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II. La traduction audiovisuelle : du son aux sens

Image, Word and Echo: Voice-over Narration in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Rita Filanti
p. 116-130


Se concentrant sur le son asynchrone et son rapport à l’image au cinéma, cet article explore le rôle de la narration désincarnée. Habituellement considérée comme sous-produit inabouti de la fiction narrative, la voix off a récemment été revisitée comme moyen transgressif et intrinsèquement cinématographique qui parcourt les genres, emprunte à différents médias et défie les distinctions entre image, son et mot. Adoptant la perspective de l’adaptation, on montre comment l’effet écho est le fondement de l’activité d’écriture et de tournage et le héros disparu un type de narrateur posthume propre aux films et romans noirs. The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946), première adaptation hollywoodienne du roman de James M. Cain, est réputée la plus fidèle à celui-ci. Le film mise sur la voix plaintive de l’acteur vedette John Garfield et sa diction américaine rugueuse pour séduire le public dans l’hallucination d’un monde pleinement sensoriel (Doane). Mais contrairement au narrateur à la première personne du roman qui manipule le lecteur jusqu’à ce qu’il s’abandonne, la voix off du film promet une intimité qui se dérobe dès lors qu’est révélé l’artifice du cinéma. S’inspirant de la définition du cinéma comme phénomène « verbocentrique » (Chion) et l’intuition de Pasolini pour qui image et mot y sont une « bi-unité », cet article défend la qualité fantasmatique, potentiellement subversive de la narration en voix off dans le drame de Garnett.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 Henceforth abbreviated The Postman.

1Focusing on asynchronous sound and its relation to written word and cinematic image, this article explores the role of disembodied narration in The Postman Always Rings Twice1 by American director Tay Garnett (1946). Traditionally regarded as a faulty by-product of narrative fiction, voice-over has recently been re-evaluated, especially in the context of noir cinematography. Rather than a mere device tagged onto images to comment upon them, fill in temporal gaps or smooth out transitions, voice-over has come into focus as a transgressive and quintessentially cinematic device that traverses conventional borders between image, sound and word. In The Postman the male protagonist’s voice echoes from outside the frame in a failed attempt to seize control of the scattered narrative threads and bind them into a coherent resolution. Through an analysis of the movie’s famous first shot showing a “MAN WANTED” sign in a gas station, we suggest that storytelling is a form of labor which requires specific verbal skills as well as mental and physical exertion, and that what the ad asks for is a man able to extricate himself from the tangled plot line. In the final section of the article, we will contrast the role of the first-person narrator in the original novel with the voice-over in the film adaptation and argue for the semiotically volatile, yet acoustically resonant, presence of the echo effect in Garnett’s work. The use of asynchronous sound in the film will thus emerge as a distinctively noir mode of postmortem narration.

  • 2 On the previous cinematic adaptations of Cain’s novel see R. Filanti, 2015, “Disavowed Progenitors: (...)

2Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Garnett’s The Postman is the first Hollywood adaptation of James M. Cain’s homonymous novel (1934). Preceded by a hard-to-find French version, Le dernier tournant (Chenal, 1939), and by an ultra-celebrated Italian one, Ossessione (Visconti, 1943)2, Garnett’s movie was marketed as the most accurate rendition of its scandalous literary progenitor. Emphatically foregrounding Cain’s hard-boiled novel by maintaining the original title, the 1946 American film capitalized on the commercial success of its best-selling antecedent. A sizzling love triangle with the figure of the tempting dame at its center, the film exhibits an unsentimental portrayal of murder, sex and justice. Faithful to the novel’s main themes, it centers on the obscure conflict between good and evil, the dangerous confusion between sexual and criminal appetite, and the lovers’ failed striving for freedom from social and economic restraints. In doing so, it attempts a critique of the contemporary social order, while at the same time participating in the definition of what would soon come to be known, in the international film panorama, as the American noir sensibility.

Film noir as translation

  • 3 In his foundational article “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (1954, Cahiers du Cinéma), T (...)
  • 4 We use the term “transsensorial” following Chion’s definition, according to which, different from i (...)

3American film noir is deeply indebted to the tough-guy literature of the 1930s, with pulp writers such as James Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, among others, as its undisputed champions. The narrative power of noir cinema, the clever construction of the plots, the lifelike dialogues, and the rapid flow of speech were all responsible for their popular success, so much so that many writers, in order to achieve a better control over the results, also directed their own scripts (Kozloff, 1988: 33-34). It was only later, towards the mid-1950s, when the politique des auteurs first affirmed the priority of the director over the screenwriter, that the visual came to predominate over the verbal and the close connection between films, screenplays and original novels was neglected for a time3. Our contention is that it is precisely the key role played by oral language, i.e. the translational, intersemiotic and transsensorial4 nature of such films, which accounts for much of the acclaim and attention they still receive. Their ability to simultaneously refer to something previous and future, to something here and there, annulling rigid spatial or temporal demarcation, makes them a unique audiovisual experience.

4Although the term noir seems to allude to a specific movement whose peak years came between 1941-1958, film studies have not agreed yet on its definition and it is not clear whether “the films in question constitute a period, a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a ‘phenomenon’” (Naremore, 1998: 9). First coined in 1946, the term became widespread only later, in the 1970s. A few distinctive elements, such as their “true-to-life”-ness, uncertain psychology, harsh misogyny and gross cruelty, seemed to identify these movies, together with the quality of the script and source materials. In the first book-length study on the topic, Panorama du film noir américain, Borde and Chaumenton contend that “the essence of noirness lie[s] in a feeling of discontinuity, an intermingling of social realism and oneiricism, an anarcho-leftist critique of bourgeois ideology, and an eroticized treatment of violence” (1995: 22). French criticism thus translated the Hollywood thriller into the language of European existential philosophy, while adding that aesthetic significance that seemed to go missing in its American counterpart. And it was thanks to French intellectuals that Anglo-American criticism started a re-evaluation of these same films some time later. A re-assessment of the American roman noir and its influence on the advent of film noir, however, is still in progress, and much has to be done yet to establish its role in the context of international modernist literature.

  • 5 According to Cattrysse’s research on a corpus of 250 movies from 1940 to 1960, about 75 % of Americ (...)

5What is relevant to our discourse, however, is that, despite being exquisitely American by birthright and directly affiliated to contemporary American crime fiction, film noir bears a French name, with European avant-garde features emerging throughout. This is why we assimilate film noir to the theoretical notion of translation itself. In developing our argument, we are indebted to Cattrysse’s understanding of “film (adaptation) as translation” and, specifically, to his use of film noir as an extended metaphor for adaptation itself (1992: 53-70). In applying the polysystem theories of the Tel Aviv School to the study of cinematic adaptation, Cattrysse was among the first scholars to advocate for a shift from an intertextual to an intersystemic approach, thus expanding the traditional boundaries of Translation Studies beyond its disciplinary limits to include any transformative, interpretive or adaptive practice. He also demonstrated how film noir could function as a synecdoche for film in general; therefore, his argument followed, film in general had to be understood as adaptation, if only because it actually is the adaptation of a screenplay5.

Adaptation: the classical view

  • 6 While praising the vividness of silence and its ability to speak volumes, Balazs emphasized the ina (...)

6The question of how to translate words into images, how to adapt written into spoken dialogue, and how much sound, and specifically human voice, contributes to film, is a thorny one. Until the 1970s, when cinema studies started rediscovering the importance of dialogue, the role of speech as an essential component of film sound (together with noise and music) had been mostly neglected. A bias against “words” originated in the writings of early film theorists, namely Eisenstein, Arnheim, Balazs and Kracauer, who notoriously championed silent film over sound (Kozloff, 2000: 6-7). To Eisenstein, the essence of cinema lay primarily in the image, and montage was paramount. Consequently, language posed a threat to that cinematic specificity which had reached a state of near-perfection in the silent era. Besides being non-aesthetic, speech added nothing to the expressivity of the moving image, so that most theorists of the time advocated a contrapuntal, that is a non-naturalistic and asynchronous, use of sound. According to Arnheim, one of the most fervent opponents of the talkies, silent film “had created a union of silent man and silent things, as well as of the (audible) person close-by and the (inaudible) one at a far distance” (Weis & Belton, 1985: 113-114). This homogeneity had been destroyed by sound, and dialogue in particular, in that the talking film had replaced “the visually fruitful image of man in action with the sterile one of the man who talks” (ibid.: 115). Also Balazs, in celebrating the cinema as a wordless language, feared the coming of sound as the advent of a new Tower of Babel that would challenge the universality of cinema (ibid.: 116-125)6. Classical theorists, in sum, considered the advent of verbal language a threat to the notion of cinema as a language of its own, its visual aspect being precisely the basis upon which the promotion of the cinema as an independent art had been grounded.

From Pier Paolo Pasolini to Michel Chion: a new perspective

  • 7 All translations from Italian into English are ours.

7Contrary to the classical view, a new wave of cinema scholars has recently embraced speech as an essential element of the soundtrack, and emphasized the paramount role of human language in film. So much so that, at the beginning of the 1990s, French composer and filmmaker Michel Chion provocatively defined the cinema as “a vococentric or, more precisely, a verbocentric phenomenon” (1994: 5). Already in the mid-1960s, however, Italian visionary poet, writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini had theorized the deep imbrications—which he defined as a “bi-unity”—between image and word, and advocated the importance of oral language in cinema against those “(obsolete) defenders of the silent movies”7 (1972: 270) who would only grant it an ancillary function. Drawing on Pasolini’s theory and practice of sound cinema, and on Chion’s notion of the acousmêtre (i.e. a being whose voice is heard without seeing its body), we will attempt a study of voice-over narration in The Postman from an adaptation perspective and argue for the role of echo as key to both movie-making and novel / script-writing activity.

8Even if Pasolini was fascinated by the rhetorical idea of cinema as pure image, and took pleasure in making silent films, a wordless cinema was to him just a metrical restraint.

Image and word, in the cinema, are but one thing: a topos. It depends on the spectator’s position to perceive it as one thing or as something (more or less) divided and disconnected. Sometimes the distance that separates the crash of thunder from the flash of lightning seems incredible; that is, such diachrony between image and sound seems incredible.” (ibid.)

9Although movies (especially in Italy, due to the common practice of dubbing) are always badly spoken, Pasolini proceeds, and “the thunder always sounds like a belch or a yawn that comes limping after the lightning, […] thunder and lightning are in fact a unique atmospheric phenomenon: that is, the cinema is audiovisual.” (ibid., emphasis ours).

10In seeming contradiction with Pasolini’s view, Chion stressed that there is no natural, pre-existing harmony between image and sound and maintained that their juxtaposition in cinema is always an illusion which never achieves total fusion. Whereas to Pasolini sound and image are united at the origin and it’s only our distance from the source that makes us perceive them as different phenomena, to Chion they are two separate things to start with and it is only because of a commonly accepted convention that they are most often connected in film. Pasolini makes his point clear by drawing an implicit parallel between cinema and the natural world, while Chion maintains the absolute artificiality of the cinematic medium. Despite the apparent opposition in their critical standpoints, however, both Chion and Pasolini argue for the fruitful combination, if not natural unity, of image and word in cinema, for the paramount role of the point of audition, and for the joint participation of eye and ear in the perception of (sound) film.

11It should be noticed, however, that the use of sound technologically coupled to image vs. live recording is key to Pasolini’s practice as a filmmaker, notwithstanding his theoretical assumptions about their natural coincidence. As is known, a distinctive feature of this director’s filmography is his joint employment of non-professional actors, mostly speaking the highly accentuated Romanesque dialect, together with professional, and sometimes non-Italian speaking, actors. Such a choice, which has both aesthetic and political rationales, makes live sound impractical, and the dubbing and post-synchronization of dialogue inevitable. Instead of striving to reach an illusion of synchronicity, Pasolini has his audience acoustically and visually estranged by what they perceive as constantly belated and / or partly disconnected sound. The deliberate use of a non-naturalistic soundtrack contributes to Pasolini’s movies that eerie atmosphere that might be described as an echo effect, i.e. a sound emitted here and repeated there without a clear definition of its spatial or temporal boundaries, and with a more or less approximate relation to both the source that originally produced it and the visual image it later accompanies. Ambiguous and disempowered by definition, the echo in Pasolini’s praxis thus suggests an irreconcilable dualism, while at the same time hinting at that transcendent monism, or “bi-unity”, that he advocates for in his doxa.

The echo effect in American noir

12Looking through the lens of Pasolini, we find a similar dislocation of sound and image in noir cinema as well as in the American hard-boiled fiction it stems from. The echo effect is very much at play, for example, in Cain’s writing as a crime novelist. Mostly disparaged by his detractors for his use of suspense techniques that build up a sense of expectation and make his stories veritable page-turners, Cain reveals himself as a master of asynchronous sound in a crucial scene of The Postman. The adulterous lovers, Cora and Frank, together with the woman’s drunken husband, Nick, are driving home through the mountains when the lovers pretend the engine is boiling over and stop the car. This is where they have planned to commit the murder. Nick, an amateur singer, gets out of the car and realizes that an echo of his voice comes back from the mountains, so he keeps tossing up high notes for the fun of hearing them reverberate in the valley. Finally he gets back into the car and Frank, who has a wrench ready at hand, kills him in cold blood. Just before that, however, Nick thrusts his face out of the window and lets go with a final high note. Here follows Cain’s chilling passage:

I braced my feet, and while he still had his chin on the window sill I brought down the wrench. His head cracked, and I felt it crush. He crumpled up and curled on the seat like a cat on a sofa. It seemed a year before he was still. Then Cora, she gave a funny kind of gulp that ended in a moan. Because here came the echo of his voice. It took the high note, like he did, and swelled, and stopped, and waited. (1934: 66-67)

  • 8 On the use of echo in Hollywood movies and popular music see P. Doyle, 2005, Echo & Reverb: Fabrica (...)
  • 9 On the screenplay being “a continuous allusion to a cinematic work to be made”, see Pasolini’s 1965 (...)

13Although the echo effect was already common in the 1930s in both pop music and Hollywood cinema8, it was Cain who first used it in literature with unprecedented power, thus creating his own version of a disembodied voice, or split self, —dead yet still alive—which will haunt the characters (and readers) with its spectral presence throughout the novel. The use of a voice from beyond the frame in Garnett’s The Postman has a similar function, and it is with Cain’s homonymous novel in the background that we will analyze voice-over narration in the movie, while also keeping in mind the process of intermediation between written and spoken language enacted by the screenplay9. In doing so, we take an adaptation studies approach and consider Cain and Garnett equally as “authors” of their respective works, even if, in the context of 1940’s American film industry, the authority and independence of (screen)-writers would have been much higher than that of directors.


14Both The Postman’s original theatrical trailer and the movie’s title sequence strenuously acknowledge their notorious literary source. Advertising itself as a literal adaptation of “James M. Cain’s Sultry Novel of Love and Violence!”, Garnett’s movie promises its audience an even more sensational outcome than the written progenitor, and appropriates the book jacket of the novel’s first edition while superimposing the production company’s name and copyright at the bottom of the frame.

15The opening credits encourage expectations of textual fidelity by suggesting that Cain’s own authorial voice may be adopted as a hermeneutic guide to understanding the film itself. In having the front cover of the novel sitting on a magnified piece of fabric during the title sequence, MGM implied that Cain’s prose was deeply ingrained into the cinematic texture, and that it was the warp and weft of the story to be told, the most authoritative commentary on the action shown.

16The famous first image of The Postman is a shot of a hand-painted sign, hanging from a gasoline can and reading “MAN WANTED”:

17As Barthes first noticed, there is a paradox in the photographic image, in that it apparently captures literal reality while in fact concealing heavily connoted messages. The question of meaning is further complicated when the photographic image is accompanied by a text:

Firstly, the text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second-order signifieds. In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image. The reversal is at a cost […] it is not the image which comes to elucidate or ‘realize’ the text, but the latter which comes to sublimate, patheticize or rationalize the image. (Barthes, 1984: 25)

18While the denoted message in the “MAN WANTED” sign seems to indicate that a manual laborer is needed at the California gas station, the connoted one(s) may be more difficult to grasp and necessitate an interpretation, if not a real decipherment. Apparently the verbal message seems to share in the objectivity of the image and duplicate it, while in fact it opens up entirely new signifieds, to suggest that a bigger job than simple mechanical repair lies in wait for that man. The image therefore, is not clarified by the text, but—in Barthes’s words—loaded by it, burdened with “a culture, a moral, an imagination” (ibid.: 26).

  • 10 Although the reference to Italian rhymed poetry in the context of American popular cinema may seem (...)

19According to Abbott, the “MAN WANTED” sign may be the “expression of a lack begging fulfillment” or even the ensnaring song of a siren deceptively luring wrecked passers-by with her voice (2002: 125). However, the phantom voice of a male narrator soon intervenes from outside the frame to fill in that interpretive gap and suggest that the language of the film’s first shot may be less transparent, or innocent, than it seems. As will be shown in the following sections, the use of voice-over in The Postman is a potentially disruptive, disorienting and poetic force that challenges our perception of the talking film while revealing lip-synchronization as yet another cinematic convention. Rather than clarifying the complexity of the visual, voice-over deepens and magnifies it, thus adding aural richness to the movie’s otherwise silent world. In terms of its lyric and dramatic effect, disembodied narration also dissolves the semantic value of the words spoken to let them resonate and echo. In so doing, it enhances the natural voluptuousness of human voice and achieves what terza rima, in Pasolini’s words, does to poetry; i.e. “[it] reduces the possibility of speaking the speakable, while disproportionately expanding the possibility of speaking the unspeakable” (1972: 270)10.

Voice-over vs. first-person narration

20A staple of 1940’s American film noir, the use of voice-over seemed the most concrete sign of that cinematography’s filiation from hard-boiled fiction. Imported by Weimar filmmakers who escaped from Europe in the 1930s and migrated to the U.S., voice-over, together with angled cameras, chiaroscuro effects, dream-like atmospheres and other experimental features, was a direct borrowing from German Expressionism. The influence of radio and wartime newsreel narration, however, is also responsible for its preeminence in the Hollywood cinema of the time. As Kozloff imaginatively wonders:

[W]as there some intangible forties Zeitgeist, some special feeling of loneliness and isolation, that the adaptations and noirs expressed with their intimate memoirs and confessions, and that the war films and semi-documentaries tried to assuage with their reassuring, authoritative pronouncements? (1988: 34)

21Formally defined as “oral statements, conveying any portion of a narrative, spoken by an unseen speaker situated in a space and time other than that simultaneously being presented by the images on the screen” (ibid.: 5) there are, in fact, many distinctions to be made among the multiple functions and forms of voice-over in the context of film noir. Moreover, even if intimately related to certain genres, voice-over also traverses genres in being a recurrent feature of most adaptations of literature to film.

22“It was on a side road outside of Los Angeles,” starts the voice-over in The Postman, while the image of the “MAN WANTED” sign dissolves into the next shot, showing an external view of the Twin Oaks Tavern with plenty more signs selling gasoline, hamburgers and chicken dinners. “I was hitchhiking from San Francisco down to San Diego, I guess. A half hour earlier, I had thumbed a ride” (1’18). Alternatively described as “the last resort of the incompetent”, a “literary device”, a sheer redundancy, or even a “chattering wife” (Kozloff, 1988: 8-22), voice-over is a highly controversial means that adds an extended temporal dimension to the limited space of the frame shot. That such a weak stand-in for the novelistic “I” should be used in fiction film was considered a hopeless stratagem to revive the novel’s narrative voice. Apparently thrown in to patch up an uneasy transition, voice-over seems to deny mimesis the ability to speak for itself. When compared to the opening lines of Cain’s story, however, a few comments are needed:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. (1934: 3)

23Widely celebrated as one of the most staggering incipits in American narrative, the first few pages of Cain’s novel immediately hook the reader and force her to empathize with the main character’s incoherent meanderings and ramblings. The first-person narrator thus establishes a bond with the reader that will keep them stuck together until the end.

24Far from sharing the same all-knowing power and claiming a privileged understanding of events, the voice-over in the movie achieves a totally different spell, by forswearing any pretense of omniscience, by disallowing his recollection of the past, and by establishing approximation as his less than adequate mode of storytelling. What the caption in the movie’s first shot may be asking for, therefore, is neither a hand for the station’s overworked owner, nor a lover for his dissatisfied young wife, but a first-person male narrator that will tell their story, one who is able to make sense of the proliferation of meanings inherent in the cinematic medium. And it is no surprise that, once he accepts the job, Frank will burn—not without hesitation—the “MAN WANTED” sign, to indicate that the position is no longer vacant, that the narrator, albeit unreliable, will accomplish his duty, and that the diegesis is underway.

25Yet it is precisely the intrinsic difficulty of his task, his preventive admission of failure, in sum his powerlessness, that makes the attempt so compelling.

The acousmêtre

26According to Chion, sound film’s great accomplishment was to create a character through its voice, instead of through its presence. The art of illusion and conjuring par excellence, cinema was thus able to make the invisible hero even more sensuous and mysterious because of its absence from the screen. Its voice speaks over the image but is also always on the verge of appearing within it. Chion calls such a character the acousmêtre (from acousmatic, i.e. a sound one hears without seeing its source, and être):

We may define it as neither inside nor outside the image. It is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source—the body, the mouth—is not included. Nor is it outside, since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary ‘wing,’ like a master of ceremonies or a witness, and it is implicated in the action, constantly about to be part of it (1994: 129).

27The voice-over intervenes ten times in the course of Garnett’s film, at almost regular intervals and for quite a constant length of time, plus once more at the end of the story, when it technically changes from voice-over proper into a monologue or, more precisely, into a confession addressed to, and rarely interrupted by, the priest and then the District Attorney (DA).

  • 11 Although we are aware that there are many more chances today to see classical movies on a personal (...)

28Garfield’s unpolished voice, with its conversational American diction, and its wavering rhythm of delivery has an acoustic coloring that immediately seduces the listener. As Doane has noticed in her psychoanalytic reading of the voice in cinema, there is a pleasure of hearing in the spectator that goes beyond a strictly verbal codification of what is said and refers rather to that desire that Lacan has defined the invocatory drive. According to Doane, the theatrical space sustains that pleasure, and makes sound and image work together in manufacturing the “hallucination” of a fully sensory world (Weis & Belton, 1985: 171). Different from the pleasure of the text, which needs isolation and silence, the pleasure of hearing is another kind of erotics, which necessitates the collective ritual of going to the theater and letting oneself go into that lethargic state that the dark room encourages11.

29Garfield’s narration builds up an intimacy with the audio-viewer that goes beyond the meaning of his words and has more to do with the timbre of his voice, the low class tone of his speech, the indecisive pace of his discourse. In this way, it creates “cette hésitation prolongée entre le son et le sens” (Valéry, 1960: 636)—i.e. an ambiguity between sound and meaning, which approximates music. It is Pasolini again who, commenting on melodrama, speaks of “semantic dilation” while incorporating quotes from both Jakobson and Paul Valéry. In his view, there is a prejudice against the oral word, in that only the written word is considered aesthetic. On the contrary, he assimilates the oral word in cinema to the origin of poetry itself and stresses how the poetic word is always an unmade choice between its phonic and its semantic value (1972: 271). In sum, it is the grain of Garfield’s voice and not the actual content of his words, its being already gone even while we keep hearing it; it is the intrinsic impermanence of sound, more than its potentially infinite reproducibility, that is responsible for the pleasure it generates.

  • 12 Apparently Wilder, the director of Double Indemnity (1944), was disappointed with the screenwriter (...)

30It is undeniable that the two screenwriters, Ruskin and Busch, tried to emulate the first person narration of the original novel by directly speaking to the audience through the voice-over. Cain’s prose, however, his neat and terse dialogue, has a concision that aims at the eye more than the ear, and its literary texture would never work on the screen (Porfirio, 1999: 90). If it is true that Cain was fascinated by the way people talked and tried to recreate it in his writing, it is also true, in fact, that most adaptations from his works have struggled to transplant his written words into the motion pictures12.

31Garfield’s far-off voice, on the other hand, has a semantic superfluity, a singsong inflection, a volatile quality that calls attention to itself. More like a chanting from a remote time and space, it is an emanation of the absent body, while contributing to the character that plaintive fatalism and compulsive self-absorption that he shares with the novel’s first-person narrator. After kissing Cora for the first time, the male protagonist seems to be overwhelmed by melancholy. “For a couple of weeks then she wouldn’t look at me or say a word to me if she could help it,” says the voice-over while an exterior view of the gas station passes by on the screen, with customers coming and going. “I began to feel like a cheap nobody making a play for a girl that had no use for me,” the disembodied narration goes on while a shot of the station at night signals the passing of days. “Oh, I disturbed her, I knew she hated me for that worst of all” (9’39); and here an inconsolable Frank, smoking a cigarette alone in the dark, appears on the screen, while a shot of the “Twin Oaks” neon sign being torn down by the approaching storm follows with a crash.

32It is true that, in most of its occurrences, the voice-over in Garnett’s movie has the syntactical function of a time connective—or a conjunction—patching together two separate episodes and providing, through an auditory impression, the temporal depth that the visual lacks. Garfield’s self-commiserating tone, however, the sense of doom ingrained in his working class elocution, his all-pervading feeling of loneliness and despair, captivate the film’s audio-viewers as they overhear his most private reveries. Born from a Russian-Jewish émigrée family, Jacob Julius Garfinkle, aka John Garfield, escaped poverty and became famous for interpreting rebellious proletarian characters opposing bourgeois values. Despite the enormous popular success he soon obtained in the movie studios, Garfield died at 39 from a heart attack after being blacklisted for his purported communist affiliation. In 1946, when he played the role of Frank Chambers in The Postman, he was worshipped as an icon of leftist radicalism, thus adding a social hint to an otherwise non-political film.

33Far from being the ubiquitous narrator of Cain’s novel who fascinates the reader by means of his personal perspective on the events and his irresistible way of relating them, the voice-over in the film accepts the position while abdicating the authority. It is precisely his unreliability, his dream-like meandering in the past, his being at a loss to understand, in sum, his ultimate failure to make sense of the images over which he speaks that make it such a compelling feature of this noir. “Right then I should have walked out of that place,” says the voice-over as we see a nostalgic Frank smoking alone on the ocean beach at night, “but I couldn’t make myself do it. She had me licked and she knew it.” (29’30) The character’s inability to take action parallels his equally paralyzing inability to interpret the events, while creating that nightmarish atmosphere that characterizes this movie, as well as American film noir in general. “I just couldn’t get her out of my mind, couldn’t get her out of my mind. It kept nagging me all the time,” (47’2) cries the voice-over at the height of its frustration when, after finally leaving the Twin Oaks Tavern and moving to LA, the male protagonist keeps hanging around a wholesale market in the self-destructive hope to run into his lost lover again.

  • 13 There are numerous heroes, in film noir, who narrate their stories from the grave. The most remarka (...)

34The voice-over in The Postman, as in other more subtle examples of noir cinema immediately establishes Frank’s storytelling as a voice from the past, a posthumous one. As Christopher ironically suggests, “the hero is clearly dead, and now he’s going to tell us how he died” (1997: 9). His reappearances throughout the movie turn out to be more and more ghostly as the story moves towards the end, and it becomes clear that he is literally speaking from beyond, that his voice is truly detached from his corporeal self, and the fantasmatic illusion of synchronized sound has only temporarily reunited them. In this way the voice-over narration in Garnett’s movie, this uncanny call from kingdom come, participates in the construction of what will soon become a well-established tradition in noir cinematography. An echo from the main character’s final speech, deprived of its late human body and only capable of uttering senseless words, will repeat the story in vain13.

From omniscient to disempowered narrator: a conclusion

35In the final scene the voice-over converts into a flashback, and the narration, which seemed to be addressed exclusively to the audience, is revealed as a diegetically motivated confession directed to a priest (Porfirio, 1999: 93). According to Chion, one of the inherent qualities of the acousmêtre is that it can be instantly de-acousmatized, i.e. deprived of its mysterious powers, once the source of the sound is shown and synchronization re-inscribes the voice into its corporeal limits. Once confined to the visual field of a body, the acousmêtre loses its aura, thus descending into a human, and thereby fully vulnerable, fate (Chion, 1994: 130-1). The embodiment of the voice, made possible by advancements in mechanical reproduction, thus unveils the split between original sound and its acoustic transmission. Of course, the more the revelation of the true sound’s source is withheld until the end, the more effective the voice-over is, as its lure depends precisely on deferring such a discovery to the extreme. Once the fusion between sound and image is realized, however, the otherworldliness of the voice is gone forever and human language is once again held subject to the tyranny of meaning.

36“That’s the awful part when you monkey with murder” (1 h 49’), says a suddenly de-acousmatized Frank to the Father in the final sequence of the movie, while he sits on death row hoping for a stay of execution. And this is just the beginning of a long, querulous monologue that, accompanied by a dramatic music beating non-diegetically in the claustrophobic setting of the prison cell, mimics Cain’s first person narrative in the last chapter of the book. In both novel and film, Cora and Frank manage to kill the woman’s husband at their second attempt. Despite an intense investigation, they get away with the crime, get married, and when Cora is finally pregnant and on her way to becoming a happy mother, she dies in a car accident of which Frank is wrongly accused.

37“They got me for it”—says the narrator at the beginning of the last chapter of Cain’s novel, before he starts a long meditation on past events and impending future, and fantasizes about his afterlife with Cora. Hereafter follow the final paragraphs of the chapter:

I’m up awful tight, now. I think they give you dope in the grub, so you don’t think about it. I try not to think. Whenever I can make it, I’m out there with Cora, with the sky above us, and the water around us, talking about how happy we’re going to be, and how it’s going to last forever. […] That’s when it seems real, about another life […] When I start to figure, it all goes blooey.

No stay.

Here they come. Father McConnell says prayers help. If you’ve got this far, send up one for me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is. (Cain, 1934: 188, emphasis ours)

  • 14 On “enchantment” as a mode of textual engagement see R. Felski, 2008, Uses of Literature, Malden, B (...)
  • 15 See C. Breu, 2005, Hard-Boiled Masculinities, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press and G. For (...)

38As is apparent, the novel’s narrator deftly manipulates the reader into unconditioned complicity and self-surrender. So much so that, when in the final sentence he directly addresses her for the first time by asking for a prayer, the reader is taken aback as their mutual loyalty is sealed. That Cain’s work would encourage such a naïve mode of textual engagement, precipitating its readers into vertiginous absorption instead of granting them intellectual detachment, is one of the reasons why this novel has long been neglected14. More recent readings of American crime fiction, however, have re-evaluated the suspense techniques adopted by hard-boiled writers and acknowledged “readerly identification” as a legitimate way of interacting with artworks15.

39Via the retrieval of the absent body, the final scene of Garnett’s movie frustrates the audience’s slowly built connivance, by attempting to recover that unity of image and sound which reproducibility has undone. But the lack of authenticity is sealed by the redundancy of Frank’s final logorrhea. The screenwriters and director even went so far as to provide, through Garfield’s lengthy speech, a futile explanation of the novel’s title:

You know, there’s something about this that’s like… Well, that’s like… you’re expecting… a letter that you’re just crazy to get… and you hang around the front door… for fear you might not hear him ring. You never realize that he always rings twice.
The truth is you always hear him ringing the second time. Even if you’re way out in the back yard. (1 h 51’)

40Frank, who has just been denied a stay of execution, cannot come to terms with the unfairness of his sentence. It is only after the DA helps him unpack all the legal and judiciary nonsense that he will accept his own demise. Far from being the privileged interpreter of the story, the only surviving eyewitness to the crime scene, in sum an omniscient narrator, the voice-over in The Postman shows how narrow and shortsighted his perspective has been. Incapable of grasping meanings and connecting dots, he embraces death as the right punishment for having failed so miserably.

41The ambiguity of the “MAN WANTED” sign at the beginning of the movie thus leaves the spectator doubly disoriented, in that the male narrator takes on the responsibility but goes back on his duty. Contrary to the novel’s first person narration that builds up the reader’s emotional abandonment until the final denouement when her self-loss reaches its climax, the film voice-over steals that pleasure away by showing the priest as the only addressee of Frank’s faith. Instead of restoring the original harmony of sound and image—that yearned-for unity of representation and signification—, the cinematic mise-en-scène thus reveals its magic and the wholly artificial nature of the phonic apparatus is unveiled in all its mischievous beauty.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946, dir. Tay Garnett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 1 h 53. DVD, 2009, Murder Mysteries, TCM, Warner Home Video.

Corpus text

Cain, James M., 1934, The Postman Always Rings Twice, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

Works cited

Abbott, Megan E., 2002, The Street was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, New York, Palgrave.

Arnheim, Rudolf, 1985, “A New Laocoön: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film”, in E. Weis & J. Belton (eds.), Film Sound: Theory and Practice, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 112-115.

Balazs, Bela, 1985, “Theory of the Film: Sound”, in E. Weis & J. Belton (eds.), Film Sound, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 116-125.

Barthes, Roland, 1984 [1977], Image, Music, Text, trans. S. Heath, London, Fontana.

Borde, Raymond & Chaumenton, Étienne, 1993, Panorama du film noir américain 1941-1953, Paris, Flammarion.

Cattrysse, Patrick, 1992, “Film (Adaptation) as Translation: Some Methodological Proposals”, in G. Toury & J. Lambert (eds.) Target, International Journal of Translation Studies, 4 (1), Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing, p. 53-70.

Chion, Michel, 1994 [1990], Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans. C. Gorbman, New York, Columbia University Press.

Christopher, Nicholas, 1997, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City, New York, The Free Press.

Doane, Mary Ann, 1985, “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space”, in E. Weis & J. Belton (eds.), Film Sound, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 162-176.

Eisenstein, Sergei M. et al., “A Statement”, in E. Weis & J. Belton (eds.), Film Sound, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 83-85.

Kozloff, Sarah, 1988, Invisible Storytellers, Berkeley-Los Angeles, University of California Press.

–—, 2000, Overhearing Film Dialogue, Berkeley-Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Naremore, James, 1998, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, Berkeley-Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo, 1972 [1969], “Il cinema e la lingua orale”, Empirismo Eretico, Milano, Garzanti, p. 270-272.

Porfirio, Robert G., 1999, “Whatever Happened to the Film Noir? The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946-1981)”, in A. Silver & J. Ursini (eds.), Film Noir: Reader 2, New York, Limelight, p. 85-98.

Truffaut, François, 1976 [1954], “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”, in B. Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods, Berkeley-Los Angeles, University of California Press, p. 221-237.

Valéry, Paul, 1960 [1941], Œuvres II, Paris, Gallimard.

Weiss, Elisabeth & Belton, John (eds.), 1985, Film Sound: Theory and Practice, New York, Columbia University Press.

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1 Henceforth abbreviated The Postman.

2 On the previous cinematic adaptations of Cain’s novel see R. Filanti, 2015, “Disavowed Progenitors: Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione and the denial of its literary (and cinematic) antecedent(s)”, in R. Dimitriu et al. (eds.), The Many Facets of Adaptation, Iaşi, Alexandru Ioan Cuza Editura Universităţii, p. 29-45.

3 In his foundational article “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (1954, Cahiers du Cinéma), Truffaut famously advocated the director’s right to be unfaithful to the source text as a way to express his talent and vision of the world. A manifesto of so-called “auteur theory”, usually associated to the French New Wave, his article encouraged invention and betrayal in cinema, thus paving the way to a notion of film adaptation as an expansion of the “original” instead of simply a reduction. On the privileging of auteurism and consequent underestimation of literary sources in film noir criticism from the mid-1950s, see R. Barton Palmer, 2008 [2004], “The Sociological Turn of Adaptation Studies: The Example of Film Noir”, in RStam & ARaengo (eds.), A Companion to Literature and Film, Malden, Blackwell Publishing, p. 258-277.

4 We use the term “transsensorial” following Chion’s definition, according to which, different from intersensoriality, in the transsensorial model “there is no sensory given that is demarcated and isolated from the outset.” (1994: 137).

5 According to Cattrysse’s research on a corpus of 250 movies from 1940 to 1960, about 75 % of American films noir were based on either a novel or a short story, and only 25 % on an original screenplay (ibid.: 56).

6 While praising the vividness of silence and its ability to speak volumes, Balazs emphasized the inability of sounds to produce shapes in space, and therefore their throwing no shadows and having no sides.

7 All translations from Italian into English are ours.

8 On the use of echo in Hollywood movies and popular music see P. Doyle, 2005, Echo & Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording 1900-1960, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press.

9 On the screenplay being “a continuous allusion to a cinematic work to be made”, see Pasolini’s 1965 essay, “La sceneggiatura come ‘strutturache vuole essere altra struttura’”, in Empirismo eretico, 1972, Milano, Garzanti, p. 192-201.

10 Although the reference to Italian rhymed poetry in the context of American popular cinema may seem as coming from another planet, it was certainly not so to Pasolini himself, who strenuously defended, not only in theory, the aesthetic value of oral language and the close connection between cinema and poetry. See in particular “Il ‘cinema di poesia’”, 1965, in Empirismo eretico, p. 171-191.

11 Although we are aware that there are many more chances today to see classical movies on a personal device rather than at the cinema, we believe that darkness, relaxation and the somnolence thus induced are still essential conditions for a full enjoyment of the audiovisual experience.

12 Apparently Wilder, the director of Double Indemnity (1944), was disappointed with the screenwriter Chandler’s handling of Cain’s dialogue and summoned the author of the original novel. Surprisingly, though, Cain “bore Chandler out, reminding Wilder [he] could write spoken stuff well enough, but on the page there just wasn’t any room for talky climaxes”. (accessed on 13 August, 2017).

13 There are numerous heroes, in film noir, who narrate their stories from the grave. The most remarkable examples of the “posthumous narrator” in Hollywood cinema probably are Double Indemnity (1944), also based on a novella by Cain, and Sunset Boulevard (1950), both directed by Wilder.

14 On “enchantment” as a mode of textual engagement see R. Felski, 2008, Uses of Literature, Malden, Blackwell, p. 51-76.

15 See C. Breu, 2005, Hard-Boiled Masculinities, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press and G. Forter, 2000, Murdering Masculinities, New York-London, New York University Press.

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Rita Filanti, « Image, Word and Echo: Voice-over Narration in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) », Palimpsestes, 30 | -1, 116-130.

Référence électronique

Rita Filanti, « Image, Word and Echo: Voice-over Narration in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 30 | 2017, mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2017, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.2457

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Rita Filanti

Rita Filanti est titulaire d’un doctorat en études de traduction & littératures anglo-américaines de l’université de Bari en Italie. Actuellement professeur d’anglais et traductrice littéraire, elle a été chargée de cours pour l’enseignement de la langue italienne pendant plus de dix ans et a enseigné dans plusieurs universités australiennes et nord-américaines. Elle a publié des articles dans des revues et volumes universitaires sur la censure dans l’Italie fasciste, la traduction et l’exil, le genre et la traduction, ainsi que les questions d’adaptation littéraire et cinématographique. Elle a traduit en italien une anthologie de poésie américaine et co-édité de nombreuses traductions de l’italien vers l’anglais. Sa traduction en italien du mémoire de Maxim D. Shrayer, Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, est en cours de publication.

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