The Postman Always Rings Twice April 24, 2017
Deadly is the female, and nobody understands that sentiment better than the protagonist of 1946’s masterful The Postman Always Rings Twice. Named Frank (John Garfield) and determined to live the life of a drifter and not that of a working man, we initially meet him just as he stumbles upon the Twin Oaks, a humble diner located smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Though the man only plans on grabbing a burger and a Coke and moving on, the stop ends up snowballing into something more. Such is motivated by his seeing Cora (Lana Turner), the wife of Nick, the diner’s owner (Cecil Kellaway), for the first time.
Coy and leggy, Cora’s mere presence is enough to persuade Frank to take a job at the restaurant, where he acts as Nick’s right-hand man. Because the sexual attraction tap-dancing around them is much too noisy to ignore, Frank and Cora immediately start having an affair. Nick, predictably, is totally oblivious to the relationship.
The romance mostly stems from Cora’s longing for a life change. She yearns to earn her own keep, not solely act as someone’s trophy wife. Her getting married to Nick was a mistake she made in her youth.
A less ambitious woman might accept the idea of starting her life anew, but Cora doesn’t much take to the idea. What she really wants is to become the manager of the Twin Oaks herself. She has the tools necessary to prove herself in a male-dominated world, so why not try to get her paws on them herself? Promising a happily ever after, she persuades Frank to murder Nick and stage it as though it were an accident, allowing them to be together without having to pay the consequences.
But nothing goes as planned, of course, and the film ends up being less Double Indemnity (1944) lite and more misanthropic morality tale. If one must cut ethical corners in order to get ahead in their lives, then maybe one does not deserve to get ahead at all. Such a person would be better off, it seems, paying the price of their sins for the rest of their respective existences.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is so beguiling because so much time is spent watching the leading characters attempting to squirm their way out of their wrongs and try as hard as they can to reach some kind of right. The murder itself hardly matters and neither does the romance between Nick and Cora.
Because eventually, the film seems to be less an erotic thriller and more a deeply twisted allegory regarding the impossible-to-reach American dream. Nick and Cora say they’re in love, but chances are high that they’re more intent on using the other to reach what they perceive to be the kind of professional and personal success Uncle Sam thinks everyone should achieve in their lifetime.
Both parties are still young and riddled with potential. But the frustrations of trying to live up to the expectations set in motion by the disillusioned, post-WWII society surrounding them has made them desperate to do anything they can to meet the prosperity they’re expected to have locked and loaded before wrinkles and infertility begin to undercut them.
And that’s what I like best about the movie. Whereas similar film noirs like the aforementioned Double Indemnity or the devilish Out of the Past (1947) utilized unabashedly evil women to add a fantastical element to their social commentary, The Postman Always Rings Twice features no overwrought wickedness. It’s simply about desperate people taking desperate measures to mark their territory in a world which isn’t all too helpful in getting them to the top of the food chain.
Turner and Garfield infuse their performances with that frantic edge.
Before the film was released, Turner was at the peak of her career. Only 25, she was still ethereally beautiful, still a dependable box-office star, and still complicated enough behind the scenes to keep audiences perpetually compelled by her. But she had not yet proven herself as an actress. She was more a drink of water who could also carry a movie than a respected talent.
The Postman Always Rings Twice features her first real performance. She is, by turns, sexy, cunning, bold, dangerous, and terrified. Her Cora doesn’t feel like your stereotypical femme fatale. She’s purely a woman who’s had enough. And if she has to take radical steps to get to the place she wants, so be it. Turner is luminous, and would soon end up one-upping herself later on with magnificent performances in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Peyton Place (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959).
Garfield, like Turner, was in a similar professional boat when he made The Postman Always Rings Twice. Though he had received an Oscar nomination in 1938 for his supporting performance in Four Daughters, he had spent most of the '40s playing second fiddles and foils to men with bigger names, leading parts (at least ones worthy of his sizable talents) not as prolific as they should have been.
Nineteen forty-six turned out to be a turning point for the actor. For the next two years, he starred in a succession of films, including Humoresque (1946), Body and Soul (1947), and Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), which now work together to define him as a precursor to Method actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean.
In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Garfield is incessantly on the brink, every word peppered with high anxiety, every movement underlined in hesitation. Sweat furiously drips down his forehead in scenes aplenty. You can feel Frank’s unease, and Garfield doesn’t so much play a part as much as he embodies a man whose stoic masculinity soon proves to be a front for vulnerability.
On the screen, Turner and Garfield make for an interesting duo. Their chemistry is sizzling, bubbling over even when they aren’t participating in a love scene. But there’s an underlying hatred to be found, too: we often feel as though Frank and Cora are only able to make it because they’re having great sex and because they’re forever bound to each other because of the mistakes they’ve made together. Resentment is as just as copious as romantic passion. The rumor mills contend that the sexual tension was so prominent behind the scenes that Turner and Garfield imitated their characters and had an affair during filming. And that connection is obvious. They’re incendiary.
Supporting actors Leon Ames (as the district attorney), Hume Cronyn (as Cora’s slimy lawyer), and Kellaway all make waves, too: they help create the film’s muddled sense of morality, with Cronyn especially standing out as a slippery figure who scarily holds a great deal of power in his profession.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of the best films of the 1940s, not just because it contains such archetypal performances but also because it redefined the state of film noir. Gone is the snappy dialogue of The Big Sleep (1946), the sensationalistic “crime does not pay” messages of Murder, My Sweet (1944). Down and dirty and magnificently dark, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a bona-fide masterpiece of its genre. A