In an interview with Paris Review James M. Cain made no bones of his aversion to films: “There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies.” Whether the avowal was merely an impulsive remark, or a manifestation of latent condour, it contradicted Cain’s fame with Hollywood and his past occupation as a screenwriter. From what can be gathered of the author’s reception of films that were derived from his works- the three most famous: Double Indemnity,Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice were released successively from 1944 to 46- there is little indication of an abrupt shift of opinion later in life. Maybe it was less of a sudden repugnance of films than a nagging insistence of separating the authenticity of the books from the reduced value of their filmic translations.
It is no easy task adapting Cain’s novels into films. His debut, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934 but it had taken Hollywood a decade or so to finally flesh it out on screen. At that time very few people would believe that a story about adultery and murder, steeped in unbridled descriptions and expressions of violence, prurience and moral depravity, could manage to by-pass censorship and be permitted a nationwide release. Whoever that took to task of making a picture like this would doubtlessly need more than sheer audacity; a peculiar ability of staying true to the raw intensity of the book whilst negotiating the line of social propriety would also be required.
The result (1946) contains no more gristly contents than should be warned of. Viewers who chose not to read the book might even find the film lumbering and laborious at times, and its narrative in want of more galvanizing sequences as had warily expected. The apprehension of an MPP code (Motion Picture Production code) enforcement must certainly rankle, as director Tay Garnett resolved to blunt the edge of violence and attenuate the vim of savagery. At length he seemed not to have any other alternative than to be forced to choose between either disturbing the audience or not to offend the audience. And scrupulously he plumped for the latter.
Though Garnett could do nothing with the ineluctably altered tone and temperament of the story, he recompensed by instilling a poignant and understated sensibility that Cain’s original work, rife with barefaced vulgarism and vague emotions, ostensibly evades. The recurring sequence of the reckless couple frolicking at beach as a deferral to the doomed end they fatalistically anticipate is especially stark and sorrowful. John Garfield and Lana Turner diluted their villainy with just enough doses of integrity to exempt them from any too severe moral condemnation. And as though the director was inclined to shed some sympathetic light on the tragic desperadoes, the ludicrous purposelessness of their clumsy acts of crime is downplayed to highlight the aching moral guilt and stifling piety that always occur a second too late.
The ending is unforgettable. Garfield’s character, in knowing he cannot escape twice the fate that is destined for him, remarks that he is like the recipient of a letter that is meant to deliver to him- if he fails at first to notice the doorbell the postman will always ring twice. Garfield delivers his soliloquy in an implausibly childlike grace, suffusing the last moment of his life a Dostoevskian self-awakening. This coda, considerably prolonged from that in the novel, may seem a moralising mush, but a truly effective one.