Please, Mr. Postman: Revisiting the Broken Hearts of James M. Cain’s Masterpiece
Matthew Eng on The Postman Always Rings Twice, a “Dark and Torrid Tale”
Some might allege that James M. Cain paid no mind to mattes of the heart. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice is seldom referred to as a love story, but as a dark and torrid tale of lethal, extramarital desire with a ruminative and unsentimental streak that has influenced several dissimilar artists. In his 1943 debut Ossessione, cinema’s supreme sybarite Luchino Visconti transplanted Cain’s story, without his authorization, to rustic, wartime Italy, where its convention-shattering adultery and brutish behavior bear antifascist overtones; Mussolini’s government imposed a moratorium on the movie, whose sparse style, soon to become atypical for its director, was a key harbinger of the country’s nascent neorealist wave. Albert Camus also took inspiration from Cain in devising the epistolary format of his existential opus The Stranger (1942), in which Camus’ apathetic French-Algerian protagonist, Meursault, becomes an open book while facing an open grave, finding not penance but a sort of transcendent futility. These are not works of art intent on touching the heartstrings.
And yet midway through The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cora Papadakis, the proprietress of a rundown roadside diner in Southern California, turns on her vagabond lover Frank Chambers with a vengeance, confessing to a fake notary that the pair conspired to kill her husband Nick and pass it off as an accident. Cora’s wrath is understandable: Frank, in a moment of cowardice, has just signed a complaint against his beloved while under isolated interrogation from the crusading district attorney. The complaint charges Cora and only Cora, the driver of the vehicle in which Nick was killed and Frank severely injured, with the crime of murder. Yet after Cora delivers this sworn statement, in effect digging her grave and Frank’s, Cain ends the chapter with an unexpected and indelible gesture. As Cain writes:
She went to the door and called the matron. “I’m ready now.” The matron came in and took her out. The guys on the stretcher came in and carried me out. They went on the double, but on the way they got jammed in with the crowd that was watching her, where she was standing in front of the elevators with the matron, waiting to go up to the jail. It’s on the top floor of the Hall of Justice. They pushed on through, and my blanket got pulled so it was trailing on the floor. She picked it up and tucked it around me, then turned away quick.
The concerned, instinctive tenderness of Cora’s gesture lingers long past the page, enhanced by the subdued, first-person matter-of-factness of Cain’s typically unfussy prose in this, his most acclaimed novel. The Postman Always Rings Twice solidified its author as “the novelist laureate of the crime of passion in America,” according to the journalist Max Lerner, and one of the preeminent “poets of the tabloid murder,” as the critic Edmund Wilson termed a group that also included Cain’s contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, in his epochal essay “The Boys in the Back Room.” And yet the “tenderness” with which Cora fixes Frank’s blanket is not a descriptor usually applied to Cain’s art and certainly not to Postman in any of its numerous incarnations.
Take, for instance, how this courthouse encounter is depicted in Tay Garnett’s canonical 1946 adaptation for MGM and Bob Rafelson’s less celebrated 1981 version. In the latter, what stands out most about this scene is Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange exploding in a fit of high dudgeon hysteria in the courthouse hallway after Frank’s complaint stuns an unsuspecting Cora in court, their very public lovers’ quarrel becoming instant fodder for the reporters and photographers awaiting them. Eschewing the theatrics, Garnett’s version attempts something more akin to Cain’s original vision when Lana Turner’s Cora, just having signed her statement, gives John Garfield’s debilitated Frank a puff of her cigarette. But there’s little tenderness in Turner’s playing of this gesture, only a begrudging generosity in keeping with the tough-gal demeanor that Turner gives Cora whenever insulted or double-crossed by Frank; here and elsewhere, a lover’s kindness is performed with as much bitterness as a lover’s betrayal.
Tenderness is not the prevailing trait in either of these star pairings. Between the perfectly-cast Garfield and Turner, two of the most magnetic stars of Hollywood’s first century, there is instant chemistry, an intangible pull, that defies description. Between the less ideally matched Lange and Nicholson, there is combustible intensity and lust that’s downright barbaric, depicted with reciprocal sadistic delight, free of the studio censorship that neutered some of Cain’s more profane passages in 1946; they are little more than prisoners to their libidos.
Film scholars Jennifer Fay and Justus Nieland have written, “Cain insists that Cora and Frank are not just victims of their sexual passion, but of… competing systems of expertise and their challenges to individual agency.” Cain’s Postman is filled with the hardbitten enmity of men and women born into lives of labor and descriptions of sex so hot that it would conceivably inspire a shiftless antihero to risk several lives—his own included—just to keep having it. “Rip me, Frank,” Cora begs Frank during a later encounter. “Rip me like you did that night.” She’s referring to their first time together, during which Frank bites into Cora’s lip so hard that blood trickles down her neck as he carries her upstairs. It’s one of several sadomasochistic scenes that got Cain’s book banned in Boston, where it was the subject of an obscenity trial, and Canada.
But tucked between the bouts of coitus and cruelty are fleeting, moving depictions of pathos-tinged intimacy between aberrant lovers—not just Cora tucking Frank’s blanket around him after selling him out, but an earlier part in which Cora and Frank openly relish the opportunity to sleep beside each other in the same bed and kiss one another goodnight. Here, one of the humdrum, taken-for-granted routines of marital life is given new, affecting import when enacted by those whose love is forbidden. Not long after, both characters shed copious tears when Cora calls off their hitchhiking escape, faced with the grim reality that they will never really be free to leave the world of the Twin Oaks behind and love one another on their own terms. Instead, they take a long road back to their lives of toil and compromise. As Frank narrates, “She had looked nice when she started out, with a little blue suit and blue hat, but now she looked all battered, and her shoes were dusty, and she couldn’t even walk right, from crying. All of a sudden, I found out I was crying too.”
In this last moment, a romantic tragedy in miniature, love cannot rectify the dissonance between Cora’s attachments, ambitions, and unshakable sense of propriety and Frank’s proud, raffish nonconformity and reckless irresponsibility, the traits that make him such an irresistible yet untrustworthy proposition for Cora. “The social world of Postman is decidedly uncertain and unstable,” write Fay and Nieland. “This, perhaps, is why Cain’s story has traveled so well and so widely, and why his particular noir sensibility has been so given to global translation and local inflection.”
This all makes sense as to why Postman remains a source text of distinctly malleable, transnational relevance. But might it be too reductive to say that there are few things more truly universal than a forbidden love story, which is what Cain’s Postman is at heart, not in opposition to its tantalizing eroticism and perilous violence, but as the very foundation from which these salacious attributes spring? In fact, might Postman be rightfully considered the only true noir love story, in which love is not a femme fatale’s final, life-saving recourse, as in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity (1944), nor a final walk into the proverbial sunset, as in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) and Michael Curtiz’s fascinating if largely bowdlerized adaptation of Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1945), but a constant causal motivation for the actions of two relative equals?
Cain’s spare images and incidents—the repurposed marriage bed, the highway tears, the tucked-in blanket—ensure and fortify the reader’s emotional attachment to Cora and Frank. In a lesser writer’s hands, the characters might have been little more than tabloid cutouts; in Cain’s, their union conjures an unforgettable poignancy. And it’s a specifically youthful poignancy, produced by the meeting of two callow individuals who have already lived a great deal of life and perhaps experienced carnal desire in their time, but have never known deep and abiding affection as all-consuming as this. Cain explicitly identifies Frank as 24-years-old in his novel, a detail lost in translation in the two American adaptations. Garfield was at least in his early thirties when he played Frank, just seven years before his untimely death at 39, and still capable of radiating a coarse, boyish, warm-blooded vigor from beneath his five-foot-seven frame.
Nicholson, on the other hand, was well into his forties and looks practically wizened whenever occupying the same frame as Lange, who is over a decade his junior; he appears at once sexed up and sexless, rabid with a purely selfish desire, in a role for which he would have been perfect a decade earlier.
Out of these four actors, Turner, then 24, is the only one who is entirely age appropriate for her role, which partially explains why Cain thought that Turner was the best possible choice for the part of Cora despite her surface dissimilarity to the character as written. (In Cain’s novel, Frank initially mistakes the black-haired Cora for Mexican and notes, “Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, 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.”)The main characters of Cain’s original Postman were sparked by the body’s needs—including the heart’s.
Whereas Lange, an actress who wears rage like a second skin, amplifies Cora’s resentment to volatile effect, Turner, even at her flintiest and for all of her luminous, movie star beauty, is always out of her depth, always pouting and wincing through her masks of feigned implacability. She is eminently believable as the onetime Iowa beauty queen, self-described in Cain’s novel as “a cheap Des Moines trollop,” who failed her big Hollywood screen test and ended up toiling in a Los Angeles hash house, doing some sex work on the sly before finally marrying an older Greek man for security, financial and otherwise. (Nick is deethnicized in Garnett’s version though his Greek roots are restored in Rafelson’s film.)
Maybe it’s because Turner was an actress of incorrigible sincerity, one utterly incapable of creating a cryptic facade to hide beneath, that her Cora feels doomed from the start: our first glimpse of Turner’s Cora is of her trying and failing to convince Garfield’s Frank that she’s the pampered, do-nothing duchess of the Twin Oaks, swaggering around a dismal dining room in all-white turban, V-neck crop top, and short-shorts. Even when Turner reapplies her lipstick after Frank’s first nonconsensual smooch with the practiced coldness of an ice queen, it won’t be long before she surrenders to Garfield. Turner’s screen persona is antithetical to that of the duplicitous femme fatale of films noir past and present. This is what makes her such a convincing Cora, who is not really a villain, but a miserable, working-class woman beaten into a corner by an unjust world, making dangerous decisions that she sees as her only way out of the everyday grind.
Cain may have based Cora (and Double Indemnity’s stone-hearted Phyllis Nirdlinger) off of the real-life murderess Ruth Snyder, a Queens homemaker who killed her allegedly abusive husband with the help of her married lover in 1927 and whose trial and filmed execution by electric chair at Sing Sing the following year were widely covered, including by Cain, who was then a court reporter. Despite this notoriety, Cain spares Cora no shortage of empathy and respect. Her circumstances are delineated with complex and at times unflattering nuance—Cain doesn’t ignore Cora’s racist hatred for her immigrant husband nor the rancor she emits for being misidentified as Mexican—yet she is still afforded professional aspirations, bodily desires, and a tenderness of feeling. To paraphrase Jean Renoir: She has her reasons, as we all do.
It is Turner’s performance, more than anyone else’s in either of the filmed Postmans, that most closely approximates the tenderness of feeling that was always legible in Cain’s novel, not beneath but beside all the bloodlust and tawdry sex. Early in the 1946 film, Cora and Frank have returned from a nighttime jaunt to the beach, their relationship beginning to blossom despite their early quarrels. Cora is practically giddy, touched by the keen attention of a man whose love will eventually cost several lives, hers included. But upon their return to the Twin Oaks, Cora excitedly asks Frank if he likes lemon meringue pie. He doesn’t know, he’s never tried it, but she offers to make him some anyway. In this moment of unabashed corniness, played so sweetly by Turner with her guard all the way down, Cora can only articulate her longing in the language of the trained domestic. In Turner’s delivery, an unmade lemon meringue pie represents the first blush of love. In this innocent overture, we remember that the main characters of Cain’s original Postman were sparked by the body’s needs—including the heart’s.
Like Camus’ Meursault, Frank raps on death’s door for taking another man’s life at the end of Postman. But his own impending demise does not mend his broken heart nor open it, as it does Meursault, “to the benign indifference of the masses,” but deepens Frank’s connection to Cora. Cain’s novel concludes with Frank’s earnest prayer to be reunited with Cora in the afterlife, a passage recited nearly verbatim by Garfield in Garnett’s 1946 version. In Postman, eros is a killer’s last-gasp hope that there is a world beyond the one he is about to depart, a world where his beloved awaits his arrival. Here, perhaps, their love will not be bridled and defiled by monetary needs, social mores, poisonous suspicions, and the stain of murder. Perhaps it will be as constant as the waves breaking the sand on the beach where love was first and fully known. This afterworld is purely imagined; we are permitted no glimpses of it on either the page or screen. Cain may not carry Frank to this afterworld. But he allows him the dream.