The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). 113 minutes. Directed by Tay Garnett. Starring Lana Turner (as Cora Smith), John Garfield (as Frank Chambers), Cecil Kellaway (as Nick Smith), Hume Cronyn (as Arthur Keats), Leon Ames (as Kyle Sackett), Audrey Totter (as Madge Gorland), Alan Reed (as Ezra Liam Kennedy), and Jeff York (as Blair).
Based on the James M. Cain novel of the same name, The Postman Always Rings Twice effectively channels the sinister aspects of the film noir mode: the temptation to commit crimes of violence, greed, and cynicism; the femme fatale with murder in her eyes; the morally compromised drifter who falls prey to beautiful women; and the adversarial courtroom scenes. It offers not one but two conspiratorial murder attempts (the second of which is successful), and it features a smoldering, doomed love story, in which the two leads sneak furtive glances and passionate looks while the woman’s husband hovers just out of view. The result is a tense, erotic noir made possible by another film noir that shares similar themes of adultery and obsessively planned murder: Paramount’s 1944 production of Cain’s Double Indemnity. Yet although the two films are related in terms of authorship and thematic content, The Postman Always Rings Twice’s characters both are less intelligent than Double Indemnity’s and exhibit a malevolence that is less cool and accomplished. If you can appreciate the everyday sleaze of the story, perhaps you will see it as a welcome entry in the noir category, a movie that does not locate exceptionalism of any kind in its characters but rather evokes the potential evil latent in the banal, fallen world of the roadside diner, the run-of-the-mill gas station, and the corrupt small-town courthouse.
The movie focuses on a diner operated by Nick Smith and his younger wife Cora along a highway in Southern California. When the drifter Frank Chambers happens by one day, Nick offers him a job with room and board. Cora and Frank soon embark on a passionate love affair. She confides in Frank about her ambition to turn the diner into a thriving restaurant and to murder her husband, whom she says she has never loved and whom she views as an obstacle to her happiness. Frank happily obliges, but the two bungle their first attempt to murder him in the bathroom at home. They try a second time—this time in a car further down the highway—and are successful, but the D.A., who has been wise to their conspiracy since the first attempt, has been tracking them and charges Cora with murder. Cora’s lawyer cleverly defeats the D.A. in court, resulting in a conviction of manslaughter only, for which she receives probation. While the trial strains Cora’s relationship with Frank, the two are later reconciled when Cora announces that she is pregnant. Unfortunately, Frank accidentally wrecks his car with Cora in it and is convicted of murdering her. While he is innocent in the matter of her death, he explains to himself that his unjust execution is actually a fitting punishment for his earlier crime against Nick. The film ends with him awaiting death in jail.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is known for its steamy romance, and most of the credit for its sultriness is owed to Lana Turner’s performance as diner proprietor and murder instigator Cora Smith. Her virginal, pristine white wardrobe and fluffy bleached hair suggests an innocence that is in stark and delightful contrast to her internal corruption. Her white clothing also signals her impracticality; at one point, she and Frank head out together on the road, determined to leave Nick and the diner behind forever, but she stumbles and is easily dirtied, then gives up—partially in reaction to her sullied ensemble. This is an early sign of her need for a collaborator, of her reluctance to dirty herself either in the outdoors or with the details of murder.
The latter point becomes especially clear during the second murder attempt, when she and Frank kill Nick in the car before it tumbles over a hill. As she pulls herself out of the car and crawls up the hill screaming for help, she grabs her beaded white purse. We can imagine that it is perhaps an unthinking nervous reaction, but to the D.A. who greets her at the top of the hill (he has been following the car), her purse clutching makes her look like she is preoccupied with her own welfare without consideration for her dying husband or her accomplice who is trapped in the car with him. Her focus on the shallow and unimportant implicates her in the unfeeling dimension of the crime.
The roadside diner where Cora works offers a cleaner environment for her to do dirty work of a criminal variety. We watch her busing tables, cleaning dishes, preparing food, and serving beer (all while plotting murder), and it is easy to begin to feel as if the diner, in spite of its nefarious atmosphere, is also a world of discipline, labor, and regularity. But it is also part of a peculiar transient environment—the larger world of the road. Cars drift by, police come and go, and the diner stands on the sidelines of an existence in which nothing seems permanent or capable of staying still. Frank emerges from this moving world and fastens himself to the diner, where he absorbs some of the business’s stability during the course of the story. But there is always the potential for the instability of road life to inject itself into the life he has carved out for himself at the diner. This is evident during the second murder, which takes place on the road and does not go as planned, but it is also evident in the first murder, which is destabilized because of the intrusion of road elements that come off the highway and into the diner perimeter at the wrong time. The result is an environment that is not well-suited to crimes of this nature, and the movie admirably creates tension as we watch Frank and Cora attempt to control the unpredictable world that they interact with.
The movie is at its best when it is invested in moments that play on the distinction and overlap between these two universes of orderliness and transience. To my taste, it is less successful when it focuses on the interplay of the three central characters, who for the most part are unsympathetic and all of whom unnerved me. Frank the drifter, for example, is non-committal and self-centered. He lacks scruples, making a move on Cora when he knows she is married and even though he is employed and housed by her husband. But Nick is hard to like as well. It is true that he is a murder victim, and we might feel sorry for him because of his predicament, but he is also a careless drunk. Nick makes decisions that are supremely insensitive—for example, determining that he will sell the diner and move with Cora to care for an invalid sister without consulting her.
Perhaps Cora has the potential to be more likable, but her ambition and cold demeanor are difficult to overlook. Her mission is to transform the roadside diner into a successful, respectable restaurant, and she seems committed to this somewhat pathetic dream. But she is also committed to murder, and it is hard to know how much of her account of her relationship with Nick we should believe. Her hard edge and unfeeling tendencies are evident throughout the film, and while she softens towards Frank at the end of the movie, it is never clear that she is as committed to him as she is to the restaurant or to her desire to be a financial success. Moreover, Cora’s drive to succeed might cause us to doubt her grip on reality. Her decision to enact the ultimate crime to further her career in the shabby diner world seems disproportionate and slightly delusional, disconnected from the meager reality of life on the side of the road.
Furthermore, my experience of Cora, Nick, and Frank was complicated by a lack of admiration for their intelligence. Frank and Cora’s murder attempts are inept, and they bungle their way through violence clumsily and unimpressively with some thought but not enough. Although Frank and Cora succeed in killing Nick the second time, they make major errors on both occasions, understandably attracting the attention of the D.A. because of their stupidity. This is especially well symbolized by the aforementioned white beaded purse Cora drags out of the car wreck that has killed Nick, but I should point out that during the first murder attempt, their plans are foiled by a stray cat. They are even duped by Cora’s own lawyer when he tricks Cora into confessing to his secretary, who they think works for the D.A. The whole story reeks of failure, crudity, and a lack of wits.
For a movie that is devoted to showing us this kind of clumsy, everyday evil, rather than the arch schemes of criminal masterminds, the ending is unusually heavy and fatalistic, with Frank’s execution piled on top of Cora’s death and Nick’s murder (it is hard to think of many other films that bring about the end of their two most important supporting characters and the protagonist to boot). As the movie layers elements of violence and death in a swift conclusion, the title takes on special morbid significance. In prison, Frank agrees with the D.A. that his execution for Cora’s death, although unjust, is warranted because it is just retribution for his role in Nick’s death. It is kind of like waiting for a delivery, Frank says: you may be apprehensive that you might miss the postman, but he will always ring twice, and the package will always come.
Frank applies this concept to his present predicament. Just as the package always comes, so, too, does the world’s punishment—there is no escaping it. But the transition between the idea of a banal package you are longing for and a punishment you are striving to avoid in order to save your life feels clunky without more of a transition. The fact that Frank is recounting this metaphor with a look of ecstasy on his face makes the idea even harder to digest. And because none of this would be even remotely obvious to any of us if the movie did not explain it all in utter explicitness, it seems especially artificial.
The Postman Always Rings Twice has to strive to make its point about the existence of an almost supernatural justice through the title’s exposition in this final scene, I suppose, because elsewhere in its story, territorial justice is a tawdry, uneven affair, embodied most impressively by D.A. Kyle Sackett and defense lawyer Arthur Keats. We watch as they make a bet for a minor reward to see who will win at Cora’s trial for Nick’s murder—the outcome being trivial to both. Keats slyly and repeatedly advises Cora to “let [him] handle it,” and handle it he does, knowing full well that his client is guilty. Above all, Keats and Sackett evince through banter with each other that they think of the law as a game, full of tricks, slights of hand, and casual wagers: nothing that they take too seriously, even though the issue of murder is at stake and a woman’s life is on the line. The whole thing makes for a delightful but decidedly sour take on the virtues of the law.
In this way, the wheels of earthly justice on their own both do and do not align the characters and their universe with rightful justice—in the end, Frank has to think creatively of the fatalistic postman analogy in order for the courtroom justice all of them are assigned to work out and seem appropriate. As a result, the movie both strives to apply a punishing moral ending to its sleazy story in fairly explicit terms and is forced to contend with the fact that its version of retributive justice is roundabout and not obviously meaningful. Although the Hollywood Production Code insisted that films convey that the bad will be punished, justice is universal, and we cannot outrun the moral outcome that we have earned, in The Postman Always Rings Twice the criminal’s own imagination is required to make sense of his outcome, which oddly causes him to seem sharper and more insightful than he has during the rest of the film.
The Postman Always Rings Twice offers a fair amount of darkness and cruelty through its severe moralizing ending, but its contribution to the film noir world to my mind is that it is capable of unsettling its audience through displays of unexceptional callousness and its characters’ general lack of savvy. The movie lacks some of the more remarkable features of other prominent 1940s film noirs—including the cooler, more accomplished evil of Double Indemnity, the mystery of The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and the deeper self-evaluation of The Third Man (1949). But to be fair, while The Postman Always Rings Twice expertly makes use of noir conventions, is not operating on those other films’ terms. In another story, Frank’s drifter status might provide him with special criminal expertise, but here he and Cora are relatively inexperienced in affairs of violence. Above all, and in spite of their overall lack of appeal, Frank and Cora’s amateurishness humanizes them more than perhaps anything else in the film, and their dimwittedness in the end becomes their chief virtue, imbuing them with a relatability that surpasses Frank’s turn as moral interpreter on death row. Through these characterizations, The Postman Always Rings Twice serves as a reminder that film noir manifests itself during its richest period in variegated ways—and, more specifically, that the shadowy world of 1940s crime narratives is not limited to slick, sophisticated conspiracies; clever drifters; or sharp-witted, smooth-talking dames.