THOUGH BASED on James M. Cain’s first novel, published in 1934, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was the last of the original page-to-screen transfers of the exalted crime writer’s most celebrated books, following Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945). More precisely, Garnett’s film was the last Hollywood adaptation; Cain’s slim pulp classic had already been the inspiration for a French drama, Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turning, 1939), and Luchino Visconti’s first feature, Ossessione (1943). Cain’s Depression-era, SoCal-set story, in fact, has traveled widely outside not just US borders—German director Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008) is the most recent Postman rethink—but also genres, having inspired a play and an opera.
Yet of all these iterations, Garnett’s rendition of Cain’s tale of torrid triangulation—involving a drifter, Frank, the book’s first-person narrator who both cuckolds and murders his boss, Nick, with Cora, his employer’s wife—remains the best known, even though this film noir is a heavily bowdlerized version of the original. No official tasked with upholding the sanctimonious standards of the era’s Motion Picture Production Code could ever have allowed the dramatization of passages like this one in Cain’s novel, indelibly laying out the woozy s/m dynamic between Frank (played in the film by John Garfield) and Cora (Lana Turner): “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.” The censors, however, did permit this imperative from Frank to Cora, delivered after they’ve tried to kill Nick the first time—and crucially softened by Garfield’s grin—to stay in the script: “You gimme a big kiss before…I sock ya.” (The Bob Rafelson–directed, David Mamet–scripted 1981 remake of Postman, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, could honor the book’s savage lust, but, unlike Garnett’s film, it strays wildly from Cain’s ending.)
More puzzling, though, is the utter deracination of Nick, whose original surname, Papadakis, is anglicized to Smith (Cora’s maiden name in Cain’s novel); the diner owner is played by the jowly, rotund, South African–born character actor Cecil Kellaway with an accent that betrays his many years in England and Australia. Forgoing the pivotal ethnic anxiety that Cora, who cooks and waits tables at her husband’s eatery, displays in the book—“It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white,” Frank says—Garnett’s monochrome film instead makes Lana Turner a near-blinding vision of alabaster. Turner is first introduced in the movie via a slow tilt up from her white heels to her snowy turban, the camera lingering on her likewise luminous short-shorts and halter top. The dazzlingly peroxided actress, one of MGM’s biggest stars at the time, looks as if she’s just emerged poolside from the Beverly Hills Hotel rather than taking a breather from making enchiladas on the griddle. (Cain’s original title for Postman was Bar-B-Que.)
With such radical surgery done to the source material in its transition to the screen, it’s no wonder that Turner’s temptress is the least enthralling of the Cain-based femme-fatale movie trio; her predecessors—Barbara Stanwyck’s “rotten to the heart” Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (especially) and Joan Crawford’s pathologically daughter-devoted mother of the title in Mildred Pierce—are modeled more closely on Cain’s originals and endure as noir paradigms. Yet twelve years after Postman’s release, Turner’s life offscreen was consumed by an episode tawdrier than any Cain plot: the fatal stabbing of her thug boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, by her fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, an act quickly ruled a justifiable homicide. Turner’s histrionics on the witness stand during the murder trial and the reams of publicity surrounding her private life after this scandal helped her secure the lead in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which she, an actress of limited talents, gives the greatest performance of her career.
The Postman Always Rings Twice screens at Film Forum July 18 and 19 as part of the series “Femmes Noirs,” which runs July 18–August 7.