The Good Pulp Novelist Always Rings True

Broadly speaking, if we were to look at cinema as a reflection of the complex social fabric that constitutes our world, then we can say that the very best filmmakers have touched our lives in some way by holding a mirror up against a landscape that almost resembles the view from our own window.

Moreover, there is indeed something to be said about those stories that have been reworked, revisited and reinterpreted again and again.

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In the case of pulp crime novelist James M Cain, his hard-boiled tales have often forged the blueprints to the archetypal noir. Within the well-read pages of his modern classics and best sellers are the sleazy dives, squalid bed-sits and rain-soaked sidewalks… this is the domain of the private dick, the crooked officer, the femme fatale.

Alongside other such novelists of the time like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, Cain helped conceive the gloomy urban environments that ushered in a wave of influential crime films particularly throughout the 40’s and continuing on through more contemporary times. His novels, short stories and screenplays have greatly influenced a plethora of filmmakers; with such directors as Michael Curtiz, Billy Wilder, Anthony Mann and Bob Rafelson reworking Cain’s stories for the big screen.

Although Cain spent several years within the Hollywood backlots working as a screenwriter, his name was only credited alongside a couple of films- namely Stand Up And Fight in 1932 and Gypsy Wildcat in 1944. Peculiarly and most ironic is the fact that James M Cain would receive most of his recognition and appraisal from an industry that he had so much inherent disdain for as an art form.

In the words of Guardian columnist William Preston Robertson:

‘He found them (films) crudely schematic, childishly contrived, simple-minded, superficial and unsophisticated’.

In any case, it was Cain’s first novel The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934 that created such a ripple within creative circles of the time. The praise was instantaneous, and in 1936 Cain adapted his novel for the stage, performing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York with 72 well-received shows.

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John Garfield and Lana Turner in the first Hollywood ‘Postman’ (1946)

Getting the subject matter into the cinema on the other hand would prove slightly more problematic. By this point the infamous Hays Code had sunk it’s claws into the Hollywood beast, and it’s censorship arm, the Production Code Administration had successfully dissuaded RKO Studios, Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers into abandoning their vested interests in obtaining the rights of Cain’s novel with the hope of making it a film.

For starters, there was certainly no happy ending to The Postman Always Rings Twice. And it’s themes of adultery, murder, domestic and class taboos rang alarm bells for the executives and censorship committees that had the penultimate say in the matter.

Across the Atlantic however, Cain’s novel was making waves within another bastion of creative activity. In Europe, towards the end of the Second World War there was a particular burst of humanistic cinema that was being crafted by the French with Poetic Realism, and the Italians with Neorealism. These fatalistic tales of working class characters and marginalised outcasts preceded their Hollywood counterparts and arguably played an instrumental part in crafting the antiheroes and dispirited figures of Film Noir

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A framed still from Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier tournant (1939)

In 1939, Pierre Chenal would be the first to loosely adapt Cain’s novel for his French film Le Dernier tournant, or ‘The Last Turning’ in English. Starring Michel Simon as ‘Nick’ the garage owner and husband of Cora (played by Corinne Luchaire), the film remains relatively loyal to James M Cain’s love-triangle murder theme. Yet there is perhaps an even starker, underlying element of entrapment within Chenal’s work. We almost get a sense of the character’s impending doom from the onset, which harbours more than just sympathy for the players… it leaves one with a sobering understanding of individual solemnity.

Roughly around this same period one of the masters of Poetic Realism, the great auteur Jean Renoir was rumoured to have lent his copy of The Postman Always Rings Twice to an Italian working in Paris for the famous Cinema magazine. From this novel, Luchino Visconti went on to produce possibly the greatest piece of cinema that was almost never seen.

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Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation was heavily censored in Fascist Italy

Released in 1943, Obsessione was quickly condemned by both the church and the local Fascist authorities, swiftly banning the film and destroying the stock footage. True to the film’s title, Obsessione centres itself more squarely on the detrimental compulsion of an obsessive relationship that reveals it’s venomous teeth as the coil unravels.

With meditative long takes, static wides and sweeping track shots, Visconti’s vision of Cain’s novel possesses aesthetic nuances not seen in any of The Postman adaptations. Even today, watching the powder keg of dangerous sexual chemistry between the film’s handsome protagonists Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti still wields an undeniable culpability of guilty pleasure.

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Where to now? Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai in Obsessione (1943)

Although Visconti managed to salvage duplicate copies of the film, after the war Obsessione was withheld from distribution until as late as 1976 because the director was unable to acquire the rights of Cain’s novel during wartime.

And by 1946, MGM had bought the rights to adapt The Postman Always Rings Twice after the box office success of Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Cain’s other novel Double Indemnity two years prior. Director Tay Garnett used the novel’s original title and cast actors John Garfield (the third choice after Joel McCrea and Gregory Peck) and Lana Turner (Cain himself deemed her perfect for the role) in the lead parts.

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Although an outstanding noir, Garnett’s version seems starkly void of any tangible empathy or understanding of it’s lead characters. The story seems to play out as if the actors were simply reenacting the book’s plot line- but the motivation behind Cain’s subtext seems noticeably absent. MGM’s Hollywood adaptation however, plays more on the legal proceedings that follow and the resulting web that eventually ensnares them.

Despite MGM mogul Louis B Mayer’s dislike for the film, Lana Turner’s initial dissatisfaction with the casting of John Garfield, weather problems with on-location shooting and the director’s uphill battle with rampant alcoholism, Hollywood’s 1946 retelling of The Postman Always Rings Twice was a box office success and has since earned praise by critics as one of the finer noir films of the period. 

It would be MGM again in 1981 that, alongside the German studio Lorimar, released The Postman Always Rings Twice to a new audience. This time starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, director Bob Rafelson used the first screenplay of David Mamet’s to adapt his 80‘s noir against a depression-era backdrop.

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Lobby card for Bob Rafelson’s 1981 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice

The last instalment in a trio of noteworthy Rafelson films starring Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces 1970, The King Of Marvin Gardens 1972), Rafelson seized the opportunity to stage a racier Postman… being that the censorship committees had somewhat relinquished their constraints by this time.

Admittedly slow at times, Rafelson’s work is best at a meditative pace. Much like his other films, The Postman Always Rings Twice ambles more in the direction of contemporary European filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Werner Herzog.

When interviewed about his adaptation of Postman, Rafelson stated:

‘The critics in America… didn’t like it very much. But in France, and in Germany, and in Russia and in places that I have travelled since the making of this movie, this seems to have emerged as one of the movies that they like most of mine because of it’s unlikely romantic nature’.

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