulay takes a ride on James M. Cain's nightmare express.

Todd Haynes’ deluxe adaptation of Mildred Pierce, currently running on HBO, is a James M. Cain loyalist’s dream. It offers more than six hours of vintage Cain—lust, greed, betrayal, and cake-baking. ( Mildred Pierce must be the only hard-boiled noir ever written about opening a pie restaurant.)

But if this marathon of melodrama isn’t enough, Cain obsessives can also book a seat on the “Birth of Noir” express, aka James M. Cain's Southern California Nightmare Bus Tour.

The tour is the brainchild of Esotouric, a Los Angeles company that hosts a variety of “bus adventures,” including visits to real-life murder scenes and trips to old rock-star haunts. Twice a year, it kicks off in downtown L.A. outside the venerable Philippe’s, a restaurant that claims to have invented the “French Dipped Sandwich,” and ends four hours later at the King Eddy Saloon, a downtown drinking den where Cain would go to soak up the low-life ambience—and the lingo.

The host for the tour is Richard Schave, a local historian and noir enthusiast with a passion for Cain. “He is the great unsung novelist of Los Angeles,” he says. “He broke the ground. The Postman Always Rings Twice came five years before The Big Sleep. It’s important to show what Jamie Cain was doing, hanging out on Skid Row and the Intake Mission, picking up this lingo, this logos, that became the core of the American school of hardboiled letters.”

Schave welcomes aboard the 50-plus passengers with flop-haired gusto. The crowd is a mixed bunch—hipsters, tourists, academic types, and a children’s entertainer with a ukulele. But they are all quietly rapt with the mix of noir film clips and the idiosyncratic running commentary. “Like all good noir," Schave explains into his microphone, “Cain’s books usually had a femme fatale and as we all know, women like to kill by poison, fire, and water.”

The bus heads to Skid Row, where John Garfield went to purge himself of Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. “This was Cain’s first novel, published in 1934, and the first to use what he called the Love Rack. This is the triangular formulation given to Cain by playwright Vincent Lawrence to dramatize any relationship.” In Postman, the rack is having the couple fall in love while committing a murder. Then they make love by the corpse.

The bus trundles onto East Hollywood and pulls up outside the apartment building used in Double Indemnity, where Fred MacMurray plots murder with Barbara Stanwyck. Its Art Deco splendor is still intact and it’s nice to learn that the building’s super hosts a screening for the film every year in the common room.

“It’s nice to show the emotional half-acre that spawned people like [John] Fante and Cain.”

Then it’s on to the Glendale Train Station, also used in Double Indemnity, where everybody disembarks for a re-enactment of the scene where the body is dumped on the tracks.

“Straight down the line,” says a volunteer, gamely reading off a script. ”I love you, Walter.”

“I love you baby.”

This being L.A., no one bats an eyelash among the regular travelers.

While researching the tour, Schave stumbled across Cain’s fascination with the lion farms, which sprang up in California in the 1920s. One of them, Gay’s Lions Farm, made the headlines when an employee was mauled to death after a cage was left open—apparently on purpose. The incident inspired Cain’s early short story, The Baby in the Ice Box, which in turn evolved into The Postman Always Rings Twice. Perhaps the most popular stop on the tour is the Glendale house, used as Joan Crawford’s home in the 1945 version of Mildred Pierce. The current owner, a Frenchwoman called Jeanette, gets a special mention for saving the palm tree in the front. Doughnuts and cookies are eaten in honor of Mildred’s baking skills.

For the finale at the King Eddy Saloon, beer is drunk in honor of Cain, who was no stranger to alcoholic refreshment. The place is so robust it doesn’t have a smoking room, but a smoking cage. A brawny thug gives a menacing stare, and that's the barman. “It’s nice to show the emotional half-acre that spawned people like [John] Fante and Cain,” says Schave. “It pushes the focus of noir back onto the writer. There are so many great noir films, but they all come out of great writing first.”

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Sean Macaulay is a screenwriter, humorist, and journalist, specializing in symptoms of the post-macho midlife crisis. He was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007, and has written for The Daily Telegraph, Radio Times, Punch, and British GQ. He was most recently creative consultant on Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which was voted Best Documentary at the Independent Sprit Awards. You can follow him on Twitter here.