THE LATEST VERSION of James M. Cain's little classic, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," slipped into town this spring, spent a few sizzling weeks in half-filled local theaters, then disappeared into the night, like one of Cain's California drifters. Unlike the 1946 version of the story starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, the recent Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange film, directed by Bob Rafelson and produced by Lorimar, is a box-office bomb. Both versions were given thumbs down by the critics (and with good reason), but for years the sanitized Turner-Garfield treatment was among the top 50 all-time Hollywood moneymakers. Fortunately for Lorimar, some of the millions it spent on its disappointing "Postman" are being recouped in Europe, where the sexiest scenes ("I shot for X and edited for R," says Rafelson) are being exploited in the advertising and the critics have been kinder. A recent full-page ad in Variety trumpeted "The Postman Delivers Around the World" with accompanying figures from 11 countries to support that claim. The prospects are also very good for cable TV, which needs sexy movies ("and this one is real high-class soft porn," one Lorimar executive said) for its late-night home audiences.

At the same time, "Body Heat," which many have likened to "Postman" as well as Cain's "Double Indemnity," is cleaning up at the box office, amid a general '30s nostalgia kick.

But the recent "Postman" was still a bomb, and it would not have surprised Cain, who spent the last 30 years of his life in Hyattsville writing novels -- and avoiding his movies when they appeared on TV. The 1946 MGM "Postman" disappointed Cain so much that he left the first screening, crawling up the aisle on his hands and knees to avoid meeting the producer, Carey Wilson, who was a friend. Later, when he saw an edited version, he was less disturbed and wrote Wilson that he felt better, but the producer should understand that "this novel, my first, lay very close to my heart."

And well it should have -- "The Postman Always Rings Twice" was one of those rarest of literary achievements in America: a phenomenal bestseller that received the highest acclaim from the critics. It brought Cain, a 42-year-old, unemployed journalist who had just failed a screen-writing job in Hollywood, out from obscurity and into the literary limelight, where he remained for 14 years, until he disappeared into the lawns and side streets of suburban Maryland. By 1945, the novel had become well established in literary circles -- the kind of book, as Cain's playwright friend Samson Raphaelson told him in a letter, that Sinclair Lewis re-read on a visit and treated "with the casualness one gives a classic."

Others have confirmed Raphaelson's appraisal: Ross MacDonald called it "a native American masterpiece" and Tom Wolfe cited it as containing the kind of writing Norman Mailer ought to study if he wanted to really learn how to write a novel. But back in 1932, when Cain first conceived the idea and was trying to work up enough confidence to write a novel, the story he was agonizing over hardly seemed destined to become an American classic, although it had the authentic feel of California all over it. When Cain was fired by Paramount Pictures in 1932 and settleddown in Burbank to become a free-lance writer, he did not really know what to write about.

In 1932, one of the principal forms of recreation in California was driving an automobile -- through the canyons or out into the valleys or down to the beaches. Cain loved to drive and took hundreds of such trips alone or with friends or with his wife, Elina, and his two stepchildren. On one of his trips, something happened at a filling station at which he regularly stopped. "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. Yes, she's the one -- this appetizing but utterly commonplace woman."

What about a novel in which a woman and a typical California automobile tramp killed the woman's husband to get the gas station and the car? He and Elina talked about this for months, but Cain was not quite ready to write a long story. The trouble was, he still only felt comfortable writing fiction in the first-person style of Ring Lardner, in the speech of a rural roughneck of the Eastern Shore, as he had done for H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine. He had also learned from his first attempt at writing a novel that too many "ain'ts," "brungs" and "fittens" would drive the reader crazy. They are all right in short stories, but not novels. So he put the novel in the back of his mind and decided maybe the best thing would be another short story.

THIS RESULTED in "Baby in the Icebox," a story about murder and adultery suggested by another trip to an animal farm up on the Ventura Road. The story created a mild sensation back East when Mencken published it in the American Mercury and it immediately sold to Paramount, which produced the first Hollywood movie based on a Cain story -- "She Made Her Bed," starring Richard Arlen, Robert Armstrong and Sally Eilers.

Mencken also had shown the story to Alfred A. Knopf, who had published Cain's first book, "Our Government" (1930), a collection of satirical dialogues that had first appeared in the Mercury. Knopf wrote Cain that the story "encourages me to believe that one of these days you may try your hand at a novel."

Cain wrote back that he had started a novel but that his conviction that he could not write one was so great he did not have the heart to go on. "Your note may turn out to be the push I needed." Then he outlined his story, and it is apparent he had given a lot of thought to the girl in the gas station. He called it more of a novelette: "A simple story, laid in California, about a youth who commits the perfect murder with a girl, then has fortune kiss him on the brow, then gets so bored with her as she murders her former husband every night for the kick it injects into their carnal relations, that he is sunk. That is, he finds that the bond which put such a tingle in their doings in the beginning can also be a chain that he doesn't dare break. An accident saves him the trouble, but he is hung for this one anyway. Sounds dull, I suppose, but I might pull it off."

Knopf showed Cain's letter to Mencken, who wrote Knopf he thought the idea "somewhat mashuggah," adding, "Cain, in fact, not infrequently wanders across the boundary line of sense. However, it is conceivable that he may make a good novel of the idea. Certainly it is worth while to be polite to him." The day he received Mencken's note, Knopf wrote Cain a letter of encouragement and said he was anxious to see the novel.

A key role in the evolution of Cain's first novel was played by screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who was probably the prototype of the Hollywood writer of the 1930s. He was the kind of guy who called everybody "pal" and "laddie" and "lassie." He would go into a bar, says Raphaelson, "and there would be a couple and he would look at them fondly and say: 'You've got the moon, ain't you pal?' When you'd offer him a drink, he'd say: 'Tell me this, pal, why isn't everybody sitting on a fence in the moonlight playing a banjo? That's all I want to know.' That was as close as he got to philosophy. He had a very special gift, writing that kind of romantic urge in masculine dialogue. If you wanted Gable to be in love and not sound like a fool, Vinnie would write the words . . . that was his function in Hollywood . . ."

Cainwould spend an evening with Lawrence at his apartment at the Chateau Elysee on Franklin Street, or Lawrence would drive over to Burbank in his big, convertible Packard with a separate windshield for the back seat. And they would talk story construction for hours.

Cain, the ex-journalist, always thought the most important element in any story was that it correspond to life and give a picture that revealed the truth. Lawrence said that was okay, but the truth was not all, otherwise you would be competing with a $3 camera and you might as well write a case history. Writing any kind of narrative, Lawrence argued, you had to make the reader or audience care about the people, which inevitably leads you into the love story. Then Lawrence would expand his principle of "the love rack," which Cain never completely understood, except that it was the poetic moment in any story when the lovers fell in love.

Lawrence would say: "Who's your losing lover, pal? One of the lovers had to be a losing lover."

So Cain and Lawrence would talk into the night, with Cain all the time thinking about that girl at the gas station who had apparently killed her husband. And then, one time when Lawrence was talking about his "love rack," Cain asked: "Why couldn't the whole thing be a love rack; why such attention to the one episode where they fall in love?"

Cain asked why every episode in the story could not be written with a view to its effect on the love story. Lawrence thought this had possibilities.

SO CAIN started the novel with an opening sentence that would eventually be quoted repeatedly in university writing courses: "They threw me off the hay truck around noon." The young California drifter thrown off the truck is named Frank Chambers, and he soon arrives at the tavern out in the Thousand Oaks section of the San Fernando Valley -- a gas station and lunchroom run by a middle-aged Greek, Nick Papadikis, and his wife, Cora. Frank, after seeing Cora, agrees to work for Nick, and he and Cora quickly develop a passion for each other. Then they begin plotting to murder Nick, which will give Cora the gas station and lunchroom. After one unsuccessful attempt, they murder him and then stage an automobile wreck to make it look like an accident. And they get away with it. But the murder eventually becomes their love rack, and they are brought to justice when Cora is killed in an automobile accident and Frank is wrongly found guilty of her murder. The story is told in the first person by Frank to a Catholic priest as Frank awaits the electric chair.

One device Cain developed for moving his story not only played a significant part in establishing Cain's reputation as a stylist but ultimately had a considerable impact on American literature. When telling his story in the first person, he found that an automobile tramp, in writing dialogue, could only lead into a quote or close it with "I said," or "he says," or "she said" without stylistic or literary embellishment. This was almost as monotonous as the "fittens" and "brungs." Why all this saying? he finally asked himself. He could think of no real answer, and decided it would not only read a lot better but speed up the story if he just eliminated it, writing long patches of dialogues without indicating who said it, leading the reader to figure it out from the content of the conversation.

"While this may seem abrupt for a few pages until you get used to it," he later wrote Knopf, "it does get around the monotony that commonly goes with the naive narrator." And when the book came out, no reviewers jumped on him for it; in fact, many applauded it as an innovation in literary technique. They also cited it as part of the characteristic James M. Cain style.

Cain worked steadily for nearly six months, and in June 1933, he had his first novel. He titled it "Bar-B-Que" and sent it off to Knopf, concerned that his efforts to economize with words and tell the story at breakneck speed had produced something less than a novel. He also made an extra copy of his 159-page manuscript because Elina kept reminding him "you promised to send it to Voltaire," as she always called Walter Lippmann, who had been Cain's boss on the New York World and was now writing his column for the New York Herald Tribune. And it was well he did. After gnawing his fingernails for weeks, while waiting to hear from Knopf, Cain finally sent a copy to Lippmann, telling him he wasn't sure he wanted to take him up on an earlier offer to help get the book published, and he certainly would not expect him to do anything unless he liked it.

A few days after writing to Lippmann, Cain heard from Knopf, and he was crushed. Although Knopf started out by saying he liked "Bar-B-Que" "immensely," there were a few problems. First, he thought it needed a "certain amount of tinkering," particularly concerning the insurance deal, which enabled the lovers to get off from what he called "their first attempted murder" (which was foiled when a cat put a paw in a fuse box). Knopf also thought the manuscript was too short to qualify as a novel and therefore did not come under the option clause of the Cain-Knopf contract for "Our Government." As a result, he could not offer Cain a $500 advance for "Bar-B-Que" (a title Knopf did not like), reminding Cain that he was against paying a $500 advance for "Our Government" and that it only earned $250. But the last paragraph, containing some faint praise, must have been the most crushing to Cain: "You have done some superb things for Henry Mencken," Knopf concluded, "and I think it is only a matter of time before you reach out into more sustained efforts that will be capable of making some real money as books."

Cain was hurt and mad and for years, according to his correspondence, questioned Knopf's judgment. However, within a few days after receiving Knopf's letter he had a wire from Lippmann, which buoyed his spirits: "INTENSELY INTERESTED THINK IT SURE FIRE STOP WISH YOU WOULD WIRE ME FULL AUTHORITY TO DEAL WITH MACMILLANS."

Cain wired back immediately: "OK GO AHEAD STOP DELIGHTED YOU LIKE IT STOP KNOPF WANTS IT BUT HAS PLAYED SMOOTH TRICK THAT RELEASES IT."

MEANWHILE, things were happening in New York. Mencken had read the novel and told Knopf he was enthusiastic about it. Macmillan, on the other hand, was cautious, suggesting that Knopf was not the only the only publisher who did not recognize a phenomenal best seller when it appeared in manuscript form. Blanche Knopf was also enthusiastic and, as Alfred Knopf recalls it: "I was playing golf when Mrs. Knopf called and said, 'We'd better buy that book.' " Within a week after Cain's letter to Lippmann, the columnist wired back: "MACMILLAN SQUEAMISH STOP KNOPF REALLY EAGER TO HAVE BOOK WITHOUT REVISION WHICH LEAVES OPEN QUESTION OF TERMS." And he recommended Cain accept Knopf's terms if they were satisfactory.

At almost the same time, Cain received a wire from Knopf: "DELIGHTED ACCEPT MANUSCRIPT AS IS STOP WRITING REVISED TERMS." Cain wired Lippmann: "YOU ARE WASTING YOUR TIME WRITING YOU OUGHT TO BE AN AGENT STOP I LIKE KNOPF ALL RIGHT STOP HE WIRED ME BUT DIDN'T STATE TERMS STOP ANY ARRANGEMENTS YOU MAKE ALL RIGHT BUT I COULD USE A LITTLE MONEY."

Then Cain received a phone call from Lippmann, who explained how Knopf really felt: "Jim, he really doesn't like the book -- its rough, impromptu style I think is what repels him, but he'll put it out, just the same. I think mainly for a personal regard for you and my suggestion would be to take his deal, get the book in the show window and then we'll see what we see."

Cain accepted. By the time Knopf sent him the contract and Cain signed it and sent it back, he was much more relaxed and conciliatory: "I am very glad you have finally decided to take this book, as I felt from the beginning that you were the publisher for it." The next day, he wrote Knopf saying he had forgotten to include the dedication, "To Vincent Lawrence."

It looked like clear sailing now, but there was still one more problem -- and Lawrence provided the solution. Within a few days, Cain received a letter from Knopf reminding him that he did not think "Bar-B-Que" was a good title. Cain said he was also unhappy about it and suggested some others, including "Black Puma" and "The Devil's Checkbook." Knopf did not like these either and asked for more suggestions. Around this time, Cain and Lawrence were musing about the agony of sweating out the publication of a first novel and Lawrence told him about sending his first play to a New York producer. Lawrence had been living in Boston then and would go to the window every day to watch for the postman; when he could not stand the waiting, he would go into the back yard, but always listening for the ring. "And no fooling about that ring. The son-of-a-bitch always rang twice, so you'd know it was the postman."

By now Cain wasn't listening. "Stirring in me," he recalled later, "was a dim recollection of the English tradition, and particularly the Irish tradition, that the postman must ring twice, and in olden time, knock twice." He said: "Vincent, I think I've got my title."

"What title?"

"The Postman Always Rings Twice."

Lawrence thought for a minute, then said, "Hey, that is a title. He sure did ring twice for Chambers, didn't he?"

WHEN CAIN finished "Postman," he was in a critical financial position. He now owed Vincent Lawrence $1,000, which he had borrowed while he wrote "Postman," he had his mortgage to pay and felt there was little hope of finding another studio job unless "Postman" hit big. In those anxious months between acceptance and publication, he did not kid himself about the chances of a first novel solving his financial problems: "More than 500 novels," he told Elina, "come out every year in this country and not many attract attention. If I sell a couple of thousand copies, get my name in the papers and pick up a little money, we'll be all to the good and I'll try to think of another one. We're not starving to death so if we keep our fingers crossed, we may run into some luck."

The first sign that he might have something big came when the Bulletin put out by the American News Co., which distributed books, gave "Postman" a four-star rating, commenting: "If this one doesn't smash, we're going to look for another job." Then Cain received a telephone call one morning from Louis Weitzenkorn, author of "Five Star Final" and other hit movies, to whom Cain had given a carbon. "Jim," he said, "I called up about that book. I make a confession to you. When I went to bed last night, I took it with me, expecting to read 20 pages to know what it's about in case I ran into you -- and perhaps finish it some other time. I put that book down at 3 o'clock in the morning, having read every last page. And what I called to say is: I think when that book comes out you're going to wake up famous."

Weitzenkorn, Cain knew, was no fool. So he began to think that -- just maybe -- after 20 years banging away at the typewriter in relative obscurity he was about to pass over that shadowy, magic line from journalist, free-lancer and sometime screenwriter, to author. The furor caused by "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is difficult to comprehend today when almost every other big novel seems to make news, with a six- or seven-figure sale to paperbacks and a rich contract for TV or movie rights, followed by a deafening hype when they appear. But in 1934, that kind of success for a book was unknown. In fact, ''"Postman"" was probably the first of the really big books in American publishing, the first novel to hit for what the trade calls the "grand slam," meaning a hardcover best seller, paperback best seller, syndication, play and movie. And it is still selling today.

If there was a single review that started "Postman" on the way to its dizzying success, it was Franklin P. Adams' in the New York Herald Tribune.

Adams wrote a rapturous review with a statement that followed Cain from dust jacket to dust jacket through most of his literary career: "Mr. Cain has written the most engrossing, unlaydownable book that I have any memory of." And that was just a starter. While the New York Times review (as did many to follow) quoted the first sentence of "Postman," Adams reprinted the entire first chapter. He also said: "Cain's style, which some will compare to Hemingway's, is better than most of Hemingway's . . . It is as tightly written and as vernacularly dictaphonic as Lardner . . . I can't detect a stylistic flaw in it."

After a slow start, "Postman" took "a standing broad jump," as Cain put it, on to the best-seller list, where it remained for several months. MGM bought it almost immediately for $25,000, knowing full well that it would be virtually impossible to make a movie from it (it took 10 years and the impact of World War II on Hollywood before the first movie was made). It was one of the first best sellers to go into the new paperbacks, and it has been published in more than 17 languages abroad. It long ago earned Cain one of Pocketbooks trophy kangaroos for passing the million mark in sales. It also made Cain famous, opening up the studios for more jobs, although he never did make it as a screenwriter. But he continued to write controversial novels -- "Double Indemnity," " Serenade," " Mildred Pierce," "Past All Dishonor," " The Butterfly" -- and each new best seller led to more studio jobs -- and more failures.

So Hollywood's recent failure to portray the essential horror of the terrible secret that tormented Cora and Frank would not have surprised Cain, any more than MGM's earlier effort did. And it would not have bothered Cain, either. Whenever some young reporter asked him how he felt about what MGM, Lana Turner and John Garfield had done to his book, he would reply: "They haven't done anything to my book. It's right up there on the shelf."