Saturday, November 05, 2011

# 98 The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

Caught with a snazzy tie.

Not cute enough for Frank.

Tufnel played a Collings.

Marv takes a seat.


The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The road to Ensenada, on the other hand, “is plenty wide and fast.”


The source of the former declaration is a beatified Frenchman, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms: “This proverbial statement probably derives from a similar statement by St. Bernard of Clairvaux about 1150… ‘Hell is full of good intentions or wishes.’”


The latter observation derives from the venerable Lyle Lovett, whom the centathlete exalts and has seen in concert five times over two decades. In the title track of his 1996 album, “The Road to Ensenada,” we hear the Mexican town portrayed as a destination for American wantonness:


But down here among the unclean/

Your good just comes undone


During a taped session, Lovett related that the song was inspired by one of many motorcycle trips with his close friend, the eminent guitar builder Bill Collings, whose devotees include Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Joni Mitchell and the unequaled Nigel Tufnel. A comment to the video states: “this is Lyle’s first Collings dreadnought (East Indian rosewood / German spruce) from 1979 built out of Bill’s two-bedroom apartment on Bingle Rd in Houston.”


The same model guitar appears in this performance, a duet with John Hiatt of the exquisite heartbreaker, “Nobody Knows Me.” In this older track, which the singer has evidently labeled “a cheating song about Mexican food,” Lovett describes the ease of infidelity once you leave the country:


But it was a dream made to order/
South of the border/
And nobody knows me like my baby/
And she cried man how could you do it /
And I swore that there weren't nothing to it


Frank Chambers, protagonist of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, knew what Lovett was singing about. He tells us, “Ensenada is all Mex, and you feel like you left the U.S.A. a million miles away.” The remoteness brings perceived freedom from consequence, and Chamber cheats on his wife Cora when he visits the town with a brand new acquaintance. Through the swiftness and ease of his carnal error, Chambers affirms Chris Rock’s claim that “a man is as faithful as his options.”


Back in the U.S.A., when Cora finds out, she confronts Frank and cries. Rather than swear there was nothing to it, like Lovett’s sad cowboy, Frank offers man’s only other excuse: “She didn’t mean anything to me.”


Frank’s appraisal of Ensenada adds to the distinct waft of racism that appeared earlier in the narrative. When a restaurant patron mistakes Cora for a Mexican, she says, “I’m just as white as you are.”


Frank overhears this retort and subsequently speculates about Cora’s availability despite her marriage to the older Nick Papadakis. He says, “It was being married to the Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white.” Frank jabs with the epithet “the Greek” to denigrate and depersonalize the man he’s about to cuckold.


In fact, Cora wanted the patron to know that she’s superlatively white and American, as evidenced by the fact that she comes from Iowa. This form of proof brings to mind Superman, who first appeared in 1938, and his extreme American-ness, as Michael Rizzotti noted:

“…Superman lands in a corn field in the Midwest. His adopted parents are white, Anglo-Saxon and in all likelihood protestant (WASP). The question is, why the Midwest? He could very well have landed in a native, Jewish, African, Arabic, Mexican, Italian, or Chinese neighborhood in any of the US’ [sic] thriving big cities. The reason is that during the period in which Superman was popular, to be American meant to be white Anglo-American.”
Frank and Cora’s Depression-era bigotry adds ugly honesty to the narrative. Cora’s remark is a small sign of her limited perspective and sensitivity about identity—and of her desperation and savagery that will surface later.

Previously, by marrying Nick Papadakis, Cora had escaped aimless, sordid poverty as an L.A. floozy, to end up as an Old World fairy tale heroine (lowly girl rescued from drudgery by prince). But the marriage proves unsatisfying because Cora, a modern woman with her own drive, wants more than a comfortable life at a wide spot in the road—she wants to achieve the American dream. Her Greek prince is too old and settled, and his princedom isn’t big enough.


Ironically, Cora, by choosing to cheat on and then cold-bloodedly murder her husband, not only fails to attain the 20th century American Dream, she becomes a latter-day Classical tragic heroine, following in the footsteps of Clytemnestra, who plotted with her lover Aegistius to kill her husband Agamemnon. Her last year is ultimately very Greek.


Hollywood, in the 1946 movie adaptation starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, whitewashed over race and ethnicity. “Nick Papadakis” became “Nick Smith” (in the book, Cora’s maiden name is Smith) and Nick’s roots were transplanted to northern Canada. Turner, with her bottle-blonde coiffure (Cora is dark-haired in the novel) does not have to explain to anyone that she isn’t Mexican.


Mexico as the land of temptation is marginalized as well. In the opening scene, Garfield as Chambers tells us he ended up in Twin Oaks while hitching from San Francisco to San Diego. In the book, he was coming from “Tia Juana” on a three-week bender.


(Tijuana is more Sin City than Las Vegas. Years ago, the centathlete visited one night with friends. The very first scene past the Border Crossing was a bust of some kind: ten or more locals were lined up against a wall. On nearly every corner, pharmacy signs promoted cheap medications and quick surgeries. Two blocks off the main drag it was dark and foreboding. And then there were the tequila bars.)


The movie focuses on the sex appeal of the doomed couple; with Garfield as the tough homunculus and Turner as the temptress of the diner. Turner looks overly made-up but fabulous in her white wardrobe. Director Tay Garnett explained:

“There was a problem getting a story with that much sex past the sensors. We figured that dressing Lana in white somehow made everything she did less sensuous. It was also attractive as hell… They didn't have ‘hot pants’ back then, but you couldn't tell it by looking at her.”
Garnett and company appear to have also thought about the choice of ties. The chubby Nick Smith wears a conspicuously short tie, which adds to his portrayal as a sexless clown. When Cora catches Frank cheating on her, the proof is the snazzy striped tie he left with the other woman.

While they were glamorous celebrities at the time of filming The Postman Always Rings Twice, Garfield and Turner were in reality not unacquainted with the tribulations of Frank and Cora. Garfield for a time ran with a gang in New York City. Turner was embroiled her whole life in eventful marriages and affairs. In 1958 she participated in a murder trial when her 14-year old daughter Cheryl was charged with fatally stabbing Turner’s lover, Johnny Stompanato, a gangster’s bodyguard. Cheryl was acquitted on account of self defense.


To write The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain drew on one of the most sensational trials of the 1920’s, the Snyder/Gray case. Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray, gripped in a torrid affair, killed Ruth’s husband, Albert Snyder, an editor of Motor Boating magazine, which even today “covers the passions, adventures and lifestyles of active, affluent boat owners while delivering authoritative reviews and how-to information.”


The lovers blamed each other for the murder, which took place on Long Island, one of the bastions of civilization and, of course, the cradle of the centathlete. David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace summarized some of the trial’s tawdry aspects:

"Although both later claimed the other was the dominant partner, Judd’s nickname of ‘Momma’ or ‘Mommie’ for Ruth would seem to indicate that she was the real leader in their relationship. Ruth wasn't a beauty, but she exuded animal magnetism. During her trial, she received 164 marriage proposals."
It was a circus trial, Troy Taylor writes:
“Celebrities attended in droves, including mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart; director D.W. Griffith; author Will Durant; evangelists Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson.”
Famous journalists such as Damon Runyan and Walter Lippmann attended as well. James M. Cain told The Paris Review that one comment stuck with him: “Walter said it seemed very odd to be inhaling the perfume...of a woman he knew was going to be electrocuted.”

Unsurprisingly, a charged olfactory sense appears in The Postman Always Rings Twice. “I could smell her,” Frank tells us when he first encounters Cora. Pheromones are in the air and lust is up his nostrils.


The scent of a woman impressed another noir hero, Marv of the 2005 film Sin City. The killer is smitten with Goldie and says, “She smells like angels ought to smell, the perfect woman…” The tender, prayerful adoration contrasts with the black deeds of an “unstably violent” giant.


Frank Chambers is no comic-book assassin with a heart of gold like Marv. His revelation about smell shows him to be primal and animal-like. What sort of animal?


“You look more like a hell cat,” Frank says to Cora, kicking off the Cat Motif in the story. There’s the dead pussycat at the base of the stepladder. Then, Frank hooks up with Madge Allen, who raises a lion, a tiger, jaguars and pumas, and the two take the road to Ensenada. They discuss tracking pumas in Nicaragua, though it’s never cleared up if they managed to leave their motel room to undertake this expedition.


As a token of their romance, Madge leaves a baby puma for Frank—but gives it to Cora, who hysterically chews out her cheating husband: “And the cat came back! …Ain’t that funny, how unlucky cats are for you?” The image evokes the black cat in The Matrix, a sign of déjà vu that demonstrates a glitch in the system.


Intriguingly, the swaddled feline becomes a surrogate baby for Frank and Cora, albeit for a night only. Frank exhibits no warmth toward a bundle we could presume to be adorable, as this video shows. Parenthood, like marriage, can’t fulfill him.


The National Center for Biomedical Information reports that the puma “occupies the most extensive range of any New World terrestrial mammal.” Astrologists tell us even more:

“…those who share the puma as their totem should be mindful of their tendency to lash out too quickly, or act out in haste. Call upon the patience and observation of the puma before taking action in order to avoid quick and unsavory consequences.”
If only Frank and Cora had known. Of course, hasty lashing out and unsavory consequences make for good noir. Cain himself did not use that label; he thought his narrative was distinctive because it showcased “…the lingo in the mouth of a hobo with good grammar, like they have in California.” He further told The Paris Review: “Let's talk about this so-called style. I don't know what they're talking about—‘tough,’ ‘hard-boiled.’ I tried to write as people talk.”

To us ultramoderns, noir speech doesn’t seem exactly natural—it sounds affectedly measured and menacing, or “razor-sharp and acerbic.” It’s an outdated posture that takes some work to assume. To wit, Mickey Rourke prepared unusually to become Marv, according to Sin City director Robert Rodriguez:

“Mickey had this one piece of music he would play on the set to get into the character of Marv… It was Johnny Cash’s version of The Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt. If you listen to that song that’s how he did Marv."
(In 1992 Johnny Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame. His presenter was Lyle Lovett.)

For his last stop on the road to Hell or somewhere else, but certainly not Ensenada, Marv gets the electric chair, just as Frank Chambers does in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And just as Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray did in 1928 in Sing Sing. A tabloid reporter snuck in a camera and shot Ruth right when the juice was turned on and, as Marv would say, they “got to it.” If you like noir, you’ll want to see the picture. It’s a doozy.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

This was a highly entertaining read; I stumbled across it when Googling the phrase Lyle Lovett uses to describe "Nobody Knows Me." Thanks for putting this out there.

The Centathlete said...

Thank you for the note! That's just one of Lyle's many terrific songs.