Offhand we can’t think of too many novels that have been converted into movies as often as has James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
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.
Hello, everybody. Mr. Joe Morella and Mr. Frank Segers, your classic movie guys here to observe that Hollywood could never resist a tale of sex, greed, double crosses and violence. And, as we are writing this, we notice that Ms. Norman Maine is outside flirting with the pool boy.
We suspect that most of you are familiar with 1946’s boilerplate version of Caine’s 1934 crime novel, lauded as the 20th century’s best example of the genre. (Not sure we agree, but so be it for the moment.) In typical MGM fashion, their movie version directed by Tay Garnett was sanitized at least to the extent that the book’s ethnic content is played down.
The very Greek older husband in the book is portrayed by Cecil Kellaway, a genial faustian Brit who came from South Africa. But there’s no doubting the sexual electricity generated by the movie’s two stars, Lana Turner as “Cora Smith” and John Garfield as “Frank Chambers.”
Turner looks terrific, as alluring as the Hayes Office would allow at the time, although her wardrobe is a tad on the expensive side for a diner waitress. Always a strong actor, Garfield lends gravitas-by-association to Turner’s erotically charged performance.
It may come as a surprise that this MGM Postman edition was a bit late to the party.
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). Directed by Pierre Chenal, it costars Corinne Luchaire and Fernand Gravey as the lovers and the famous Gaulic actor Michel Simon as the aging, unattractive husband (one “Nick Marino”; note the ethnic change from Greek to Italian here).
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.
Rounding out the excellent cast is the portly Spanish-born actor, Juan de Landa, who portrays the older husband as a living-large dolt whose dictatorial style is backed up by an ominously bulky presence. (His interpretation of the character is the polar opposite of the rather meek Kellaway’s in the MGM version.)
Like the Cain novel, which was banned in Boston when it came out, 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.
You notice that we haven’t yet mentioned Bob Rafelson’s 1981 version of Postman costarring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as the lovers, and John Calicos as the older husband. Despite a script by David Mamet and sexual scenes more explicit than those in the movie’s predecessors, this version of the Cain tale is almost completely forgettable.
Just what is it about Cain’s novel that inspired not one but FOUR movie versions in three countries? We asked our BOOKS2MOVIES maven Larry Michie to read the book, and report back in tomorrow’s blog. Stay tuned.