THEIR LOVE WAS A FLAME THAT DESTROYED!
I have vivid memories of the 1981 version of James M. Cain’s classic crime novel. As I was perhaps ten years old when the movie was first shown on TV, the one scene that stuck to my memory was obviously the one where Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange have passionate sex on a kitchen table. Watching the earlier Lana Turner-John Garfield version years later was naturally a much tamer experience… but that one still stands out as possibly the best take on Cain’s novel. And it’s important to remember that 1940s audiences were indeed treated to a tale of lust and malice that shocked some of them.
A drifter called Frank Chambers (Garfield) ends up at a rural diner where he agrees to work for its owner, the genial Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Nick is married to the much younger and very attractive Cora (Turner) and it doesn’t take long for her and Frank to fall for each other. She likes her husband a lot but it’s a loveless marriage and Cora feels trapped. One day she and Frank decide to leave the diner, but as soon as their journey hits a snag Cora changes her mind and runs back home. Frank is frustrated and soon a very dark idea is planted in their minds – what if Nick would simply die and the diner would be all theirs?
The couple work out a plan that will leave Nick dead in the bathtub… but will they have the guts to go through with it? And will they be able to escape the attention of the District Attorney (Leon Ames) who lives nearby?
Daring approach to sex and crime
Cain’s story was filmed twice before, as Le Dernier Tournant (1939) in France and Ossessione (1943) in Italy. In fact, some may consider Luchino Visconte’s version superior to this one, and they may have a point because Tay Garnett’s film has often been seen as an afterthought to more powerful noir dramas, like Double Indemnity (1944). Still, one thing we all should agree on is that this is a great story; it may seem very similar to Double Indemnity but that movie was also based on a James M. Cain tale – which was published after “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Together, they both stand (along with the various film adaptations) as an archetypal symbol of what we’re talking about when we use the terms “film noir” and “roman noir”. Garnett’s take on it moves fast and is consistently entertaining, highlighted by his skillful direction, a daring approach to sex and crime for its day and the Garfield-Turner performances that became some of their most talked-about. In my view, they’re a little too obvious, which is my chief complaint about the film; the doomed couple never come across as entirely convincing, although 1940s audiences certainly believed in them.
I was much more enthralled by Hume Cronyn as an attorney who is always the pragmatist, never an idealist. Sidney Wagner’s shadowy cinematography helps make matte shots and back projections look convincing enough; the scene where Frank, Cora and Nick end up in a car accident is genuinely exciting.
I guess the main difference between the 1946 and 1981 versions (apart from the ending, which is much better in the first movie) is that as a whole, Garnett’s film stands strong as a cohesive piece of work, while Bob Rafelson’s version relies on a kitchen-table fuck.
The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946-U.S. 113 min. B/W. Produced by Carey Wilson. Directed by Tay Garnett. Screenplay: Harry Ruskin, Niven Busch. Novel: James M. Cain. Cinematography: Sidney Wagner. Cast: Lana Turner (Cora Smith), John Garfield (Frank Chambers), Cecil Kellaway (Nick Smith), Hume Cronyn, Audrey Totter, Leon Ames.
Trivia: Joel McCrea was allegedly considered for the male lead.
Last word: “It was a real chore to do ‘Postman’ under the Hays Office, but I think I managed to get the sex across.” (Garnett, TCM)