Posts Tagged ‘ James M. Cain ’

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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Two From James M. Cain (Book Review)

I haven’t had very good luck with the older books I’ve read lately. I’ve read a variety, from 1850’s David Copperfield to 1943’s The Little Prince, and been consistently unimpressed. I finally enjoyed some, though: James M. Cain’s formative noir novels.

I read The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which even combined are shorter than most modern young adult stories. Both had many of the recognizable characteristics of the genre, though they were also suspiciously similar: In each, the narrator begins seeing a married woman and decides to help her kill her husband. Insurance money is involved, and things don’t end well for everyone. (In the noir genre, I don’t consider that a spoiler.)

I prefer The Postman Always Rings Twice. Double Indemnity is still fun, especially since it only takes a couple hours, and the details of its crime are much more clever. However, I never quite believed in Double Indemity’s characters or their motivations, and a week later most of the plot is already muddled in my memory. Postman, on the other hand, has great characters and remains firmly in my mind even though I read it several days earlier than the other book.

Postman is the story of Frank Chambers, a restless drifter who starts working at a diner after he meets Cora, the owner’s wife. Their passion is believable enough to explain the way they act throughout the story, and their personalities create as much tension as the murder plot does: Frank can’t stay tied to any place long, while Cora is dedicated to making something of herself, but they can’t bear to break apart from each other.

One reason this works for me when other books from past generations is that the characters remain entirely believable. Sure, they’re obviously products of their society, and they’re racist, sexist, and just plain anachronistic by today’s standards. Still, they are perfectly believable. The voice of the book is Frank’s, not the author’s, and any perspectives that seem skewed are realistic when coming from a 1930’s anti-hero. Cain’s own perspectives, right or wrong, would be easier to dismiss 80 years later. (Notably, those racist and sexist elements are gone from Double Indemnity, supporting the idea that they’re products of the characters rather than the author.)

The part that ages less well is the conclusion. One story relies on an unlikely, ironic event in the final act, while the other features a confusing infodump about what had really been happening the whole time. The tragic ending may still be a staple of noir, but now it usually comes from the author’s choice. With the way Cain’s books shoehorn the twists in, it’s obvious that he didn’t have a choice. The stories are designed to give the readers a vicarious thrill, but to reassure them in the end that morality will win out.

Despite that, these are both well worth the time to read. Cain’s love of the sordid may be credited with spawning a genre, but his understanding of human nature is the reason that these got any attention in the first place. Almost a century later, that still feels fresh.

The Postman Always Rings Twice: B+

Double Indemnity: B-