The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is classic style film noir murder femme fatale courtroom death row take-out diner of doom powered by lust, fatality and fortune, played out to the death as a classic film noir must do.

In terms of film noir street cred, it packs a bagful. Considered too immoral to be filmed for many a year, with its themes of adultery and murder, The Postman Always Rings Twice was hastened into production after the success of the film Double Indemnity (1944), which was also adapted from a novel by James M. Cain.

The real themes of the movie are sexual dynamics however, and the tension between the man as drifter, working his way across the land with no particular goal or ambition, and the woman as the more rooted character, seeking to set up home. This is not just a tension played out in the sexual relationship, but in the society as a whole, with drifters being increasingly considered an anti-social element.

This is not just because of the difficulty in managing the drifting male, but down to difficulties in taxation, and control, in a  world increasingly interested in ordering people's lives.

Man Wanted — the story of film noir
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The MAN WANTED sign which features large and frequently at the head of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), is literally a sign of the times, as well as sign of what film noir may be all about.

That's the story of The Postman Always Rings Twice: MAN WANTED. That is what America said to itself as it drove into World War 2, emerging in 1946 as the victor of all victors. MAN WANTED is the entire subtext of a nation as well as film style.

There's the weak-willed male lead, played by John Garfield. But more memorable than that, there is one of the style's favourite femmes fatales, in the figure of Lana Turner. Together the two brew up a mess of adulterous love, and in the fully fantastic mode of classic film noir, almost sleepwalk into murder.

The story is simple, and there are not many players, and most of the attention is on the two lovers. The compelling nature of their mutual descent is what makes The Postman Always Rings Twice a hit.

Lana Turner and John Garfield, observation of the female in
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

It's unfair to throw Lana Turner's performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice in with the academy of American femmes fatales. Her character Cora Smith is nuanced and vulnerable, and might be wicked in her greed and her desire even to be a popular minor celebrity, rising above the status as business owner which she feels she wants. She is a femme of fatality, and plenty come a cropper. Something about Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is however quite the opposite of the classic vamps and sirens of the movie age. Do note how she almost always wears white.

Life on the road with Lana Turner and John Garfield in
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

A couple of other solid film noir themes and staples emerge, in the form of hitch-hiking and a diner. For which see of course Detour (1945). The diner in The Postman Always Rings Twice advertises LUNCH BREAKFAST DINNER, which might seem an odd order. Perhaps this is for aesthetic balance, as BREAKFAST is a significantly longer word? Perhaps it's an issue of priority, or maybe it's just a film noir puzzle laid down for the ages.

There are film noir puzzles in The Postman Always Rings Twice. One might be Frank's status as the inveterate drifter. This is a man who is such a floating voter when it comes to women, that literally seconds after he has dropped Cora off at the station to visit her ailing mother, he is hitting on another woman. And literally seconds after he has begun hitting on this other woman, her and her are on the verge of running away to Mexico together.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The drifter narrative is one of many classic film noir tropes. In a digitised and atomised world, which has worked hard to settle families and individuals in cities and jobs which tie them to one place, the status of the drifter is supremely low, almost dangerous. 

Fatal moment - - Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Following the 1930s and the depression era, however, drifting as such was for more common, and not as undesirable as it may be seen as today. In fact, in the post-industrialised world of the nineteenth century, drifting was quite the norm for many workers, because work was seasonal, and when it was not seasonal it was specific to the massive building projects of the time.

Then think of the so-called 'navigator gangs' which built the railways, which were large groups of working men which worked as they moved, slowly relocating across country as the railways were built.

Hume Cronyn moves in on powerless 'MAN WANTED' John Garfield in
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

There was something about the 1950s however, that sought to end this style of living. There was certainly something about the 1950s that sought to place men in families, and place those families indoors in houses, and sought to place those house in a new and regimented grid of living, in suburban estates, attached to the electric grid, and the grid of roadways. This was in fact the new freedom of the age, the freedom be stuck in a house with a family, and as such the very opposite of the drifting life.

In this capacity, as a drifter, Frank is a classic film noir type, never routed, seemingly unambitious, and with no idea where he is going. The subject is a matter of tension between himself and Cora. The scenes where Cora attempts the drifting life with Frank, and walks the dusty roads with him, thumbing lifts, are entirely indicative of this. She doesn't like going nowhere, and she doesn't like his lack of ambition. 

This is summed up regularly in the movies of the age with the phrase: "I want to be somebody!" which is a phrase that Cora uses, before she packs in the brief attempt at the drifting life, and insists that they turn round and go home. 

If film noir teaches us anything as we watch its drifter characters suffer, it is that success is achievable by putting down roots, staying in one place, and making a go of it that way. This is always expressed as a tension between a man and a woman, with the woman insisting on the domestic, and the man typifying the wandering spirit.

Violence in the sitting room
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The mood between Cora and Frank isn't straightforward, in fact it's almost as if they are long time married. Frank is a drifter and he loves drifting, and it was in the era very likely as much a profession as anything else. Cora says she loves him, but she has ambitions for him. One of these is that he not be working in service anymore, 'wearing a smock saying SUPER SERVICE on it' as she puts it.

Digging into the relationship there sure is some film noir subtext. Take for example the way that Cora will not let Frank light here cigarette, and lights her own. In noirsville that is probably one of; the lost laden messages that could be made. And then Frank refuses to steal his employer's car saying:

Stealing a man's wife, that's one thing, but stealing his car - - that's larceny

In the autumn of 1934, shortly after the release of his first novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain and wife Elina Tyszecka purchased a home in the Southern California city of Beverly Hills. Anticipating work as a screenplay writer in Hollywood, Cain decided to write a serial to help pay for the expensive property.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)


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