Frank, a vagabond, arrives at a service station on a mountain road near to Marseilles. The kindly old owner, Nick, offers him a job which he accepts. Frank is instantly attracted to Nick’s young wife, Cora, and they have a passionate affair. The two lovers plan to kill Nick so that they can profit from his life insurance. Having made Nick’s death look like an accident, they are acquitted of his murder. However, fate has a cruel twist in store…
This is the first film version of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and is cited by some critics as the best. It’s also my favourite film by Pierre Chenal, his last in France before fleeing to Argentina at the outbreak of war.
Fernand Gravey plays the drifter Frank who stumbles into the web of the dangerous but irresistible Cora (Corinne Luchaire), a femme fatale looking for an escape route from her oafish husband (Michel Simon). There are no kitchen table sex scenes in this version. What Chenal gives us instead is an implacable tragedy of two flawed lovers spiralling to their self-destruction.
The trio of lead actors, a fine supporting cast (including Robert Le Vigan and Chenal’s wife Florence Marly), and the atmosphere of dust and fatalism that swirls through every scene, make this essential viewing for fans of film noir and great cinema.
When it comes to noir, we Anglos may have appropriated the word, but the thing was the result of the most delicate Franco-American reciprocity, well illustrated here. Preceding Visconti (Ossessione), Garnett and Rafelson, this is the first adaptation of James M Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, with its triangle of slobbish husband/bored wife/tough drifter. Apart from an accommodation with Michel Simon’s star status, which required the husband to live longer, it’s a faithful transposition of the novel’s tone and content. But it’s the style of the actors – Gravey’s soulful eyes and mournful presence, Luchaire’s other worldly beauty and air of resignation – which makes the difference, nudging the distinctively French world of ‘poetic realism’ and that of American pulp finally and irrevocably into alignment.