The Postman Always Rings Twice (Movie Review)

Movie poster for The Postman Always Rings TwiceAfter enjoying James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, I watched the 1946 movie version of it. There have been other adaptations, but this is generally regarded as the best. After watching it, I’m not sure why. If anything, it gave me a twisted sort of relief to know that Hollywood was ruining books even back then.

The contrast between the book and the movie is evident right away. The novel begins with Frank Chambers getting thrown out of a truck, trying to steal food, and ending up with a job after ascertaining that his new boss is a sucker with a hot wife. Portrayed in the movie by John Garfield, Chambers is a neatly-dressed man who just walks up to a restaurant to take a job. His only nod to character building is an awkward speech about how his “wandering feet” might not let him stay.

Lana Turner plays Cora Smith, not Cora Papadakis. The movie took out the racial elements probably not out of concern for Greek sensibilities, but to avoid a mixed-race relationship. Her husband Nick was defined almost entirely by this in the book, and actor Cecil Kellaway was left with no material to build a character with. He’s a foolish pushover with no clear motivations, and the heavily character-based drama suffers for it.

Ironically, the attempts to clean the characters up actually make them seem like worse people. With the mistakes of Cora’s past removed, her marriage made bland, and her new affair equally passionless, her only apparent motivation for murder is to move up in the world.

It’s understandable that the studio would want to make this movie palatable for a mass audience, but the book was a success because of its sleazy characters and raw passion. Without that, there wouldn’t be much reason for it to exist. The resulting movie is solidly within our expectations for a film of the 1940’s. I understand why it was popular then, but it hasn’t aged well at all. It’s stilted, self-censored, and features a few baffling mistakes. (For example, the D.A. tries to break Frank by referencing an event that had happened in the book but had been omitted from the movie.) The novel, despite being over a decade older, has aged wonderfully due to its focus on believable characters.

There’s nothing wrong with a work being of its time. Most of the things I review positively, for example, will be less interesting ten years from now. I would expect a reviewer then to judge them fairly based on the standards of that time. By the same reasoning, there’s really no reason left to watch The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Grade: D

 
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    • jompoi
    • July 22nd, 2012

    Very interesting. I didn’t like the movie, thought it was ho-hum. I’ve never read the book. You’re movie review reinforces my general dislike of watching a movie adaptation after reading a book. Also interests me in reading the book now.

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