#196 The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a crime film directed by Tay Garnett based on the novel by James M. Cain. It is a definitive noir, capturing a sordid affair that ends in a poorly managed murder that leads to a group of botched legal double-crossing, blackmail, and the claw of fate coming for everyone. Lana Turner’s Cora is a sizzling performance at the height of her career against Garfield’s Frank, and their on-screen chemistry reflects the true attraction that the characters of the novel try to navigate. Even though the film was released in 1946, it certainly captures the “Depression culture of the 1930s, with most of the scenes played in a barely respectable roadside diner, a potent image of rootlessness and limited opportunity…with white costuming and glamorizing lighting” that contrast Turner’s beauty and presence as the “visual center of the film” against the era’s gritty reality (Palmer). A perfect specimen of Film Noir and film adaptation.

This excellent movie was somewhat of a surprise. I assigned the novel to one of my students to read independently with me, analyze, and then watch the film (and then the second film made in 1981). It captures the heart of Noir as well as Double Indemnity and In A Lonely Place, presenting a bleak, murderous, stressful plot that always involves a dame worth risking everything for. Garnett’s film is a beautifully shot piece, with pacing that pulls the audience around each corner in the game of suspense with timing that needs to be perfect. Garnett achieves this with brilliant editing, lighting tricks, and evocative performances that take the source material and perfectly applies the magic of Hollywood to create a great piece. My favorite moment in the film was when Nick plays guitar and Cora and Frank dance in front of him in a horrifying moment of revelation where the emotional watch of the piece is wound to the point of breaking.

The adaptation of the book was on point. Cain’s piece is already as barebones as it needs to be to tell the story, but its pacing is already easily set up for a scene-to-scene adaptation. The only losses I could find are much of Cain’s subtle language tricks (including a feline metaphor carried for the novel) and perhaps one or two scenes that were streamlined into other scenes to make them work on film.

See below for my review of the novel that I posted over on my Goodreads page

A fantastic crime novel that contains an impressive level of emotional depth in little more than a hundred pages. The pacing, execution, prose, plotting, and everything about this slim book is perfect. Literally. The fact that it can be ambitiously read in one sitting is even more impressive, as it resonates as a popular piece as much as it does a literary one.

The story is about a drifter who happens upon a job where his boss’ lonely wife wants to get into an affair and stumbles into little more than she bargained for. What happens next is a strange, alluring, and shocking blend of eroticism, violence, and betrayal that is effectively rolled out in sixteen perfect chapters without a word wasted.

At the expense of writing a comprehensive review and spoiling the fun, all I will say is this is an excellent book whose contents are a testament to expert literary writing in the package of an early-twentieth-century pulp novel. Truly a spectacle to step into and get lost in a striking realness of murder committed by these vibrant characters. Truly as good as I was led to believe.

I read this novel for three reasons, all of which are lists I am making my way through. One, it is number 98 on the Modern Library 100 novels list. Two, it is also on the Esquire “75 Books Every Man Should Read.” Finally, the film is featured on Schneider’s 1001 Movies to See Before You Die –in every instance, I write about the film but only occasionally read the novel the film is based on depending on its literary merit.


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