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A Second Look: 'Postman Always Rings Twice' films are noir standard

Whether it's the 1946 adaptation with Lana Turner and John Garfield, the 1981 version with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, or 2009's 'Jerichow,' the movies based on James M. Cain's bestselling 1934 novel have proved popular.

November 24, 2012|By Dennis Lim
  • Lana Turner and John Garfield in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," 1946.
Lana Turner and John Garfield in "The Postman Always Rings Twice,"… (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer )

A lean, mean tale of adultery and murder, James M. Cain's bestselling, once-scandalous 1934 novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is often considered a central text of noir fiction.

It also has proved an eternally popular and durable template for the movies: Its potent mix of class anxiety and carnal violence has been transferred to the screen at least half a dozen times, in an array of social contexts and with varying degrees of fidelity.

The best-known version, from 1946, directed by Tay Garnett and starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, gave the noir genre one of its most iconic femme fatales and one of its most persuasively doomed love-hate affairs. (The film has just been issued in a Blu-ray DVD edition by Warner Home Video.)

Inspired, as was Cain's novel "Double Indemnity," by the tabloid-bait 1920s case of Ruth Snyder — the Long Island housewife executed for her husband's murder — "Postman" posits that the connection that exists between Frank, a drifter making his way through the backwaters of California, and Cora, the unhappy wife of a diner owner, is animalistic, even sadomasochistic: The first time they have sex, he bites her lip at her urging, drawing blood.

Garnett, tailoring Cain's perverse, lusty story to Production Code restraints, has to play things more coyly: They catch sight of each other after her dropped tube of lipstick rolls suggestively toward him. (The directors who adapted Cain before him — Billy Wilder with 1944's "Double Indemnity" and Michael Curtiz with 1945's "Mildred Pierce" — also had to tamp down the stories' eroticism.)

The movie preserves Cain's plot convolutions: The murder of Cora's husband, Nick, is not the story's climax but merely the prelude to a tangle of betrayals and double-crosses that amount to a singularly unflattering portrait of the justice system. (The character actors Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames, paired as courtroom antagonists, make the most of this subplot.)

What's missing in the film, though, are the fears and complications surrounding race from Cain's novel: Nick Papadakis, known as "the Greek," becomes Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Cain's Cora is a dark brunet who worries people will think she's Mexican. Turner, of course, plays her the only way she could, as a blond bombshell, a black widow in white shorts.

Hollywood had a second go at "Postman" in 1981, part of a neo-noir cycle that included the same year's "Body Heat" (a loose update of "Double Indemnity"). Retaining the Depression-era setting, this version — directed by Bob Rafelson from a script by David Mamet — pointedly reinstates Nick's ethnicity and restores some heat to Frank and Cora's relationship (most famously in a bout of rough sex on the kitchen table).

But unlike Todd Haynes' recent "Mildred Pierce," which allowed the novel's deeper ambiguities to sink in, the accomplishments of the 1981 "Postman" are mainly atmospheric. The actors, Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, are well matched, but mainly it's a triumph of period production design and moody, textured cinematography (by the great Sven Nykvist).

Cain's story has proved even more tempting to European directors — in fact, two versions predate Garnett's film. French director Pierre Chenal's "The Last Turn," from 1939, stars Michel Simon, one of French cinema's most beloved stars, as the husband, and Luchino Visconti's 1943 debut, "Ossessione," a founding work of the Italian neo-realist movement, emphasizes the working-class environment.

The most recent "Postman" variation and perhaps also the greatest testament to the story's adaptability, is a 2009 film, "Jerichow" (on DVD from Cinema Guild), by Christian Petzold (whose latest film, "Barbara," Germany's official Oscar submission this year, is set to open in the U.S. soon).

Of all the filmmakers who have tackled "Postman," Petzold, a precise and analytical director, is the one best suited to approximating the compact vividness of Cain's prose.

"Jerichow" shears off the courtroom intrigue of the book's second half and zeroes in on the tensions within the triangle, rooting the story in the particulars of present-day Germany. The setting is a depopulated, economically depressed region of the former East, and "the Greek" is here a Turkish immigrant-made-good with a chain of food stalls.

In a pivotal scene in the book Cora brings up the idea of murder as a way for the lovers to be together without losing their place in society. "I want to work and be something, that's all," she tells Frank. "But you can't do it without love."

In "Jerichow" Petzold bluntly reverses her plea — or rather, exposes the anxiety behind it. "It's impossible to love without money," his heroine declares, reminding us, as movies rarely do, that matters of the heart are often complicated by economic truths.

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