James 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”
Frank 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’ after 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 …
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: