As I have a tendency to do, I went overboard with my shame. This time I overindulged in The Postman Always Rings Twice penance. I watched the film and the 1981 remake (which we’ll not worry about for purposes of this conversation), but that wasn’t enough. So I tracked down a copy of James M. Cain’s anthology of noir novels and novellas at the library and read that. And that wasn’t enough. I learned that the 1943 Luchino Visconti film Ossessione was one of two earlier adaptations of the novella. So I found a copy of the Visconti and now I’m working on locating the 1939 French film Le Dernier Tournant with English subs. I’ve put my best Francophiles on the case.
Why satisfy the Shame but continue on down this path of obsession? …or Ossessione?
Truth time. I watched the film and thought, “That’s it? That’s the movie I’ve been hearing so much about for so many years?” This is not disappointment; this is the danger of Cinema Shame — the damning expectation that comes along with the term “classic.”
I’m going to lay this out for you, reader. I found this uncontested (at least to my knowledge) classic to be a minor chore. I enjoyed the film, but never felt the film grip my lapels and hoist me up by my own petard. Film noirs should sizzle – a slow burn, a candlewick burning, dwindling until it folds onto itself upon the end credits. The layers of wrongdoing and malice eventually extinguished with one final gasp for air.
“Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”
James M. Cain describes the first meeting between Frank and Cora in a way that portends the ugliness to come. Frank sees Cora and the sight drives him to combine sex and violence into an unsettling mélange. She’s no “raving beauty” he says, but notes her shape and especially her lips. The raw, animalistic aggression contained within the study of her her lips provides a platform for their relationship and the ugliness that it ultimately inspires.
If there was any doubt about Cora’s reciprocity, look no further than their first sexual encounter.
“I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers… ‘Bite me! Bite me!’
I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.”
When I first read this passage from the novel, I understood precisely why I’d felt underwhelmed by the 1946 classic. Not one part of me truly believed Lana Turner embodied “Cora” to John Garfield’s pitch-perfect “Frank.”
Garfield’s very visage – scarred, mottled like that of a boxer – conveys Frank’s demons. As Cora later tells him, “you’re smart but you’re no good.” Even though I’d not read Cain’s prose before seeing the film, Garfield felt authentic. I, of course, brought in extratextual information. Garfield’s performances in films such as He Ran All the Way, Body and Soul, and Force of Evil all contributed to my expectations and acceptance.
The flip side is of course Lana Turner’s enduring image. The pristine, Hollywood-groomed beauty of Lana Turner could not conjure the woman who married the slovenly Greek twice her age, the woman who displayed masochistic sexuality, the woman who helped author the plot to murder her husband. Lana Turner was not Cain’s Cora. After reading James M. Cain’s prose, the more convinced I became.
In order to go along with The Postman Always Rings Twice, one must believe in the uncontrollable animal magnetism between Frank and Cora. Though Cora certainly commits misdeeds in the film, she lacks the character’s purposeful impetus from the novella. In Tay Garnett’s film, she’s almost a passenger, propelled by Frank’s delusional self-prowess. She wields her sexual potency with no certain end. A more in-depth conversation about the film could explore how Lana Turner’s sexuality in The Postman Always Rings Twice merely entertains the audience’s gaze rather than also function in service of narrative propulsion.
“No one can know what that means to a woman. To have to be around somebody that’s greasy and makes you sick to the stomach when he touches you. I’m not really such a hell cat, Frank. I just can’t stand it any more.”
Cain’s Cora lacks measurable self-confidence; Frank feeds her ego with his sexual aggression. She’s painted as an average beauty, one consumed by the attention bestowed upon her by Frank. Lana Turner presents the self-assurance of someone who’d never be wanting for male companionship or attention. That she’d ever become the wife of an owner of a greasy diner or that she’d turn her life upside down for a wandering miscreant ring false. I can’t fault the casting of Lana Turner here, because her presence in this film belongs in the realm of pure spectacle, but I can also challenge the casting choice as a detriment to the merit of the film.
By definition the femme fatale is “a mysterious and seductive woman who whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.” The archetype figures prominently in the folklore and mythology of many ancient cultures including the Sirens of Greek mythology, most notably in Homer’s Odyssey.
I concede that Cora’s overt malice would likely have been marginalized by the production code. Double standards existed for female on-screen decorum. And this film had already pushed the boundaries of acceptable mainstream cinema. Cora’s character has been recalibrated as a partial victim.
I would argue that the on-screen portrayal shows that she did not pro-actively lead Frank astray, but rather that Frank nudged her astray and their obsession and plotting gathered momentum like a snowball. With that in mind I do not believe that she is acting as a true femme fatale. I think it is important to differentiate Cora’s actions from that of a character such as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyillis in Double Indemnity. Phyillis manipulates Walter Neff from the moment he first walks in the door. If Lana Turner’s Cora manages Frank in this way, we don’t see that conveyed adequately on screen.
Turner’s performance is not wanting, however. And I must agree with the critics that cite her role in Postman as a dramatic landmark in her career. She charges her scenes with a shocking amount of eroticism for 1946 – especially considering the Production Code’s decade long fight to prevent this story from being seen by American audiences. I just do not see this character using her sexuality as man bait. Cain’s text clearly shows Cora manipulating Frank.
Critics don’t seem to agree with my judgment of her character. Writing in 2000, Stephen MacMillan Moser in the Austin Chronicle writes “from the first glimpse of her standing in the doorway in her white pumps, as the camera travels up her tanned legs, she becomes a character so enticingly beautiful and insidiously evil that the audience is riveted.” Even if you place Visconti’s Ossessione next to Tay Garnett’s Postman one can immediately notice differences in the way the two filmmakers went about establishing malice and intent in Cora.
Ossessione portrays Cora as having clear and purposeful intent in a way Turner’s Cora does not. It may seem like splitting hairs to challenge a grade-A certified classic film noir over a subtle characterization, but after lining up all these various adaptations of Cain’s novel, Cora’s clear intent to kill her husband and manipulate Frank make this a far more interesting dynamic than a girl just getting swept up in a seedy romance.
Visconti’s Osessione and Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice perfect the minor keys that this Hollywood classic could not perfect or did not even attempt due to the watchful eye of the production code, abandoning the full depiction of femme fatalism by casting as unbesmirchable as Lana Turner.
I’m using my Shakespearean license to declare “unbesmirchable” a real word. I think that if you also line up all your Postman Always Rings Twices you will also come to see a similar value in the grit and grime of the Visconti. It might not be the certifiable grade-A certified piece of film noir, but it rings true. And maybe the answer is as simple as citing Visconti as a genius of understand emotional turmoil and Tay Garnett as a talented, but unspecialized cog in the studio machine. You be the judge.