*. James M. Cain went to Hollywood in 1931 to work for Paramount and spent the next 17 years working there, moving among all the major studios. All that he would have to show for those efforts, however, were screenwriting credits for Stand Up and Fight (1939) and Gypsy Wildcat (1944). Not much to brag about, but it was also during this time that he wrote a string of bestselling novels, beginning with The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934.
*. Postman, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity would all go on to be made into hit movies. So why did Cain have so little success actually writing for the screen? I don’t know. Perhaps he was just too rough around the edges. While the 1946 film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice has the same basic story, it feels very different than it does on the page.
*. Some of the legal machinations are left out (making Cora’s getting off a little too easy), the cat lady has disappeared (though one scene with lions had apparently been filmed), and, of course, the corrupt seediness of the novel is downplayed. The racial angle is dropped, so Nick Papadakis is no longer a Greek but a gently befuddled Brit by the name of Nick Smith (a wildly miscast Cecil Kellaway who, as Manny Farber put it, “makes an auntie out of the hash-house owner”). Cora, gleaming in white ensembles and with platinum bobs, can no longer be mistaken for a “Mex.”
*. Farber was particularly harsh on this tidying up. “The story calls for particularly feverish, dissatisfied people living in an environment that might well drive them to adultery and murder. Garfield, Turner and Kellaway, instead, looks as fresh, upper-class and frozen as tulips, wear Saks Fifth Avenue clothes or better — and lots of them: the hobo, for instance, comes off the highway in a sharp, two-toned affair. The lunch stand is large, too sumptuous for highway hamburgers, and has the dummy look of studio houses. The country around it is dappled with dew. The wife spends her time in what should be a jungle washing the several thousand stunning play suits she wears to wait on tables . . . ”
*. A lot of this is just what happened to any novel made into a Hollywood movie at the time. But while it may not be kitchen sink realism it does at least show us a kitchen sink. If you wanted something more along these lines you’d have to wait for the postman to ring again in 1981.
*. Cora also doesn’t beg Frank to “Bite me!” and “Rip me!” (meaning rip her clothes off), and is given stronger motivation for wanting to get rid of her husband. She’s an ambitious woman, and Nick is not only much older, he wants to sell the diner and retire to his childhood home so that Cora can be a nurse to his paralyzed (“half-dead” in her words) sister. Bad enough, but there’s even worse. His childhood home isn’t in sunny southern California but — oh dear God no! — Canada! That sinks it. She’s going to have to kill the old bastard.
*. But the movie didn’t have to be explicit because it had something the novel could never hope to evoke in language. It had Lana Turner.
*. “No actress,” in David Thomson’s summary judgment, and if you watch her high-school emoting in the scene where the hospital calls and tells her that Nick is going to live I think that’s a fair call. But as Thomson goes on to say, she “had the unanimated, sluggish carnality of a thick broad on the make.” Which is Cora Smith, so it’s no surprise Cain thought she was perfect in the role. If your hormones don’t start to pump as soon as the camera pans up her legs then something is wrong with your pump. This is sexuality incarnate, cheap and lush. It doesn’t matter if she’s ironing or doing dishes or just stirring something on the stove, she’s a domestic Venus you want to fuck. There is no point using more delicate language. Bite her, rip her, fuck her. She’s not a subtle presence.
*. Take that sultry presence away and is this a great movie? I’d call it no better or worse than an average noir. The direction by the unheralded Tay Garnett is professional. Nothing about the production, from the design to the editing and photography, stands out. John Garfield does look the part of the drifter loser, but somehow never has much of a spark with Turner (apparently Turner was disappointed they hadn’t been able to find someone who was at least attractive, though there are also reports that they had something going on behind the scenes). Hume Cronyn is the only other standout in the cast, and there’s a scene where he’s laying down the rules to Cora where you wonder how much fun it would have been to have the two of them getting friskier. One can only fantasize.
*. The script neuters Cain pretty completely, even going so far as trying to explain the notoriously vague title. I did like the bit where the girl Frank picks up in the parking lot doesn’t mind getting out of her car because “It’s a hot day and that’s a leather seat. And I’ve got on a thin skirt.” In the 1940s that was considered dirty talk, and indeed it still sounds a little dirty today. To be fair, at the time this was a pretty daring picture.
*. In other words, it’s the chassis of a solid story turned into a star turn. Really Turner’s only star turn. That’s its claim to classic status, and it’s irrefutable.