The World of Noir

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Comparative analysis of the 1946 and 1981 versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice

There is obviously much to compare between the 1946 and 1981 versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice. After all, they are both based on the same novel. Further, the second version does not shift the story to a different country (or state even), and is set at approximately the same time. Nonetheless, there is still plenty to contrast between the two films. Subtle differences in the settings can have a considerable filmic effect. Likewise can changes in mise en scene. There are also differences in the characters, plot, and ideological values.

Like the novel on which both films are based, the 1981 film is set in California during the 1930s Great Depression. It has been pointed out that the 1981 version has more 1930s 'nostalgia'-value features such as sets, cars and clothes than the earlier version (Schwartz 2001: 29). One could point out that the 1946 film is vaguer about its temporal setting. It is possible that viewers were intended to image that the film was set in contemporary times (i.e. 1946), although no reference to World War Two is made. Certainly the cars in the 1946 film are more streamlined and modern, whereas those in the later film are older models, and often open-topped. There are also subtle differences in the physical setting of the Twin Oaks. The 1946 Twin Oaks is at the top of a rise, with a view down to the sea. In the 1981 film the Twin Oaks is in a dip in the land; Franks looks down at the Twin Oaks when he returns after one of his trips away.

Further, the mise en scene effects of the two versions of the Twin Oaks are different. The house in the first version is more 'puritanical' in appearance, a bit like an American farmhouse or a weatherboard church. The house is more 'baroque' in the 1981 version, in which it is a Californian bungalow with lots of pebble rocks cemented around the bottom of the porches. Also, the interior is cluttered, with 'busy' wallpaper patterns. In the first version the love scenes occur in the lower storey of the house or outside, especially on the beach. In the later film, Cora and Frank make love in the bedroom a number of times, or in the kitchen. In the 1946 film, Frank has a room on the bottom storey of the main house, whereas in the 1981 version he has a small shed outside of the house, probably attached to the garage. Nicolson's Frank looks up from his shed to the big house, and watches the silhouettes on the master bedroom window, as Nick tries to enjoy his time with Cora. Home life at this version of the Twin Oaks is both more sensual and more cloying than in the 1946 film: more 'sweaty' as Schwartz puts it (2001: 29). Twin Oaks home life in the 1946 film is more wholesome, perhaps too cold and clean rather than cloying.

Setting and scenery in other story locations is also important. During Cora and Frank's first attempt to run away, the futility or difficulty of this endeavour is symbolised in the 1946 film by the changing scenery as the pair walk along the road. The background changes from greenery to a more desert-like environment. There are sharp mountains in the background. They cannot hitch a lift, even though Cora is dressed well. Cora's gets dirt on her impractically white skirt. Her vanity and need for material comfort seem to be a reason for the decision to turn back. In the 1981 film, the difficulties of running away are instead symbolized by an urban scene, in which there are lines of unemployed men. The social and economic environment is implied as a barrier to leaving the marriage. Cora and Frank have made it to Los Angeles and head the railway station to travel east. In addition to the economic difficulties, Lange's Cora turns back from the attempt to flee from Frank because she is worried Nick will track her down and because she has doubts about Frank, especially after he asks for some of the money she has saved.

Indeed, there are differences between the characters in the two versions of the story. Cora is a more composed character in the 1946 film. She always holds her eyes and mouth quite steady, even when she is upset. The 1981 Cora's face is contorted when she is upset, such as after she discovers Frank's fling with the cat tamer. In the courtroom, she has to be physically restrained because she is so angry. In contrast, Lana Turner's Cora is very steely. She is also more immaculately dressed. The 1981 Cora sometimes wears brown jerseys and her frocks look more saggy and worn. In the 1981 film, when Frank and the audience first meet Cora she is busy cooking in the kitchen, with her back turned. When we do see her face she leans down with her elbows on a counter, smoking. As her affair blossoms, the 1981 Cora's hair falls more neatly into its waves. Then when things become more complicated and dangerous, it becomes messy again. This is totally different from Turner's Cora. She is standing straight and statuesque when we first see her. Indeed, she holds herself this way throughout the film. Even when she is working hard she keeps herself upright, when she is washing dishes and ironing.

The two version of Frank are also different. The 1981 Frank is more cunning. He gets what he wants through trickery. Early on, we see him con a free meal out of Nick. Later, he seems to cheat at the coin-tossing game in Los Angeles. The 1946 Nick is also a little devious. For example, he hides the fact of his having burned a burger patty by throwing it in the bin and getting a new one. However, this is quite minor. Mostly, he gets closer to Cora by being especially forward and earnest-seeming. One of the first things he does when he gets the job at the Twin Oaks is to burn the 'Man wanted' sign. He then proceeds to volunteer to help, accompany or dance with Cora at every opportunity. In contrast, 1981 Frank bides his time to be alone with Cora. Then when he has his chance, he is extremely forceful. The 1981 Frank is also lazy in his work at the Twin Oaks, especially after Nick's death. Cora complains about this. In the 1981 film, Frank is also the more manipulative than Cora. He plays with Cora by deliberately ignoring her when she comes to visit his cabin feeling lonely. In the 1946 film, Cora is the more manipulative partner. In the 1946 film, Cora comes up with the idea of Frank flattering Nick into thinking that it was the latter's idea to get a neon sign, whereas the 1981 Frank figures that out himself. When the plan to kill Nick is first mentioned in the 1946 film it is by Frank, who blurts out his subconscious wish that Nick would have a car crash. In the 1981 film the idea of Nick having an 'accident' is first mentioned by Cora. This does not mean that Frank is any less immoral; it is rather that he keeps himself under control, and waits for Cora to say it first.

The 1946 Nick is older and less sexualised than the 1981 Nick. He finally drives Cora to desperation by deciding to move to northern Canada to look after his sister. The 1981 Nick, in contrast, wants to have a child. He also sexually caresses his wife. The 1946 Nick is more naÃÆ'¯ve and less guarded with his wife. For example, he is happy for Frank to dance with Cora and accompany her outside. Another character difference between the two films is that the attorneys play a much larger role in the 1946 version. They serve as social or moral commentators as well as characters. This is especially so in the case of the district attorney Sackett, who appears at the very beginning of the 1946 film, and asks Frank about where he is going in life. He reappears throughout the film, at numerous crucial moments, such as on the road where the 'accident' is staged. He also gives solace to Frank at the very end, and tries to commute Frank's death sentence. In the 1981 version, Sackett is a much smaller part and is a far less sympathetic character. We never see him offer any kindness to Frank and he yells out at Frank and Cora after they are discharged from the court.

In the 1981 version there is no friendship or even respect between Sackett and the defence attorney (Katz). In the 1946 film, Sackett and the defence attorney (Keats) are shown as personal friends. At first this places them in a bad light, as we are inclined to doubt their professionalism, especially when Keats places a wager on beating the murder charges for Cora. In the event, however, Keats does his best for his client in the courtroom, and continues to show concern for her after the case. He is the one who drops by the Twin Oaks to suggest that Cora and Frank marry. In the 1981 film, we do not see Katz after the trial. In other respects, Keats and Katz are very similar, and employ the same unconventional tactics. There is a plot difference, however, in the way in which Keats and Katz use the insurance companies. In the 1981 film the insurance companies are morally corrupt. They save Cora from conviction to avoid paying out on a liability insurance claim. In the 1946 film there is no suggestion of immorality and their role is more passive: the life insurance investigators are simply unable to find any evidence of murder and Keats uses this information to surmise that Sackett does not have any hard evidence either. This change reflects changes in the ideological values of films in the intervening 35 years. After the 1960s and 1970s, films showed a more distrustful attitude to the judicial system and authority figures in general.

Another difference between the two films is the motif of cats as bringers of changes in fortune. This motif is much stronger in the 1981 film. In this version the cat that is electrocuted is shown around the house numerous times before its accident. It walks across Frank's path when he first arrives. Cora kicks it out the back door once but holds it another time (just before another sexual episode with Frank). Possibly the next 'cat' to arrive is Mr. Katz, who at first seems to be acting against his client by entering the guilty plea, but who actually achieves a very good outcome for Cora and Frank. The next cats are the large cats sent to the circus in the truck Franks hitches a lift on. These cats bring Frank into contact with the female cat tamer. Later, Cora finds out about Frank's fling when the tamer delivers a large circus cat to the Twin Oaks as a gift. Frank and Cora somehow get this cat into a cage but we do not see how they do it, nor are we told what they intend to do with this dangerous animal.

Metaphorically, Frank and Cora also 'put the cat back in the bag' and mend their relationship. Like the confined cat, the relationship is inherently dangerous. Cora dies in the road crash and Frank is left grieving, but nonetheless free to do 'more damage to the women he will meet as he wanders through 1930s California' (Schwartz 2001: 29). In the 1946 film, in contrast, Frank's journey is brought to a terminal end by the ever-watchful authority of the state, personified by district attorney Sackett. It is the 1981 film which is closer to the book (Schwartz 2001: 28). According to Warner Home Video (1997: np), 'Rafelson is insistent that [his film] is not a remake of the 1946 version'. 'Produced during the period of strict production codes and censorship, the earlier American version violated the spirit of the James M. Cain novel' (Warner Home Video 1997: np).

In conclusion, the 1946 film brings its plot and characters to closure through the intervention of an ultimately fair and effective justice system. In contrast, the 1981 film has an open ending and a more sceptical ideological view of the justice system. The characters in the two films are also different. In the earlier film, the female partner in crime is more manipulative and controlling than the male, whereas this relationship is vice versa in the later film. The 1981 film is also more socially critical in regards to the difficulties facing a woman leaving a marriage. Differences in setting and mise en scene are also suggestive of different ideological values towards married life. The home life of the 1981 Twin Oaks is too sweaty and cloying for a young wife, whereas the 1946 Twin Oaks is too clean and wholesome for the likes of sinners.

Bibliography

Schwartz, R. (2001) Noir, now and then: film noir originals and remakes, (1944-1999), Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Warner Home Video (1997) 'The Original vs. the Remake' [Special Feature] in The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981 [Motion Picture DVD], Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.

Filmography

Garnet, T. (d.), and G. Wilson (p.) (2005) The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946 [Motion Picture], Burbank, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, released on Warner Home Video.

Rafelson, B. (d.), and C. Mulvehill and B. Rafelson (p.) (1997) The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981 [Motion Picture], Burbank, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in association with Lorimar Productions Inc, released on Warner Home Video.

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