James M. Cain took the plot of Postman from the 1927-8 trial and execution of "Tyger Woman" Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray for the murder of her husband Albert. Gray's situation was eerily like Cain's and it tapped strong national fears about the Twenties "flappers," and sexuality. Ruth, 31, was a striking blond with "a gaze of Scandinavian iciness," who supposedly convinced corset-salesman Judd Gray, her lover, to bludgeon her husband with a sash weight and then to strangle him with picture wire. (Times, 1927).
Though a mother, Ruth dressed like a flapper, stocked her basement with Prohibition booze, and liked to gamble. She focused public fears about flappers as mothers. Gray was so short and dejected, the New York Times reported, that spectators thought him a dupe and compared him to Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp." He testified that, after sex, Ruth would claim her husband beat her: "I'd like to kill the beast," he'd respond heroically. "Do you really mean that?" she asked with interest. Beneath her cool surface, the newspapers detected a fiery "TigerWoman." A circulation war among East Coast newspapers helped to keep the story on the front page for eight months and a sensational photo of Ruth Snyder's electrocution in the New York Daily News in 1928 later shocked the nation.
Gray, like Cain, had gone to World War I an innocent and returned having tasted Europe's alcohol and freer sex. Prohibition was in force when he returned, with boyish, revealingly-dressed flappers everywhere. When he married the woman his parents liked, she bored him. Rather than let life pass him by, Gray cultivated a series of women, until he found Ruth. They kept a permanent suitcase at the Waldorf, where they met three times a week. The sex was apparently a revelation, and afterwards they shopped at Macy's or danced in nightclubs. It was an affair full of bad dialogue, an excuse for not missing what the "Jazz Age" offered.had to offer (Marling 1995: 121).
Three aspects of the trial especially caught Cain's attention. Without his knowledge, Snyder took out personal injury insurance on her husband for fifty thousand dollars and double indemnity in case of death. She instructed the postman to deliver payment coupons only to her, ringing the doorbell twice as a signal. This sign and "double indemnity" became commonplaces among the public for sexual duplicity. The third aspect that Cain recalled later was apocryphal: that after the murder Snyder sent Gray off on the train to establish his alibi in upstate New York with a bottle of relaxing wine that was in fact laced with cyanide. But this added detail made the "double" threat of the femme fatale explicit.
Cain did not use this plot until he left New York in 1931 to become a Hollywood screenwriter. After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, the World’s ad revenues dropped, and it was sold to Scripps-Howard in 1930. Cain worked next as managing editor of The New Yorker, but when Paramount offered him $400 a week, he, Elina, and her children packed up for Hollywood.
Despite his gift for dialogue, Cain was never a great scriptwriter, but he loved the Paramount commissary and the writers' talk there. Released after his first studio contract, Cain drove around southern California – one of the chief forms of recreation there – looking for magazine articles to write. In his early pieces Cain couldn't find enough praise for the friendly Californians, their excellent schools, and extensive roads (for example, see “Paradise,” American Mercury, March 1933).
One place he liked was Gay's Lion Farm in El Monte, which supplied animals to movies. (Hoopes 1982: 225; Marling, 1995: 162). He combined this with the drama he read into a young couple running a nearby gas station: "Always this bosomy-looking thing comes out – commonplace, but sexy, the kind you have ideas about. We always talked while she filled up my tank. One day I read in the paper where a woman who runs a filling station knocks off her husband. Can it be this bosomy thing? I go by and sure enough, the place is closed. I enquire. Yes, she’s the one – this appetizing but utterly commonplace woman." (Hoopes 1982: 225).
In Cain's sensational narrative "The Baby in the Icebox" (1933), the husband lets the 500-pound lion loose in the house to kill her. She puts the baby, possibly illegitimate, in an unplugged freezer for safety, and then locks her husband in the house. After he shoots her through a window, the cat turns on and kills him. The house catches on fire, but the baby survives in the freezer.
Encouraged by Knopf, Cain then began a novel he called Bar-B-Que. The basic plot came from the Snyder-Gray case, which he discussed with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. Lawrence introduced Cain to the Hollywood principle of the "love rack" – that the audience had to care about characters, that love stories were the best plot to make them do so, and that one of the lovers had to be a "losing lover.". It took Cain six months to write the story of Frank Chambers, a drifter who finds work at the roadside gas station / sandwich joint of Greek immigrant Nick Papadakis and his steamy wife Cora -- he made Judd Gray into a California hobo.
Crisp and pastel, California seemed like the perfect setting for a retelling of the Snyder-Gray murder, one in which the lovers’ mutual betrayal would be a figure for the social and economic ‘guilt’ that Cain sensed in his own and the nation’s disgust with the hedonism of the 1920s. Since he was most comfortable with the first-person point of view, he would ‘confess’ for Judd Gray. Newspapers had suggested Chaplin’s persona of the Little Tramp: Gray could be a hobo, folding in social anxieties about the unemployed. The account of Frank and Cora’s torrid sex, their decision to murder Nick, the initial botched effort, the success in a faked auto accident, and her confession under pressure follows the sequence of the Snyder-Gray case.
Cain got his characters arrested and confessedto the stage of arrest and confession, but once they were ‘racked’ he stopped. Lawrence diagnosed the problem: the love element stalled with Cora in jail. “Get her out of there,” he advised. “Your story doesn’t move until she’s free and they start up their lives again.” (Hoopes 1982: 233).
Cain struggled with the second half of the novel for months before remembering either the insurance job he held briefly or the “double indemnity” details of the trial. He saw that the insurance worldview made an ironic economic contrast with the initial world of sexual temptation: a figure for the kind of economy emerging in the Depression. He invented a defense lawyer named Katz whose rivalry with the district attorney leads him to trick the prosecution into a squeeze play between three insurance companies. As plotting, this may remind us of O. Henry’s devices, but ideologically it shows that justice is pure economic efficiency. Since it is cheaper for the companies, they reverse their testimony, making “justice” into an economy of scale.
So Frank and Cora are thrown back together after having betrayed one another. The power that each thought to have attained over the other actually resides in the alliance of the law, insurance companies, and police. Cora and Frank become two “losing lovers,”, growling in one cage.
Then Cora becomes pregnant, and Frank reticently proposes to marry hermarriage, but in an accidental repetition of the original crime, he kills her in an unintended auto accident. This time he is convicted and sent to death row, where he discovers God and writes the confession readers we have been reading.
Some readers find this ending, indeed, the whole relationship after Frank and Cora’s release, unsatisfactory. For them, the melodrama of lust and crime breaks; there is a narrative rift, after which the characters show a cynicism and suspicion at odds with the speed and eroticism of the novel’s first part. And the late revelation of the confessional form imparts a more conventional morality to the closure than anticipated, as Joyce Carol Oates noted in comparing the novel to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Camus’ L’Etranger. (Oates 1977: 111-12).
But in the 1930s, this constrictive, punitive second part explained the way life was going to be in the future. The possibility of being a prodigal son or daughter and returning to the largesse of a forgiving father was past. Cain had, in fact, larded the novel with details from Luke’s parable, with Mexico functioning as a “far country” and Nick Papadakis as Frank’s “father.” (Marling 1995: 165-68). But Cain overturned the parable’s mercy. The emerging positive values cluster around Cora, who changes from an ingénue who believes that “Hollywood” will make her a star into the kind of economic realist that the Depression economy required. She tells Frank:
They gave me a screen test. It was all right in the face. But they talk now. The pictures, I mean. And when I began to talk, they knew me for what I was, and so did I. A cheap Des Moines trollop, that had as much chance in pictures as a monkey has. (Cain 1934: 12)
For Cora, emerging forms of technology and economy are truth; the uncomprehending Frank, on the other hand, only shows this insight into the economy: “Whole goddam country lives selling hotdogs to each other” (Cain 1934: 96).
It is Cora’s program that triumphs, at least economically. She urges Frank to help her to “make something” of the Greek’s roadside restaurant, adding refrigerated draft beer and Tivoli lights and “radio music” under the trees; and indeed, business picks up. But when Cora announces her pregnancy, Frank goes off philandering with Madge, who captures and trains big cats. On his return, he meets not Nick’s gruff mercy, but Cora’s icy comment, that “I couldn’t have this baby and then have it find out I let its father hang for murder” (Cain 1934: 122).
It is of significance in the male psychodrama that the legal threat that she poses to Frank is voiced at the same moment that she confronts him with his paternity. For Frank the imaginary solution to this conflict is Cora’s “accidental death” in the car accident, a substitute gratification that Cain lays before male readers audaciously.
"Postman was probably the first of the big commercial books in American publishing," writes biographer Roy Hoopes, "the first novel to hit for what might be called the grand slam of the book trade: a hard-cover best-seller, paperback best-seller, syndication, play and movie. It scored more than once in most of these mediums and still sells on and on, even today." The novel set a new standard of hard-boiled-ness; it was so tough that the New York Times’ reviewer called it a "six-minute egg." (Hoopes 1982: 244).
References and Further Reading
Cain, James M. (1934) The Postman Always Rings Twice. New York: Knopf.
___________. (1936) Double Indemnity. New York: Knopf.
____________. (1937) Serenade. New York: Knopf.
____________. (1940) The Embezzler. New York: Liberty magazine.
____________. (1941) Mildred Pierce. New York: Knopf.
Hoopes, Roy. (1982) Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain . New York: Holt.
New York Times, May 3 – 10, 1927.
Madden, David. (1970) James M. Cain. Boston: Twayne.
____________. (1977) Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
Marling, William. (1986) Raymond Chandler. Boston: Twayne.
______________. ( (1995). The American Roman Noir. Athens: U George P.
McShane, Frank, ed. (1981) Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler New York: Columbia UP.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Man Under Sentence of Death,” in Madden, Tough Guy Writers (111-12).
Sikov, Ed. (1999) On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Wilder London: Hyperion. 26.