Another installment in the blog battle between a classic book and the film it spawned.
The book is always better than the film, they say. I say it too. All the time. So, with this truism in mind, I couldn’t wait to read The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. I mean, the original film stars Lana Turner and John Garfield, who, separately and together, exude a kind of cerebral sensuality that’s irresistible (and who were followed up by Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson at the height of their respective hot phases in the 1981 remake). And the original movie was made in 1946, my own personal 1939 (the reigning champ for Best Film Year) when it comes to film greatness. (See sidebar for 1946’s 15-round challenge to 1939, which wins on a TKO.)
I figured a book published in 1934 that waited patiently to spawn a movie in a year when the standard was gold had to have been oozing with subtext and angst and social commentary Hollywood’s Motion Picture Code wouldn’t allow film director Tay Garnett to display. This book had to be better than the movie, with its First Amendment freedoms Lana Turner and John Garfield couldn’t express. The premise of the novel may be cliché now, but it wasn’t when Cain used it in 1934. You’ve seen it: A middle-aged man marries a much younger woman with a rough and hidden past that doesn’t catapult but instead edges her with prolonged hard knocks somewhere beyond her years to a place where she still has her looks, but they don’t come as automatically. Marriage—and slinging the man’s hash—are daily distractions from, though not deterrents to, beauty. The man then invites a young grifter to live under their roof and somehow doesn’t expect trouble. Cain’s imitators turned this particular brand of pulp into a hackneyed theme. But Cain? He was onto something new.
And, yet…and, yet (sigh), it’s difficult to say whether Cain knew it. On the one hand, he went out of his way to give the love rivalry that turns into something I can’t spoil an atypical backdrop—a countryside diner with a broken sign outside—instead of using a more overtly sophisticated location, such as noir-y downtown Los Angeles or New York or a mob-embattled but elegant Chicago. And the aforementioned middle-aged man, Nick Papadakis, is no uptight establishment deviant whose “lust for a younger woman” contravenes the norms of his world thereby making him (also cliché but) intriguing. He is, instead, a much more compelling hardworking, honest immigrant sometimes referred to as The Greek. It’s his wife Cora’s fault, and not Nick’s, that Cora is an opportunistic adventurer who, with her marriage to Nick, came in out of the rain before the real storm of a hard-lived life washed her up. Nick’s rival, Frank Chambers, is a young upstart who gets off to an ashamed start for taking up the space of a loser he knows he doesn’t deserve to occupy and remains chagrined throughout. Frank is never not a little embarrassed to be living his downtrodden existence in front of others. It’s a wonderful artistic and literary touch—a character who is watching us watch him and who is self-conscious about his figurative darned socks, stained tie, and worn shoe soles, hoping we won’t ask him to put his feet up for fear we’ll see the holes. Cain, thus, lays engaging groundwork for the story of two men, unlikely friends, who find themselves desiring the same aloof woman, each with something to offer that the other covets: Nick has money, Frank, youth.
But from there, Cain rushes us. Frank and Cora are implausibly signaling behind Nick’s back in the first chapter (truly), reducing them to stick figures with unclear motivation, moving about as that cliché that would later come along would have them move about. Frank might as well say to Cora, “You’re hot, I’m young, we’re both scandalous. Let’s remove the obstacle by committing a murder in sloppy fashion so that we can fear the cops catching us. Along the way, we’ll betray each other, and no one will win.” More than that occurs, to be sure, especially in that “along the way” phase. In fact, murder may not be where we end up. But as Cain maps out his characters’ plans, he gives us impetus without reason, whether emotional, logical, or sometimes even situational, as hard as that is to fathom, for their actions. They simply do the next thing one would expect an empty caricature to do, making it hard to care, without the “why”, about Nick and Cora’s marriage pretending to portray a real relationship, Cora shifting from Nick to Frank, Nick trusting his new friend Frank, who is plotting to betray him, or the plight of Cora and Frank once their plans literally go over a cliff.
Where Cain gets it right—and therewith still disappoints because he doesn’t fulfill it—is with his earthy, straightforward dialogue and tone. His pictures are vivid. The stakes, if rushed, are nevertheless clear. His peek into 1930s police interrogation tactics, district attorney maneuverings, and press manipulations are a kind of history lesson that is juicy, catty, and enthralling. It’s the book’s deepest dive into storytelling for the sheer campfire aspects of it and where Cain almost forgets we’re there, which is when some of the best writing happens, when an author politely ignores his or her reader and just writes. When the police-D.A.-press triumvirate runs headlong into Frank, the book picks up tremendous speed. I’m convinced it was those pages Hollywood optioned, in spirit, for a better-drawn Cora and Frank in the forms of Lana Turner and John Garfield. (There’s a bitter irony though: The movie never quite gets there and is most disappointing, when compared to the book, at the crescendo that likely inspired the desire to make the movie. To be sure, the first half of the film is better than the first half of the book, when Cora and Frank begin their dance, but the second half of the book crushes its movie counterpart. The casting of a usually perfect-for-the-role Cecil Kellaway as Nick, instead of a more realistic Paul Douglas–type second lead doesn’t help. An actor like Douglas would have punched dialogue where Kellaway merely recited it. Kellaway’s artful underwhelming…underwhelms.)
Where writer Cain also beats out director Garnett is in the surreal and surprising landscape he uses as part of his foreground. We’re trapped primarily with three characters, but Cain gives us lots of exteriors, remote locations, desolate roads, and even the Malibu Canyon, to help us breathe.
Still, those literary visuals, the pace, and the palpability are not enough to overcome what Turner, Garfield, and Garnett give us in the film, even considering the earlier-noted shortcomings of the movie. For starters, the decision to clothe Lana Turner only in white for most of the movie is a tough act to beat. Not only does she slay from a sheer looks standpoint, but the juxtaposition between her angelic countenance and her true temperament is more striking for all the stark-white garb than what Cain can depict on his pages. Garfield, meanwhile, can deliver a soliloquy with a facial expression. He makes every scene in every movie he’s ever been in hotter, whiter, brighter, heavier, dirtier, darker, sadder, happier. In other words, describe it and add er to that adjective, and you’ve got what John Garfield does to individual micro-moments in a movie. The triple-threat of Turner, Garfield, and Garnett gives us subtext in a look, a beat, clever lighting. With tones of voice, silence, and even fabulous hair, Turner infuses Cora with far more humanness than Cain manages. Garfield soaks it up and reflects back a Character Albedo Factor of 100, adding flesh and depth to Frank that Cain mostly only hints at. Even if Cain had known his words would one day have to compete with Turner and Garfield and he had tried to pivot, adjust, and preemptively take ’em out with keener writing, he still would have lost.
It’s a shame. A little—okay, a lot—more character depth at the beginning of the book would have made the novel a lasting masterpiece, in my humble opinion. Cain was almost there, with something unique and fresh, and with dialogue and description that revealed a lack of fear of political incorrectness that’s necessary to provide meaningful commentary about how people end up like Cora and Frank and Nick. Instead, he sort of short-sheeted his own bed. He reduced his work to pulp. The lesson for the writer is that no matter how good one’s premise, if one doesn’t hit certain visceral and philosophical beats along the entire arc of the novel, with realistic and fleshed-out moments that are carefully paced and spaced, and which possess logical motivation, readers may feel a vague kind of lack of fulfillment and overall disappointment, even if the author turns a fabulous phrase in a wonderful setting.
This one’s closer than usual. Cain never accepts the great American novel that lurked just below his typewriter keys, and Garnett falls flat at what should have been a stunning unfolding of Cain’s stellar third act on the big screen. In the end, and by the end, Garnett edges Cain, though.