The postman always rings twice doesn’t refer to a mail carrier’s methodology of delivery in this 1946 film noir directed by Tay Garnett, starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. This is film noir, friends, so we are addressing the subject of dark and dirty crime. Not just any crime but murder. Mariticide, to be exact.
Mariticide is the act of killing one’s husband. Not exactly a new concept in film noir. As a matter of fact, many parallels can be drawn between this film and Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). In THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), the title alludes (spoilers ahead!) not to the beginning fiery heat of two lovers, not to the detailed steps of planning the murder of a spouse, but moreso to the aftermath and ironic justice in how this ill-fated romance ends.
Many crime stories and film noirs focus on the tension, motivation and players that lead up to or explain the crime. While THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) does a marvelous job in that arena, a good chunk of the story focuses on good ole karma that comes along not on the first ring, but on that second ding. I’ll save those scrumptious details for you to savor when you watch the film.
Before I get ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning and chat about the sparks that brought this doomed couple of criminal lovers together. John Garfield as Frank Chambers is perfection as the casual drifter who floats in to the Twin Oaks roadside diner on a breeze. Actually, he wanders in via hitchhiking with the local district attorney (who lives closeby and will become a key factor in his undoing) and is soon greeted by the local motorcycle cop who is often witness in rather inconvenient ways.
He soon meets Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), owner of the cafe, and they quickly conduct a job interview via on-the-spot character reads. Note: we will discover later that Nick fails miserably at both job interviews and character assessments. After Frank confidently and casually pushes his loosely tied commitment for the position, Nick dashes off to greet a gas customer outside as Frank is introduced to his platinum blonde doom aka Mrs. Smith inside. We meet Lana Turner as Cora Smith in a memorable character debut where the camera follows her from her ‘accidental’ lipstick drop and roll to the slow pan up her legs to her petite frame in iconic ivory shorts, crop top and turbin.
The heat and tension is palatable from the very first exchange. Frank wastes no time in making his move. But first, and what plays out as a very interesting foreshadowing, is the power struggle gauntlet is thrown down upon their very initial exchange- over lipstick, no doubt. Before their first first kiss, which Frank plants boldly and rather assumedly, Frank issues the challenge of who is in charge. Cora plays her best game of sexy meets coy to lure Frank close to the flame via handing her the fiery red lipstick. But watch Frank pause, lean back and challenge Cora to come to him. She succumbs allowing Frank to think this was his game. But is it? This initial exchange was the true precursor and warning for them both.
Through a botched attempt to run away, Cora symbolically morphs from pristine and crisp white to dirty, sweaty, and dusty hitchhiker as she has a change of heart. This is not how she planned. They go back. Narrowly escaping Nick’s discovery, Frank has an opening to leave. But as countless film noir anti-heroes eventually do, he ignores any instinct to do the right thing. Frank: “Right then, I shoulda walked outta that place… She had me licked and she knew it.”
After initial and seeming resistence, we later learn that she was actually the one strategically in charge all along. And he acted helpless in acting better on his own behalf. Once the hooks were firmly embedded deep, even the red flag of ‘if you truly love me, you’ll murder for me’ couldn’t stop her quest to fulfill her ambitious needs to “be somebody.” Cora challenges Frank: “Do you love me? Do you love me so much that nothing else matters?”
Watching this trainwreck of an excuse for love unfold, as the audience we see the red flags, the road signs of dangerous curves up ahead… everywhere. From our lofty tower of wisdom, we see the mistakes, the grave errors in judgement. While this film spends a good chunk of time and detail serving justice post-mariticide in an ironic twist of fate for these two with a one-two punch, the fascinating components remain the motivations and evolutions of behavior.
Why this film remains a classic, besides enjoying the sexual tension sizzle off the screen and the nail-biting moments of thrills and suspense, what keeps us riveted as the voyeurs to this obsessive, dysfunctional romance is the undercurrent of self questioning, playing out in our own hearts and heads of how obsession can turn oneself against their own morality. Where is that line drawn? What does it take to push someone over the edge? This film ultimately begs the question: if a smart, non-commitment, non-romantic type like Frank can fall into such a deep, tragic trap, could something like this happen to anyone? Yes, perhaps even you?
I think that is what is at the heart of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946). Even the sharpest cynic can blunder and fall prey. Not that murder is a very likely result, but I wager to guess that a significant number of people have experienced a type of obsessive love that has altered their judgement in morality, which was not in their own best interests. So, let that mail courier ring your doorbell twice, even three times. But watch out for the Lana Turner cunning beauties of the roadside cafes. More importantly, watch out for the little voice in your heart and head whenever you hear it crying out “NO!!” – sometimes it’s important to listen.
This post was my contribution to the ‘Til Death Us Do Part Blogathon on CineMaven’s Essays From The Couch. As this is sure to be a rousing assembly of blog posts of spouse-murdering twist and turns, I encourage you to read all the other contributors!
6 thoughts on “She Kills Her Husband Once but THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, 1946”
A fantastic piece that shows great insight and analysis. Look forward to watching this great film again, with some extra angles to consider. Many thanks for your review!
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Great piece! Love this film and the original Cain novel. Have you ever seen the Bob Rafelson remake? I initially was turned off, but then read the book and realized it was closer to the source material. It’s not shot like a noir, and is set, like the book in the 1930s. Definitely has a ton of heat and passion. Curious what you think.
Hi Kellee…this is a great read. I laughed out loud when you wrote how Nick wasn’t a good judge of character. Oh Lord…was he ever, not a good judge. Your best line, or best description was of Lana: Platinum Blonde Doom! Wow!!! I enjoyed your piece very much, and I thank you for taking part in my blogathon. Hope it was fun for you. Thanx again!
Even without the great comments, this post is one of my favorites, just to see Lana Turner’s legs… 🙂
I love how you described the Garfield-Turner relationship as a “trainwreck” and how we are voyeurs in watching it unfold. The first meeting between them is deceptive, as you pointed out, because we think Garfield is in control. It’s not until later we realize he’s just a poor slob caught in a bad situation. Really enjoyed your review! 🙂
Great film, the sexual tension between Garfield and Turner is wild. I love the look they share when they first meet. You are right about there being a power struggle between them in their relationship, it makes for interesting viewing indeed.