A lusty young wife, who finds her much older husband boring and physically repulsive. A virile vagabond, who turns up at the door one day. Eyes lock, libidos surge and then — all hell breaks loose.
That pretty much sums up the plot of 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, the vintage crime melodrama costarring Lana Turner and John Garfield, based on James M. Cain’s novel published 12 years before.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to say that Postman’s plot elements are very similar to those of the novelist’s new book — yes, NEW book — just now published a full 35 years after the crime writer’s death.
The Cocktail Waitress is billed as “The Lost Final Novel By James M. Cain,” unearthed in several manuscript forms and in excerpts of various lengths. It was put together and edited by Charles Ardai — who spent nine years tracking down the title and securing its publication rights. (The publisher is the A Hard Case Crime Book line of Titan Books.)
The plot hardly shows its age. The Cocktail Waitress features a shapely young mother, a brutal first husband who dies in a car crash, a vulnerable child, a hot young lover and a wealthy second husband with a heart condition who dies suspiciously.
And, there is a determined local cop who suspects the waitress all along. The story is told from her point-of-view so it’s not clear if she is the vulnerable, put-upon heroine in great stress or the femme fatale.
Take it from us, The Cocktail Waitress is a most enjoyable read, and a novel, we suspect, that would make a good movie. Keep in mind that from 1944 through 1946, Hollywood churned out three of the finest crime movies ever made — 1944’s Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder, 1945’s Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, and Postman. All of them are based on Cain novels.
MGM had to tone down Postman a bit from Cain’s sexier version — which was banned in Boston — but the movie certainly conveys the steamy highlights. Leave it to those lusty Europeans to first spot, understand and then latch onto the Cain property. The earliest movie based on the novel dates from 1939, and is French, Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turn).
We haven’t caught up with that French version. But for our money, the best of the movies based on the Cain novel (and probably the most faithful to the feeling of the book) is renowned Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1942 maiden film, Ossessione.
The performances of the two leads — Clara Calamai as the young wife, Massimo Girotti as the vagabond — are dynamite. The sexual tension between the two leaps off the screen. It helped that Calamai was no stranger to onscreen friskiness (she had bared her breasts in a previous movie, a very big deal at the time) and Girotti, who died at 84 in 2003, was always regarded as a handsome, physical actor.
Like the Cain novel Ossessione ran into censorship problems. The film’s negative was said to have been destroyed by fascists although Visconti managed to hide and keep a print. Thank heavens, because the picture is a true classic. We urge you to take a look.
In an informative afterword to The Cocktail Waitress, Ardai writes that Cain showed us life as it is lived, language as it is spoken; the dreams and hungers and despairs of ordinary people in dire situations; the impact on the human soul of crisis and the ability of the human animal to give up its humanity under duress.
Cain’s characters sweat, and have reason to… His final novel shows us that even at the end Cain still had the ability to disturb, to trouble, to shock.