The Review/ Feature/
All-American Sex and Murder: The Postman Always Rings Twice Around the World
Exploring the many screen lives of James M. Cain’s noir classic
In 1927, American newspaper readers were hooked on an unfolding serial drama: the story of Ruth Snyder née Brown, a housewife in Queens Village, New York City, who was being tried for the murder of her husband Albert, an art editor at Motor Boating magazine. Snyder had been carrying on an affair with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman, and Gray assisted his goodtime gal in the killing of Snyder, who was found garroted with picture wire and brained with a window sash in what was meant to look like a burglary, his nostrils stuffed with chloroform rags for good measure. The murder was spurred by hot resentment — Snyder doted on the memory of his dead first wife, to the disgust of his second — but was undertaken with cold, pragmatic premeditation, and with the promise of a fat payoff: in the lead-up to the killing, Ruth had buffaloed Albert into buying a $48,000 life insurance policy that would pay extra in the event of his demise through an act of unexpected violence.
Snyder and Gray would fold under questioning, ratting on one another, and subsequently go to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing; Tom Howard, a New York Daily News photographer who’d smuggled a camera into the death chamber strapped to his ankle, captured an image of Snyder’s body dancing in the grip of the fatal current. Their trial had been a phenomenon, bringing journalists and rubberneckers from all over to pack the benches in the Long Island City Courthouse. Among the spectators who passed through over the course of the proceedings were D.W. Griffith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Damon Runyon, and a 34-year-old crime reporter with an insurance background that gave him insight into the ins and outs of the case, James M. Cain.
While the killers’ names have since been largely forgotten, their deeds have lived on courtesy of Cain, who, in his first novel, took the basic elements of the case (a love triangle, a murder, an insurance cash grab), moved them out west to California (where he’d relocated in 1931 to work as a screenwriter for Paramount), and cranked up the lusty, torrid heat on the adulterous lovers’ affair, passion-pit prurience driving them to murder and their ultimate, grisly fate. The result, published to critical acclaim and popular success in 1934, was The Postman Always Rings Twice, which began Cain’s successful run of romans noir throughout the ’30s and ’40s, and went some ways towards countering the tourist board and Chamber of Commerce-endorsed view of life in sunny California, which would increasingly become the scene of grim going-on in fiction and films.
While Cain’s backdrop in Postman and his subsequent novels Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity was specifically southern California — whose already firmly established car culture and strings of roadside oases were crucial to his narrative — the language with which he sets the scene emphasizes what the writer Robert Polito calls the “offhand universality” of these everyday backdrops. “It was nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California,” muses the book’s narrator and protagonist Frank Chambers, a drifter with a checkered past, near the opening of the novel, that first-person “voice” being but one element that those 1940s American thrillers that would later be designated as film noir would borrow from writers like Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler.
What set Cain apart from those authors, as Polito observes, was the fact that he spoke in the voice of the perpetrator of the crime, not the investigator. Frank stops into the “sandwich joint” slash service station, which is run by a middle-aged Greek immigrant named Nick Papadakis, to cadge a quick bite, then hangs around to work as a mechanic — not because he needs the money, but because of what he sees of the proprietor’s wife. “She really wasn’t any raving beauty,” Frank observes, “but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”
As per that memorable turn of phrase, the affair that ignites between Frank and Mrs. Papadakis — who prefers to be called by her first name Cora, embarrassed as she presumably is by the greasy taint of the foreign surname and anything else that might mark her as lower-class or anything less than a proper WASP — is touched from the get-go with an element of the sadomasochistic, a jumble of violent and erotic impulses that reaches a kind of pinnacle when they feverishly hump away over the scene of their “perfect crime”: Frank’s bushwhacking of Nick from the backseat of a car, followed by a staged crash to make his death look like an accident.
While the book sold like hotcakes, given the fact that it contained such scenes as the above it is perhaps not surprising that Hollywood took its time in bringing The Postman Always Rings Twice to the screen. The novel had hit the stands the same year as the implementation of the Production Code Administration (PCA), which initiated a rigorous policing of the moral content of American motion pictures, including stringent rules regarding the depiction of extramarital lust. Under such scrutiny, the filming of a story about two all-American, hatefuck-addicted low-life reprobates plotting the violent disposal of a hard-working immigrant striver was a dicey proposition. RKO’s Merian C. Cooper (co-creator of the mighty monkey Kong ) submitted a synopsis of the story to the PCA, and was dissuaded by their response from pursuing the project any further. MGM picked up Cain’s hot potato shortly thereafter, and was subsequently browbeaten by PCA director Joseph I. Breen for pursuing a property saddled with “numerous sexual irregularities.”
While Hollywood hemmed and hawed, other, more permissive national cinemas stepped up to the plate, as the offhand universality of both Cain’s settings and his subjects — sex, murder, greed — made for an easy translation of the story of Frank and Cora into foreign tongues. The first adaptation of Cain’s novel, Le dernier tournant (1939), was directed by Pierre Chenal, a Belgian-born Jew then working in France, who would go on to a curious, peripatetic career after fleeing Europe and the Nazis (he would, for example, helm an Argentine-shot 1951 adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, starring Wright himself in the role of Bigger Thomas). The film features Michel Simon in the Nick role and, as the lovers, Fernand Gravey and Corinne Luchaire. It’s the last-named performer who most recommends this prototypical Postman: a dark, sullen, shrewd actress, Luchaire would shortly thereafter have her reputation irreparably tainted due to her collaboration during the German Occupation. If Breen is to be believed, Le dernier tournant didn’t do her any favours either: in a letter to Col. Frederick L. Herron, the MPPDA treasurer, he gloated over news that the film had been a “fairly complete flop,” thus vindicating his watchdog role as a service to the public, protecting them from unwholesome material that they didn’t want to see anyways.
While Le dernier tournant is essentially a film-historical footnote today, the next Euro adaptation of Cain’s novel would be something of far greater significance. Luchino Visconti, the scion of a noble Milanese family who was perhaps the richest man ever to turn his hand to vocational filmmaking, had been given a French translation of Cain’s book by his old mentor Jean Renoir, and in his adaptation (and first feature) Ossessione (1943), he begins with a note of real fidelity to the source material: the Frank character, Gino (played by Massimo Girotti, a student athlete who assayed his good looks and physique into a film-acting career) first appears as a stowaway on a truck, as he is in Cain’s book. An essential difference in Visconti’s treatment, however, appears in the first encounter between Gino and his Cora, Clara Calamai’s Giovanna. Where Cain and the majority of his cinematic adapters emphasize Chambers’ first sighting of Cora, Visconti — a gay man who would quite overtly evince his sexual orientation in his subsequent films — privileges Giovanna’s response to Gino, who, wearing a threadbare tank top that leaves his hairy, muscular shoulders bare, is seen head-on in a dolly shot that tilts up as though kneeling before his rugged image.
In addition to this first palpable onscreen expression of the director’s fancy for proletarian hunks, Ossessione displays several of Visconti’s signature stylistic flourishes and thematic preoccupations. Visconti shared with Cain a love of music — the hard-boiled novelist had once hoped to follow in the footsteps of his opera singer mother, and he had made an opera singer the protagonist of his 1937 novel Serenade — and he ups the ante on Nick’s inveterate warbling in the book by having his Nick equivalent, Juan de Landa’s Bragana, conquer an amateur singing contest on the night of his demise in the lovers’ carefully premeditated auto accident. The aftermath of the crash offers but one early example of the sort of intricate, scrupulously ordered mise en scène for which the filmmaker would later become known: in a mobile sequence shot that quite unobtrusively lasts an unbroken four-and-a-half minutes, Visconti’s camera follows the investigators and survivors at the site, lucidly delineating gathering suspicion and temporary reprieve with the push and pull of the frame.
Further, the aristocratic Visconti’s paradoxically left-wing commitments — which would manifest themselves openly in his milestone second feature, La Terra Trema (1948) — also leave their mark on the film in the newly created character of Spagnolo (“The Spaniard”), a drifter like Gino who encounters our protagonist as he’s on the run from Giovanna, and who preaches brotherhood-of-man ideals that are about as communistic as one could get away with under Mussolini’s government. (Unlike Breen, the Fascists allowed this Cain adaptation to be made, but banned the finished product and destroyed every print they could get their hands on; the movie only survives courtesy of a duplicate negative.) Due to its political outlook and unvarnished location photography, Ossessione has often been cited as a forerunner of Italian neorealism, a movement that would soon send shockwaves through international film culture — a claim that gains more credence when one considers that Visconti made the film with a cadre of collaborators (including future filmmakers Antonio Pietrangeli, Giuseppe De Santis, and Gianni Puccini) who were affiliated with Cinema, a Milan-based magazine (edited by Il Duce’s son Vittorio) that would act as an incubator for the neorealist school.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, an impulse very much like that which had prompted neorealism had created an American analog in the film noir, which principally if not exclusively used the cityscape as its backdrop. Where previously location shooting had largely been reserved for westerns and other suitably outdoorsy scenarios, in films such as Cry of the City (1948), The Asphalt Jungle, Side Street (both 1950), and Crime Wave (1954), the American urban jungle could be seen playing itself in a way that had rarely happened since the days of D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915).
It was in this period later identified as the noir boom that The Postman Always Rings Twice finally saw an American adaptation. The project was first revived Stateside around 1940 with director Gustav Machatý attached, and it’s cause for regret that the Czechoslovakian provocateur, whose Erotikon (1929) and Ecstasy (1932) are such marvels of cinematic sensuality, ultimately didn’t have a chance to heavy breathe all over this blouse-popping material. In the event, the film was directed by the periodically inspired workhorse Tay Garnett at MGM, which was without a doubt the least noir-friendly of the major studios. For the role of Frank, John Garfield was borrowed from the more streetwise Warner Bros., while Cora was played by MGM contract star and popular pin-up Lana Turner — a development that proved to be career-redefining for Turner, who called it her “big chance to do some real acting.”
While the explicit carnality of Cain’s novel is diluted, and Garfield’s Frank has a lot more “Gee whiz” to him than the canny sharper that Cain wrote, the two stars do their best to compensate for this loss with ravenous eyelocks that eloquently express all the scurrility that the Breen Office had struck from the script. Location shooting in Laguna Beach and the unfashionable southeastern suburb of Norwalk lends Garnett’s Postman a degree of lived-in pungency, though this can’t wholly compensate for the mishandling of the Nick character, who is played as an oafish neuter by the South African actor Cecil Kellaway, with an unusual but quite refined-sounded accent not at all in keeping with the character’s original conception. Manny Farber, who called the film “almost too terrible to walk out of,” diagnoses the problem, not incorrectly, as “the white surfacing of the MGM production” in a story that “calls for particularly feverish, dissatisfied people living in an environment that might well drive them to adultery and murder.” In the end, the film is good enough, by virtue of Garfield and Turner, to make you wish it were better.
What had to be communicated with a smouldering glance in 1946 could be made rather more overt in 1981, a year that brought with it a crop of high-style American thrillers sometimes designated as “neo-noir”: Michael Mann’s Thief, Lawrence Kasdan’s Postman-inspired Body Heat, and American Gigolo, directed by that superb critical theorist of the film noir, Paul Schrader. Where these films gave the classic noir formula a contemporary gloss, director Bob Rafelson chose to go back to the well. Reviving the original Cain classic once again, with a script by David Mamet and stars Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange (the latter of whom would shortly thereafter receive an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Tootsie), Rafelson set his Postman Always Rings Twice squarely in the Depression era, which is given the palette of well-worn shoe leather by cinematographer Sven Nykvist and veteran production designer George Jenkins, who had begun his career as the art director on The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
One of the pleasures Rafelson’s Postman is how, by virtue of Jenkins’ work, it manages to locate traces of the 1930s at the cusp of the Reagan era — this was nearing the end of the time when any such living linkage to the period could be located — though it is probably best remembered for its panting, blow-by-blow sex scenes between Nicholson and Lange, which were considered unusually explicit for a wide-release movie at the time. (The 1946 Cora herself, Lana Turner, appeared on The Phil Donahue Show to express her dismay at the story’s transformation into “vicious… pornographic trash.”)
Beyond such sexual frankness (which was still not a patch on the lip-gouging first kiss between Frank and Cora in Cain’s book), Rafelson and Mamet took some liberties with the material, notably by significantly altering the character of Frank to fit Nicholson’s persona. Usually depicted as a competent mechanic in his various incarnations, Frank here bluffs his way into the job at Nick’s exclusively for a crack at Cora, a subterfuge which provides the opportunity for Nicholson to display his considerable gifts as a physical comedian. This Frank is older than the character as written, and stouter, too (Nicholson makes expressive use of his double chin), though he still has oleaginous swagger enough to seem an improvement on Nick, who is played here by the Greek-Canadian actor John Colicos and given the distinct ethnic identity that the 1946 film failed entirely to supply him. This Nick is distinctly a foreigner, while his killers are native-born — but here one has a sense that he, unlike them, has a fixed identity, belongs to a real community, and from this derives the moral grounding that his assassins lack.
Cain’s novel, set in the no-place-in-particular of roadside America, describes the modern malaise of rootlessness, which may explain its appeal not only to makers of popular thrillers but to cinematic modernists, for whom rootlessness was a defining element of contemporary existence. Only a few years after Ossessione, Massimo Girotti would again take the “Frank” role in another film loosely inspired by Cain’s novel: Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), the feature debut of Michelangelo Antonioni, who early in his career had been greatly impressed by the poise and distance of Visconti’s work, and even had made plans to work with the older man.
Set largely in Antonioni’s native Ferrara, Story of a Love Affair departs from Postman in several points of plotting, as well as in its locating its unhappily married couple (Lucia Bosè and Ferdinando Sarmi) in the upper class, the milieu from which Antonioni came and the one whose anhedonia he would come to specialize in studying. While Story isn’t as daring in form and content as the remarkable run of films that Antonioni would begin with 1955’s Le Amiche, scenes of the rendezvousing lovers give off a familiar chill, and the film shows the director developing his own gloss on the Viscontian sequence shot in the scene where Bosè and Girotti, plot their ambush, a single take that begins following an automobile traversing a drear autumnal countryside and ends with the lovers walking away from the camera, figures in a desolate landscape.
Honours for the bleakest version of Cain’s material, however, must go to the 1998 Hungarian film Passion, directed by György Fehér and co-written by Fehér’s compatriot Béla Tarr, whose own Damnation (1988) owes not a little to Cain’s triangle. In Fehér’s treatment, shot in stark black and white, the material is stripped down to the purely elemental. The trio of wife, husband, and interloper are given no proper names, rendering them eternal figures in a parable as old as time; the investigating prosecutor, played by an unwaveringly grave István Lénárt, looks less like a practitioner of the law than the embodiment of The Law itself. The film’s two-and-a-half-hour duration (curiously, given how slender the source material is, adaptations of Postman almost never come in short) emphasizes the smothering claustrophobia of the setting, as well as the clamouring desperation of the lovers’ caresses, the two burrowing into one another as though hoping to claw their way towards another, kinder plane of existence. Here, at last, is all the feverish dissatisfaction that Farber found missing in 1946.
Fehér and Tarr’s treatment gets at something primal in Cain’s story. How else to explain the strange persistence of one man’s interpretation of a murder committed by a Queens housewife and a corset salesman across the span of so much time and space? There have always been people with money and no sex appeal, and people with sex appeal and no money, and there have always been the uncomfortable arrangements that result from bartering between the two. What is remarkable about Cain’s achievement, perhaps, is how unremarkable it manages to make murder, the “offhand universality” of its imperfect crime. It was nothing but a sex murder, like a million others…