The Postman Always Rings Twice was written by James M. Cain in 1934. There are a lot of movie versions of this novel, many of them foreign films, none of which I have managed to see except Ossessione (1943), and that was a long time ago. By default, then, I must confine myself to the two versions made in America.
When I read James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity having already seen the movie several times, which is one of my favorites, I thought to myself that had the movie been like the book, I don’t think I would have cared for it. I had a similar feeling with his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, except in this case, they did make a movie in 1981 that was a lot like the book, and I can say for sure that I didn’t care for it. Sometimes you really have to hand it to those major movie studios, Paramount in 1944 for the former, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1946 for the latter. And perhaps I should give begrudging thanks to the Hays Office as well. Joseph I. Breen declared that none of Cain’s novels would ever be made into a movie, and thus some of the scrubbing may have been necessary to appease his wrath, which resulted in movies more to my taste.
Of course, I have no doubt that some people prefer 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice to the 1946 version, and thus found it unfortunate that the 1946 version gave the story the high-class polish typical of Hollywood in those days.
If you like your sex rough, then the novel and the 1981 version are for you. In the novel, Frank Chambers is a tramp. He gets thrown off a hay truck, and after walking awhile, he comes across Twin Oaks Tavern. He decides he’ll try to con a meal out of the owner, whom he is able to identify as a Greek before he even knows his name, which turns out to be Nick Papadakis. Nick offers Frank a job, which Frank is none too sure about until he sees Nick’s wife Cora:
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.
And that’s exactly what he does do after taking the job and getting her alone:
I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers…. “Bite me! Bite me!”I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.
Now, the 1981 version does not actually have a corresponding scene where the blood spurts into Franks mouth, with it running down Cora’s neck. But the sex is still pretty rough. Frank (Jack Nicholson) starts by forcing himself on Cora (Jessica Lange), which would have become a rape scene, except she gets turned on by it and wants it just as bad as he does. They do it on the table where she had the baked bread, knocking that and everything else off onto the floor—knife, dough, flour—so they can satisfy their lust right then and there, only removing just enough clothing to allow for penetration. You see, if a couple takes the time to go to the bedroom, get fully undressed, and then slide into bed to make love, that’s too civilized. But if they can’t wait for all that, but must do it wherever they happen to be at the moment, and in too much of a hurry to remove their clothes, then that just goes to show how hot their passion really is.
So, how did the 1946 version handle their first kiss? Frank (John Garfield) kisses Cora (Lana Turner) against her will. She does not bother to fight him or push him off. She merely waits until he is through, flips open her compact, and looks into its mirror. Then she pulls out a handkerchief and wipes away the smeared lipstick. That being done, she gives Frank a look of indifference as she pulls out her lipstick, which she reapplies, after which snaps the compact back together and walks away.
Well, maybe that’s not fair. The rough sex scenes in the novel and 1981 version occur while Nick is away getting a new sign, and Frank locks the front door to keep customers out. The 1946 scene described above occurs before that. Later in that movie, Frank locks the door too, but this is followed by some hardboiled dialogue between him and Cora, in which she explains why she married Nick and admits she has fallen for Frank. They look into each other’s eyes and tenderly kiss. I’ll bet they went upstairs, got completely undressed, slid into bed, and made love just the way most of us would.
Frank wants Cora to run off with him, but she doesn’t want to go back to working in a hash house with Frank holding down some menial job. She likes owning Twin Oaks Tavern, and she doesn’t want to give that up. One thing leads to another, and she talks Frank into killing Nick and making it look like an accident.
Actually, here too there is a difference. In the novel, they first try to murder Nick, but when that fails, they decide to run off together, although Cora soon realizes she wasn’t meant to be a tramp like Frank. In the movie versions, they try running off first. Then, when that doesn’t work, they plan to kill Nick. That would seem to be the more natural thing, to attempt to simply leave Twin Oaks before deciding on something as drastic as murder.
In the novel, Frank explains how they planned on killing Nick:
We played it just like we would tell it. It was about ten o’clock at night, and we had closed up, and the Greek was in the bathroom, putting on his Saturday night wash. I was to take the water up to my room, get ready to shave, and then remember I had left the car out. I was to go outside, and stand by to give her one on the horn if somebody came. She was to wait till she heard him in the tub, go in for a towel, and clip him from behind with a blackjack I had made for her out of a sugar bag with ball bearings wadded down in the end. At first, I was to do it, but we figured he wouldn’t pay any attention to her if she went in there…. Then she was to hold him under until he drowned. Then she was to leave the water running a little bit, and step out the window to the porch roof, and come down the stepladder I had put there, to the ground. She was to hand me the blackjack, and go back to the kitchen. I was to put the ball bearings back in the box, throw the bag away, put the car in, and go up to my room and start to shave. She would wait till the water began dripping down in the kitchen, and call me. We would break the door down, find him, and call the doctor. In the end, we figured it would look like he had slipped in the tub, knocked himself out, and then drowned.
Frank does not say so in describing his plan, but presumably Cora was to lock the bathroom door from the inside after killing Nick. That’s why she has to leave through the window. And that’s why they would have to break down the door to get in later.
However, things don’t go as planned. Frank sees a cat climbing the stepladder. He goes to shoo it away. While away from the car, a motorcycle cop pulls in to see what is going on, suspicious of a man standing near a stepladder late at night. Being away from the car, Frank cannot honk the horn. After the cop leaves, Frank starts to honk the horn to call off the whole thing, but suddenly the lights go out and Cora starts screaming. It seems that just as Cora hit Nick, the cat got into the fuse box. She did not have time to hold Nick under the water, nor does Frank want her to at that point, now that a cop has seen that stepladder with Frank standing nearby. So, they call an ambulance, and Nick survives.
Their plan did not deserve to work because it was unnecessarily elaborate. There is no need for a stepladder for Cora to exit the bathroom, and therefore no need for Frank to be outside making sure the coast is clear. Instead, after killing Nick, Cora could call an ambulance, saying she found Nick that way when she went in to get a towel.
The part about having to break down the door to get into the bathroom makes no sense. After all, Cora didn’t have to break down the door to get into the bathroom to kill Nick, for the simple reason that Nick didn’t lock the bathroom door. And why should he? The point of breaking down the door was to make it look as though Nick must have been alone when he fell, but that requires the police to believe that a married man would find it necessary to lock the bathroom door when taking a bath in order to keep his wife from coming in.
But suppose, nevertheless, they decide that they must break down a locked bathroom door to make it look as though Nick was alone when he fell. In that case, after killing Nick, Cora could simply close the bathroom door and lock it from the inside, after which Frank would break down the door. Without the stepladder being outside leaning against the house, the cat would never have gotten to the fuse box, and the lights would never have gone out. And without Frank standing outside, the cop would not have stopped to check on things.
Sex and Murder
Sex is more than just a motive for murder. It’s a facilitator. For Frank and Cora, it is what makes murder possible. Assuming that the part about door to the bathroom being locked is eliminated as an unnecessary complication, and likely to arouse suspicion besides, Cora didn’t need Frank’s help to murder Nick, at least as far as the physical aspect of the crime was concerned. After she killed Nick, she would have been perfectly capable of putting the ball bearings back in the box and disposing of the bag, after which she could call the ambulance herself. Stories in which a woman and her lover kill her husband are as old as that in which Clytemnestra and Aegisthus conspired to kill Agamemnon. But Clytemnestra needed a man’s strength to put the sword to her husband. In this case, however, Cora is supposed to do all the killing by herself.
But psychologically speaking, she did need Frank. Sexual desire has a way of suppressing any qualms one might have of doing something immoral. Together, a man and woman in love are capable of doing things they might not even consider otherwise. In Double Indemnity, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) says to Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), not realizing he is the one who conspired with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) to murder her husband, “There’s two of them, so they think it’s twice as safe. But it’s not. It’s ten times twice as dangerous.” Indeed, after seeing the movie, a friend of mine said, “If you’re going to commit a murder, do it alone.” But while it may be safer to do it alone, it may not be possible without the needed element of love to neutralize one’s conscience.
Of course, in Double Indemnity Phyllis needed Walter’s knowledge of the insurance business to pull it off without getting caught. But in The Postman Always Rings Twice, all Cora needs is Frank’s love to enable her to get past her moral inhibitions. One of the ways that love does this is by making the person you are cheating on become nothing in your eyes. We are all familiar with the cliché, “I love my wife, but…,” as a man’s way of excusing his philandering. And, indeed, if it were just a matter of getting a little on the side, it might not be so bad. But while a man is carrying on with another woman, his wife means nothing to him. She’s just this thing that lives in his house. And that is the ugliest part about adultery.
The novel reveals how Cora turns Nick into a despicable thing, as preparatory to cheating on him. First of all, she takes pride in being white. When Frank says to Cora, “you people” really know how to make enchiladas, she suspects he thinks she is a Mexican (in the novel, she has black hair). She takes umbrage at that, saying, “I’m just as white as you are.” But she does not regard Nick as white, as narrated by Frank:
It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white, and she was even afraid I would begin calling her Mrs. Papadakis.
My guess is that back when this novel was written, America had so many citizens that were of northern European descent that anyone whose ancestors were from southern Europe was not thought of as white.
“He’s greasy and he stinks,” Cora says of Nick. And later she says he makes her sick when he touches her. Her contempt for Nick makes it possible for her to have an affair with Frank, which in turn makes her despise Nick even more.
After their first attempt at murder fails, they give up on the idea. But in the novel as well as in the 1981 remake, after his close brush with death, Nick decides he wants Cora to have a baby with him. She says the idea disgusts her, saying Frank is the only one she wants to have a baby with. In other words, it’s bad enough, to her way of thinking, to be married to someone that isn’t white without having a baby with him as well, which she says will be greasy, just like Nick. In order to avoid having that greasy baby, they decide once again to kill Nick.
In the 1946 version, Nick, whose last name is changed to Smith, is just as white as Cora. Miscegenation was not allowed under the Production Code. She could have still been repelled by the idea of having his baby, however. There is nothing unusual about a woman not wanting to have a baby with a man she detests, and there is nothing unusual about a woman detesting her husband. But that is not given as the reason for murder. Perhaps having a woman in a movie expressing disgust at the idea of having a baby would have been objectionable to Breen, as an affront to motherhood. In this version, what precipitates a second go at murder is Nick’s decision to sell Twin Oaks Tavern and move to northern Canada. (Not simply Canada, mind you, but northern Canada.) He and his sister own a house up there, but she has become paralyzed and will need a woman to take care of her, that woman being Cora. And just to put a cherry on it, Nick says of his sister, “Oh, she’s going to live for a long time yet, I hope.”
Never has a movie made me so sympathetic to a murder. Of course, if I were Cora, I would just leave and go back to slinging hash. There are worse things in life than holding down a menial job. But she so hates that idea that Frank finds her in the kitchen holding a knife. He thought she was planning on killing Nick with it, but she says she was going to use it on herself. That’s when they decide on murder once more.
I was critical of their first attempt at murder. But I cannot find fault with their second scheme to murder Nick because I don’t understand it. I had the same trouble trying to understand the mechanical explanation for the death of the Sternwood chauffeur when I read The Big Sleep. Maybe it’s because my knowledge of cars is limited to being able to drive one, and maybe it’s because cars functioned differently back then. Fortunately, both movie versions simplified it. The idea was to make it appear that the car accidentally went over a cliff, killing Nick, even though Frank had already whacked him in the head, probably in the same spot where Cora had smacked him with the bag full of ball bearings. But things don’t quite go as planned, and Frank ends up getting caught in the car when it becomes dislodged and rolls further down the cliff, getting injured in the process.
Frank and Cora are suspected of murder. And this where I really get confused. It all has something to do with legal proceedings and insurance companies (three in the novel; one in the 1946 version; and two in the 1981 remake). Essentially, District Attorney Sackett scares Frank into signing a complaint against Cora, which infuriates her. Frank is the weaker of the two. Cora is the one who had to talk Frank into committing a murder in the first place, and we have the sense that Sackett would never have been able to break her story.
In the novel, they have a smart lawyer named Katz, who manages to get Cora off with a charge of manslaughter, suspended sentence. There is also a plot point involving blackmail by one of Katz’s former employees, a Mr. Kennedy, who has a confession from Cora that she and Frank planned the murder, which she signed in order to get even with Frank for betraying her. However, Frank persuades Kennedy to hand over the confession by beating his face to a pulp.
The end result is that the love Frank and Cora had for each other is now poisoned. Worse, Cora cannot be tried for the same crime twice, but Frank was never charged with anything. Therefore, Cora could simply testify with impunity that she and Frank did murder Nick, if she felt like it, and which she suggests she might do. This makes Frank start thinking about killing Cora.
But it turns out she is pregnant with Frank’s baby. They reconcile and get married. However, they end up in an automobile accident in which Cora is killed. Sackett now gets another chance to convict Frank, this time for murdering Cora. There is a trial in the novel that I don’t understand any better than when Sackett tried Cora for killing Nick. Frank is convicted and the story ends with him in prison, awaiting execution. There is no trial in the 1946 version. The movie jumps ahead, and we find out that Frank has been narrating this story from his prison cell. In the 1981 version, Frank is not narrating the story. The movie ends at the scene of the accident, leaving us with no idea what happens to him after that, unless your familiarity with the novel or 1946 version allows you fill in the blanks.
Referring back to the scene of the murder, after the car has gone partway down the cliff, and before Frank is injured when it becomes dislodged, he and Cora become so overwhelmed with lust for each other that they have to have sex right there on the ground next to the car where Nick’s body lies crumpled-up in the front seat. That is in the 1981 version as well as in the novel. Throughout the 1946 version, we never actually see Frank and Cora do anything but kiss, the rest of their sexual activity being implied, as was typical under Breen’s oversight of the Production Code. But they don’t even kiss here. That strikes me as more realistic. If I were in the middle of committing a murder, I don’t believe I would be in the mood for love either.
And this brings out another difference between the 1946 version on the one hand, and the novel and 1981 version on the other. Part of the fun of watching the 1946 version is the way you get drawn into identifying with Frank and Cora. They seem like an ordinary man and woman that slowly drift into murder. But in the novel and 1981 version, they come across as animals. Frank even refers to himself in the novel as an animal when he ravishes Cora right after the murder. As a result, we don’t identify with them. We just react with disgust.
Of course, this is exactly how things would appear to us if we were invited to identify with a cuckolded husband witnessing his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. So, if Nick, not quite dead, had regained consciousness and looked out the window, Frank and Cora would have looked just like the animals they were. But neither in the novel nor in either movie version are we encouraged to identify with Nick. Rather, he is portrayed in such a way as to preclude identification. We don’t feel the least bit sorry for him when he is murdered.
The animals to which there are repeated references in the novel are cats. First, Frank says Cora looks like a “hell cat.” She says she is not really a hell cat, but she needs to be a hell cat just this one time. That’s when Frank realizes she wants to kill Nick.
Second, there is the cat that gets into the fuse box, shorting out the lights and getting killed in the process. It may be that the unnecessary complications of their first attempt at murder were needed by Cain so that a cat could be the reason why their plan failed.
Third, when Frank kills Nick in the car by hitting him in the head, he says of Nick, “He crumpled up and curled on the seat like a cat on a sofa.”
Fourth, their attorney’s name is Katz. And so it is in the 1981 version. But in the 1946 movie, their attorney’s name is Keats (Hume Cronyn). In other words, the 1946 movie eliminates all references to cats, other than the one that got into the fuse box.
Fifth, after they escape from justice for murdering Nick, Cora gets word that her mother is ill. While she is gone, Frank has an affair with Madge, a woman that catches lions, tigers, and jaguars. Then she sells them to zoos, works them in movies, or just keeps them on exhibit at the restaurant she owns because they attract the trade. She distinguishes between jungle cats, which you can train, and outlaw cats, raised in captivity, which are more likely to kill you because they are “lunatic cats.”
But Frank misses Cora, so he returns to her after she gets back from her mother’s funeral. They start to patch things up between them, but while Frank is taking care of Kennedy, the one who tried to blackmail them, it seems that Madge stopped by, not knowing about his relationship with Cora, and left a young puma with her to give to Frank to remember her by.
In his review of the 1981 version, Roger Ebert mentions this part of the story, as criticism of the movie:
Along the way, there is a brief and totally inexplicable appearance by a woman lion tamer (Anjelica Houston), who seems to be visiting from another movie.
He is right about that. It does seem that way. And yet, it is faithful to the novel. Half a chapter is spent on his relationship with Madge, and much of the next chapter is about the puma she left for Frank. In a subsequent chapter, Madge testifies at Frank’s trial for Cora’s murder. Sackett even brings the puma into the courtroom as Exhibit A.
In the 1946 version, there is no lion tamer. Madge (Audrey Totter) merely works in a lunchroom. We only see her when they meet. The rest is implied. Cora finds out about their affair when Madge stops by Twin Oaks to return Frank’s tie, which he accidently left in her glove compartment.
And so, I suppose it’s just a matter of taste. If you prefer a story in which a man and a woman act like animals, cats in particular, outlaw lunatic cats, to be even more specific, you will likely prefer the novel and the 1981 remake. But if you enjoy the guilty pleasure of identifying with a man and woman who seem almost like the rest of us, but who give in to the temptation of murder while under the spell of illicit love, then the 1946 version is the movie to see.