THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934) by James M. Cain

Cain-Postman-Always-Rings-Twice-adultsposter2James M. Cain’s debut novel was the publishing sensation of 1934 – and still packs a punch thanks to its twisty plot, sexually charged protagonists and violent emotional undercurrent. Based loosely on a real-life case, this obliquely titled tale of infidelity, passion, murder and legal chicanery helped establish the classic Noir template.

I submit this Valentine’s Day review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog even though it’s not really that forgotten I suppose …

“They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

This opening line, a model of economical writing in the hard-boiled vernacular, has becoming something of a classic. The narrator is Frank Chambers, a man in his early 20s drifting across depression-era America without plans or ambition who finds a dark kind of purpose when he meets Cora, the wife of Nick “The Greek” Papadakis, owner of a roadside cafe and filling station. Taken on to help run the joint, he and Cora quickly start a passionate affair, one that is described with detail that, for its day, was considered pretty racy (and even just a little bit Gothic/vampiric):

“I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. it was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs”

Cain-Postman-Always-Rings-Twice_pbFrank and Cora think of leaving and even get as far as taking a few steps on to the highway but soon she returns, unable to face the uncertainty ahead. They then decide to kill Nick so she can keep the ‘Twin Oaks Tavern’ and turn it into a thriving business. They try to make his death look like a fall in the bathroom but fate gets in the way when a curious feline blows the fuses just as Cora slugged her husband in the bath. He gets taken to hospital and they get some unwelcome attention from the local cops as a result. Frank leaves but is drawn back to Cora and eventually they decide to stage a second attempt – this also goes wrong when a fake roadside accident becomes real as Frank gets caught inside the car in which they have placed Nick’s already dead body and the vehicle rolls down a hill. The story then becomes really cynical as it details the legal shenanigans that go on behind the scenes when the two are put on trial. The repartee between sharp DA Sackett and the couple’s unscrupulous defence attorney Katz wouldn’t disgrace the early Perry Mason novels in terms of complexity and legal cut and thrust but presents the system as utterly and completely corrupt. Frank and Cora get away with the crime and together make a go of the tavern – but it seems  fate is waiting for them none the less, somewhere down the road, when their past seems to catch up with them.

“Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.”

Little dates quite as much as old news and yesterday’s scandal is today’s commonplace occurrence. It is now 80 years since this short novel (it amounts to little over 30,000 words in length) first appeared, so can it really still have the power to surprise, let alone shock as it did originally? Back in 1934 this tart, bluntly told tale of a woman and her lover bumping off her husband got it banned outright in some places (including Boston) and may have carried an extra sense of verisimilitude as it was apparently based on the notorious Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray case from 1928 (which incidentally gets name-checked in the original 1951 version of The Thing – you can read more about it here). Along with its spicy elements and topicality, Cain also makes this a very immediate story, told in the first person and omitting anything that might seem superfluous (including ‘he / she/ they said’ Cain-Pstman_Always_Rings_Twice-pocketafter reporting dialogue). Its plot is a grabber if now very familiar while its generally outspoken elements still surprise given the vintage, while its sordid detail has an authentic if unpleasant tang (Cora is a racist who mainly seems to hate the Greek just because of his ethnicity and takes umbrage when mistaken for a Mexican due to her dark hair: “I’m just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I’m just as white as you are”). The book is strong stuff and still impressive but had obvious attractions for the cinema though censorship did get in the way in the USA. None the less, it has been adapted many times for the cinema, officially and unofficially. Here is a quick rundown:

Le dernier tournant / ‘The Last Turn’ (1939)
Unofficial adaptation directed by Pierre Chenal in France – I’ve never seen this one but would love to …

Ossessione (1943)
Another unofficial version (i.e. they didn’t secure the rights), this time made in Italy by Luchino Visconti and relocated to the Po region – a fairly faithful adaptation that used the story to look at the situation of the poor in the Po region – it prefigures the neo-realist movement that would flourish after the war and is full of amazing detail and had stunning performances from Clara Calamai as ‘Giovanna’ and Massimo Girotti as ‘Gino’ is only slightly less impressive.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Unlikely as it may seem, it was squeaky clean studio MGM that finally adapted the novel for the American screen, buoyed no doubt by the huge success of Double Indemnity, the movie version of Cain’s very similar later story of a couple of murders. Because MGM practically never made crime movies, they got important talent from the more proletarian Warner Bros to do it including director Tay Garnett and star John Garfield (who is wonderful if really a bit too old). Home studio star Lana Turner gets top billing though and, while decked out in some absurd outfits as befitting her clothes horse image, is none the less a knockout as the provocative Cora. Just why soft-jowelled Brit Cecil Kellaway is cast as the Greek of the book is unclear however but here, rather than be ethic he is turned into a drunk to give the couple a reason to dislike him just a little bit (Kellaway actually could play sinister very well when given the chance but usually played pleasant of doddery priests and the like).

Leon Ames is the DA and introduced into the first scene, becoming a kid of nemesis for the couple, turning up whenever they do anything bad, which is a bit absurd but which is explained with at least a trace of logic by having him be suspicious of them from the get go. Hume Cronyn is wonderful as Katz and virtually steals the picture, which today still stands up very well, not least because it is remarkably faithful to the novel even retaining the voice over narration and practically all the plot and situations with surprisingly few concessions to the Breen office. And Garfield is perfectly cast as the insolent, passionate Frank – the scene in which he first meets Cora as the Tavern is beautifully done as we literally see her take his breath away. Shame about the awful, repetitive, mickey-mousing score by George Bassman though …

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
This sexually outspoken adaptation by David Mamet starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange and directed by Bob Rafelson (his sixth collaboration with Nicholson) boats a terrific score by Michael Small and exceptional cinematography by Bergman regular, Sven Nykvist is very faithful to the book but will still raise a few eyebrows for its torrid scenes. recently released on Blu-ray, this is also a terrific version that is well worth getting.

Szenvedély / ‘Passion (1998)
Hungarian adaptation – not seen this one yet either. Then there are the many, many versions for TV and radio too …

DVD Availability: The 1946 version is available on an excellent DVD and an even better Blu-ray from Warners, offering a fine image and plenty of extras including candid biographies of the two lead actors. The much more sexually explicit 1981 remake is also now available on a very decent Blu-ray in the US from Warner that is region free. Ossessione, a prototype for the  Italian post-war neo-realist movement, has been released several times over the years on DVD in the UK and the US and remains the most impressive film made of the material in my view.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Director: Tay Garnett
Producer: Carey Wilson
Screenplay: Harry Ruskin, Niven Busch
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Art Direction: Randall Duell
Music: George Bassman
Cast: John Garfield, Lana Turner, Cecil Kellaway, Audrey Totter, Hume Cronin, Leon Ames

I submit this  review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Set in the US’ category:

mark3.5-vintage-golden

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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39 Responses to THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934) by James M. Cain

  1. Sergio – I must admit I am more of a fan of the novel than I am of the filmed versions. I’ll grant though that the Nicholson/Lange version is as you say true to the book. It’s a old story in the sense that he premise has been going on for a very long time. But the story still (well, to me anyway) has a modern urgency about it. I’m glad you reminded me of it.

  2. scott says:

    I enjoyed the 1981 version

    • Thanks Scott – I think the 1981 version is th emost uncompromising though the Italian adaptation, while unsanctioned, may be th emost powerful, especially in the context of the environment in which it was produced.

  3. John says:

    I have read the book but recall only it’s terse, stripped down style and the utter lack of attribution in the dialogue. As for the movie versions: One of Garfield’s best roles. The more I see of him — especially in little known movies like OUT OF THE FOG, a very interesting film — the more I’m impressed. Another actor who died far too young.

  4. Colin says:

    I prefer the 1946 version for a couple of reasons – Garfield, Turner and Cronyn, the 40s vibe. I never warmed to the 81 version although lots of people speak highly of it.

    • I re-watched the Blu-ray the other day it and was amazed frankly at how close the 1946 version is to the novel and I liked it even more than I remembered. I’d forgotten the scene with the priest and the dialogue about the hereafter were more or less identical in fact. The remake is a lot earthier (not to say dirtier) and I think in that sense earns brownie points for fidelity while omitting the above-mentioned coda which i can live very well without – and I am a fan of Bob Rafelson too, who is clearly a film noir fan. It helps that it’s not a remake but just another adaptation – Lange was never as a big a star as Turner but you have to admit is presented much more plausibly!

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I’ll grant you the 81 movie has a more realistic feel to it but it just never clicked with me – happens that way sometimes.

        • Fair enough Colin – it’s a pretty sordid story but the noir stylings and sheer glamour of the 1946 version tend to push that away whereas the 81 version just revels in it, which is certainly a lot less likeable!

          • Colin says:

            True, and I’ve no problem with anyone preferring the 81 film.
            I think I have a bit of an issue with a lot of 80s movies in general. I kind of fell out of love with going to the cinema in the early 80s and that lasted till the latter half of the decade. It’s illogical and unfair I know, but it does color my perception of a lot of that era’s output to this day.

          • That’s really interesting – I was certainly no fan of high concept movies as they developed but they were my teenage years and I think I went to the cinema a lot as a result!

          • Colin says:

            Yes, I’m sure my take on early to mid 80s cinema runs contrary to almost everyone else of our generation. What the hell! I like to be different!

          • It’s good to be contrary – I remember refusing to go see Back to the Future purely because everybody else I knw wanted to see it – and now I think it’s a great little movie (if horribly conservative, like most of Zemeckis’ output – don;t even get me started on Contact!)

          • Colin says:

            It’s good to be contrary

            If that’s true, then I must be on the brink of sainthood!

            And I still don’t really get the love heaped on Back to the Future – as for Ghostbusters

          • It’s a bit hard to udnerstand quite why Ghostbusters was so huge, isn’t it? I do think BTTF is a good example of a well constructed time paradox story (I am a total sucker for these) and I loved the second one too in fact – though as I say, I have my issues with the underlyng politics

          • Colin says:

            I don’t mind BTTF – I don’t love it as many seem to but I don’t mind it – Ghostbusters left me cold and bored all those years ago and I’ve never changed my mind. Different strokes and all that I suppose.

          • I did see BTTF2 at the cinema and thought it was wonderfully dark for the most part (once you got past the silly section with Michael J Fox playing multiple family members) and thought it was great and then went back to the first one Actually I did this with Terminator 2 too – I suppose it kinda makes sense with time travel movies to see them in the wrong order …

  5. westwoodrich says:

    Coincidentally I last read Postman on a Valentine’s Day. I was in Saudi Arabia and was a little bit nervous that the cover image would get me into some kind of trouble.

    A great book, and thanks for the movie rundown. I’ve only seen the 1981 version.

    • Thanks Rich – blimey, of all the books you could have taken with you to the enlightened Kingdom of Western Asia! There was a perversity to posting a review of it today that really appealed to me – also, in fairness, Frank and Cora’s love story is presented as utterly genuine and in that sense gets out unscathed from its general cynicism and misanthropy.

  6. Excellent roundup of the book and its different film version – I was only aware of the 2 American ones. Great story, I have always enjoyed book and both films.

  7. robert says:

    I saw both the 1946 and 1981 versions. What I remembered from the 1946 version was this dialogue between the lawyer Keats and Cora/Frank, when he told them that he knew the DA had no evidence it was a murder because the insurance company, with all its detectives, had decided to pay! I found this argument very funny indeed…
    I was not aware of the french version either.

    • Thanks for that Robert. The dialogue is pretty much taken straight from the novel and Cronyn delivers it beautifully – I think the reason the books works to the extent that it does is because it makes Cora and Frank like children ina world of adults – doesn’t mean they’re not murderers because they are but they are not fully developed as people. It is a fascinating read and you can see, I think, why it has endured.

  8. TracyK says:

    Reading this, I could not believe the Jessica Lange / Jack Nicholson version was so long ago. I am getting old. I only saw it for the first time a few years ago on DVD and either I really disliked it or I was so uncomfortable I could not finish it. I am such a wimp.

    Same goes for the book. Since I have no definite plans to read it because it seems too tense, too uncomfortable for me, I read every word of your post. Great post and maybe I actually could read it because it is so short. I may surprise you some day and do a book to movie post, and try the 1946 version.

    • I do know what you mean TracyK and there are plenty of texts that have the same effect on me. Thanks very much for the kinds words, as always. I think you might like the 1946 versions – the Bluray is very cheap and has lots of great extras too!

  9. Great choice and review, Sergio. I have heard so much about the book and the films that it surprises me that I have never read or seen it yet. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything by James M. Cain. A shame, if anything.

    • Thanks Prashant. He wrote a lot of short stories and sketches to start with before graduating to novels – he is an important figure in the fedelopment of the Noir tradition but he is far from being a personal favourite. You can read Postman online right here.

  10. I’m with Margot. I enjoyed the movie versions better than the book. I know James M. Cain is a brilliant writer but he writes in a style that’s hard to warm up to. Excellent review!

    • Thanks for the kind words George, much appreciated. Cain is a writer whose work I enjoy but I find it impossible not to think of the movie versions and, with perhaps this exception, find them better on whole, especially Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity – in this case of the ’81 version doesn’t feel the need to go on after the tragic ending as the book does but it is very faithful none the less like the ’46 version so the author really does deserve the lion share of the credit. Really enjoyed revisiting this and a review of Double Indemnity will soon follow!

  11. steve says:

    I have just finished reading my first Cain book, Double Indemnity. I enjoyed it
    but felt the film version was better. I get a similar feeling reading your review of
    The Postman Always Rings Twice. I suppose these stories are perfect for cinema.
    I need to watch the Nicholson/Lange version which sounds great. Great review.

    • Thanks very much Steve. I would definitely agree that the movie of Double Indemnity is much better than the novel and I agree that Cain really did seem to be writing stories that aimed to work well at the movies. Postman may be the one of his best-known works that truly stands up though, possibly a controversial statement though as there are some mighty big fans out there …

  12. Kelly says:

    Great pick for Valentine’s Day—beats the drippy stuff by a mile. I almost re-watched it last night, but opted for SCARLET STREET instead.

  13. Todd Mason says:

    Hah. It is fascinating, seeing how coded the filmmaking could be in Fascist Italy, where rights questions were, shall put it, delicate (I still need to see the Italian WE THE LIVING, as well, to see how much Ayn Rand is used to subvert the dictatorship…and how much the film subverts Rand’s own mind games). I think I might actually agree more with Margot…I prefer Cain’s prose, but need to see an unedited version of the 1981 film (I saw pieces of it on broadcast television)…Lange was still re-establishing herself at the time, after the career-setback that the KING KONG remake was, while Nicholson if anything was overindulged at the time.

    Cain published a number of crime-fiction stories with AMERICAN MERCURY that would be reprinted by sibling magazine ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE when that magazine rolled out in ’41…favorite anecdote about Cain was during his brief employment as one of the lieutenants of Harold Ross at THE NEW YORKER (Ross was always employing lieutenants to do fiddly and importunate things for him, as well as being remarkably puritanical and paternalistic toward his contributors)…Ross had sent Cain out to instruct another contributor to cease and desist a romantic affair with a woman they all knew, and Cain found himself getting as far as actually going to meet the contributor, and then let the full import of his task sink in. Cain supposedly found himself saying, close paraphrase,”Live your life, do what you want. Sorry to trouble you.” Cain then resigned from TNY.

    • Have not seen the Italian version of the Rand other than catching a snatch of it on TV (and being annoyed when I realised what I’d just missed) – nice anecdote about Cain Todd, thanks for that. I’d like to think I’d do the same … I only really know the short stories of his collected in the ‘Baby in the Icebox’ collection. Ossessione is really terrific but you know what? Postman is a strong movie story to begin with and (barring my as yet unseen iterations from France and elsewhere), I think they all offer something. The Lange / Rafelson version is certainly very earthy and indeed has the strongest sex scenes I can think of from a mainstream Hollywood studio (and I include the likes of Body Heat – I chose to ignore imitative and exploitative dreck like Basic Instinct), though I look forward to being corrected on that statement! The Blu is well worth having a look at it seems to me …

  14. Bev Hankins says:

    I’ve got this one slated for the Vintage Challenge as well (under the Book to Movie square). I’ll be back to read your review more closely once I’ve tackled it myself.

  15. Pingback: Love and bullets – Classic crime in the blogosphere: February 2014 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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