Background: First published in 1934, James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice was so controversial for its sex and violence that it was banned by the city of Boston. Although MGM optioned the book shortly after it came out, it took twelve years for the Motion Picture Production Code to loosen up enough for an adaptation to be made. By that time, Cain’s novel had already inspired two other film adaptations: the French Le Dernier Tournant (1939) and the Italian Ossessione (1943). Incidentally, the latter (an unauthorized version directed by Luchino Visconti) is considered by many to be a pioneering work of Italian neorealism.
Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) hitches a ride to a roadside diner/gas station whose owner – a jovial Greek man named Nick (Cecil Kellaway) – immediately offers him a job. Frank accepts, but he’s less interested in the money than in Nick’s much younger wife Cora (Lana Turner.) Frank and Cora begin a passionate relationship and decide that Nick’s presence complicates things too much. After one failed attempt, they succeed in killing the Greek in a staged car accident. With the help of a cunning district attorney (frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Hume Cronyn), the two get off with only six months of probation for Cora. Nick’s death, however, solves nothing, as Frank and Cora have to deal both with guilt and with their growing mistrust of each other.
I read James M. Cain’s novel for this review and – regardless of how I critique the 1946 film adaptation – I strongly recommend it. Simply put, it’s a quintessential American crime story, a cornerstone of hard-boiled fiction (and thus film noir), an engrossing yarn that never lets up for a second. I’m particular impressed by Cain’s economical writing style: in only 100 pages, he creates a sleazy, cynical world and brings it to its only logical conclusion. He does so much with simple, declarative sentences. There’s not a wasted word, and Cain’s ability to get inside the heads of morally ambiguous characters makes this eighty year-old book seem strikingly modern.
In short, the book’s adapters have their work cut out for them. Fortunately, the filmmakers (journeyman Hollywood director Tay Garnett and producer Carey Wilson) get something fundamental absolutely right: this movie’s cast is fantastic. John Garfield is such a perfect fit for Frank Chambers that I can’t imagine any other actor in the role (I haven’t seen the 1981 version with Jack Nicholson.) The man just looks a drifter: hard living is written all over his face and he can be both approachable and vaguely menacing at the same time. I’m toying with the idea of giving out Oscar-style awards for this year and Garfield will definitely be a candidate for Best Actor if I do so.
Someone else I’ll have to give serious consideration to is Cecil Kellaway as Nick, who completely embodies the blissful ignorance of Cain’s character. The Greek is the only innocent character in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the only one not trying to screw everyone else over; he’s too consumed with ouzo and the day-to-day running of the diner to notice the two lovers plotting against him. (There’s a fun half-suspenseful, half-comedic sequence where he almost catches on.) Cain’s novel is almost like a Greek tragedy, with every character possessing a fatal flaw: while Frank’s is lust and Cora’s is ambition, Nick’s is merely stupidity.
Completing the triangle is Lana Turner in her most famous role. On a DVD special feature, USC film professor Richard B. Jewell describes her introduction (the camera pans from a tube of lipstick rolling on the floor to her legs; cut to the look on John Garfield’s face) as one of the great introductions in film history, and I have to agree: one can totally understand why Frank Chambers would kill for her. Although she’s a tad shrill and over-acty in the “dramatic” scenes, her onscreen chemistry with Garfield is a major asset for the film. The biggest challenge facing any film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice is convincing the audience of Frank and Cora’s passionate affair; this is made even more difficult for the 1946 version by the constraints of the Production Code.
Fortunately, Garfield and Turner completely sell it, using body language and subtle movements (he lights her cigarette) to communicate their relationship to the audience. In the spirit of Cain’s novel, the film tells us all we need to know about them and how they feel about each other in fifteen minutes.
After the Greek’s murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice turns into a legal thriller. I’ve seen this structure in multiple crime films of the era and it’s often a problem: both Dial M for Murder and Double Indemnity (1944, another Cain adaptation) become much less interesting after murder has been committed. Fortunately, this film manages to avoid that pitfall by with black humor. Fully embodying Cain’s characters, Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames play opposing attorneys who treat Frank and Cora’s trial like a game, placing bets on the outcome and finding legal loopholes to piss each other off. (Cronyn plays a somewhat similiar comic relief character in the 1943 Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt.) Their unabashedly unethical behavior prevents the film from sagging in the middle.
The film’s strong cast gets plenty of support from behind the camera. First, George White’s editing impressed me, especially during Frank and Cora’s failed attempt on Nick’s life. He uses increasingly quicker cuts from Frank acting as a lookout to oncoming cars on the highway in an almost textbook example of how to edit a suspenseful scene. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch’s script stays mostly faithful to the original book, and even includes my favorite line from it: Garfield was born to say, “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.” The score (by George Bassman and Erich Zeisl) is very noticeable, but it does effectively underscore dramatic moments. Although Sidney Wagner’s cinematography isn’t remarkable, it is good, solid, functional camerawork that never distracts. Finally, I’ve already given director Garnett an indirect compliment by mentioning the cast’s uniformly good performances.
There are a lot of good things in this adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I strongly recommend it, but I can’t help but feel like it misses something from Cain’s novel. I think that something is Cain’s writing itself: so much of the novel’s urgency comes from it being narrated by Frank Chambers, and Cain uses his memorable writer’s voice to bring that character to life. I guess something stemming from the writing itself is inevitably lost when a great book is translated to film. I mean, just imagine it going the other way: how could someone translate great cinematography or excellent performances into prose?
Abstract aesthetic thoughts aside, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a solid film that you should definitely check out.