Darkness Blacker Than Night – The Postman Always Rings Twice and the Noir Thriller
Hard as it is to believe, the concept of noir in fiction did not exist until after World War II. In fact, it existed before it was named. Not a genre but a style, as any genre can be made to have a feeling of deepening shadows and less-than-admirable heroes. Cut off from American culture for several years because of the German occupation during the war, they consumed films that were dark in both look and story. Picking up on the style, French critics gave it its name, the French word for black.
As with most movie styles, books came first. One of the first novels to tell this kind of bleak story is The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. This short 1934 story of adultery and murder at a Southern California roadside cafe was in no way considered classic at the time. In fact, it was the definition of trashy dime novels. The reason pulp fiction got its name was that, because of its low origins, it was published on low-quality pulp paper. Cain’s novel was decidedly a pulp at the time.
Since then, Cain’s reputation has risen to a high level. While no college literature class is likely to require one of his books as required reading, he believably depicts ordinary people driven mad by their desires for wealth, status and love. While never breaking away from the notion that the guilty must pay for their sins, his work asks if we can ever control them.
Cain had grown up hoping for a career as a singer, but turned to journalism after realizing his voice would never be strong enough. He moved from writing editorials to fiction, starting with satirical pieces, a play and a short story. Postman is his first novel. This was not the only notable work of his career; among his later works are Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, both classics of the page and screen as well.
Like many noir tales, this story is told in the first person. Frank Chambers, a drifter, is thrown off a hay truck outside of Los Angeles. He encounters Nick Papadakis, an immigrant referred to as the Greek, who offers him a meal and a job. Frank takes the first but is not interested in the second. Something happens to change his mind, though:
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.
“Meet my wife.”
In that moment, Frank forgets all about his traveling ways. Cora, in her 20s like him, is not happy with the much-older Nick. Before long, they find themselves having an affair. From there it’s a short trip to plotting a future without the Greek. Cora is unhappy; her ideas for improving the diner are being ignored by Nick. Now they plot his demise as Cora plans to improve the diner.
As with all noir tales, there is no happily ever after for these characters. Nick proves difficult to kill off. The deed finally done, Frank and Cora go on trial for his murder. This tests their love as well as their ability to stick to their story. They avoid going to jail but cannot avoid the distrust the trial introduced into their relationship. They love each other, yet they cannot trust each other.
The book ends with the revelation that Frank has been telling his story to a priest. He talks about the view that people have a subconscious that make them commit crimes of passion. He does not agree: “To hell with the sub- conscious. I don’t believe it…. You know what you’re doing, and you do it.”
Frank finds himself staring down his own demise, insisting he has free will. The fact that he is on death row indicates Cain did not share his hero’s worldview. In fact, it is this view of uncontrollable passions that gives the novel its power, one not limited to American readers. In fact, the novel has been adapted to film seven times, including French, Italian, Malaysian, Hungarian and German movies. The story contains great power in its portrayal of ordinary people swept up into the tempest of their desires.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (the title is not explained in the novel) maintains a power that would have surprised the tastemakers of 1934 America. It does not address grand themes not are its characters people of any great importance in society. This very ordinariness gives it great staying power and a loyal following. There are flaws in the book: it can come off as laughably outdated and quite politically incorrect. Despite that, it is an excellent depiction of the way we can feel like prisoners to our emotions and the actions we will take for love. It remains a fast, entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful read.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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