The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is one of the best film noirs of all time - and one of the earliest prototypes of today's 'erotic thrillers.' The screenplay (by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch) was based on the controversial first novel/pot-boiler (1934) of the same name by notorious writer James M. Cain. Cain was known for novels with forbidden lust, love triangles, brutal, raw sexiness, and adultery-motivated murder. Two previous, sexually-charged classic film noirs adapted from Cain's novels had met with both critical and box-office success: MGM's Double Indemnity (1944) and Warner Bros.' Mildred Pierce (1945).
Director Tay Garnett's fatalistic film is best known for one of the hottest portrayals of a sultry and seductive femme fatale - it is one of Lana Turner's finest performances. The film was advertised with posters that described the illicit passion between a drifter (Garfield) and a married-unsatisfied waitress (Turner) in a roadside cafe: "Their Love was a Flame that Destroyed!" Their killing of the woman's husband ultimately leads to their mutual destruction in unexpected ways. This great and sexy film noir, however, received not even one Academy Award nomination.
This dark melodrama was the third screen adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice - the previous two were Pierre Chenal's Le Dernier Tournant (1939) (French) and Luchino Visconti's first feature - the unauthorized Ossessione (1942) (Italian) with the setting transferred to Fascist Italy. A fourth, present day re-make, with cruder sex scenes between drifter Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, was director Bob Rafelson's 1981 rendition.The Story
The film begins with a MAN WANTED sign at Twin Oaks, a California roadside diner/luncheonette and gas-station, and voice-over narration:
It was on a side road outside of Los Angeles. I was hitchhiking from San Francisco down to San Diego, I guess. A half hour earlier, I'd thumbed a ride.
Hitchhiking drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) sees the fateful sign and asks for the car to stop. The young wanderer explains to the driver of the car (soon identified as Kyle Sackett, the local district attorney) why he keeps "looking for new places, new people, new ideas," and can't settle down:
Frank: Well, I've never liked any job I've ever had. Maybe the next one is the one I've always been lookin' for.
Driver: Not worried about your future?
Frank: Oh, I've got plenty of time for that. Besides, maybe my future starts right now.
Frank tells amiable, easy-going proprietor Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) that he has itchy feet and a wanderlust to see the world: "They keep itchin' for me to go places." To get him to accept the job as handyman and mechanic, Frank is offered a free hamburger and room and board, along with a modest salary: "A fine bed, box spring and mattress. Fresh air, sunshine, boy, you'll be living." After placing a raw piece of meat on the grill, Nick attends to a gas customer outside.
Frank's first look at hot-blooded, voluptuous Cora (Lana Turner) [he doesn't know she's the wife of the cafe owner] is prefaced by her lipstick case noisily rolling across the floor of the cafe toward him. The camera tracks back to her nude slim legs in the doorway. Frank looks at all of her - she is provocatively sexy and scantily clad in white shorts, white halter top, and white turban. [She continues to dress in ironically virginal white (except for two scenes) throughout the entire picture, accentuating even further her passionate, white-hot, torrid steaminess.] He sets his eyes on the whitish platinum-blonde woman, bends down and picks up her lipstick, and asks: "You dropped this?" She stands with her hand outstretched, waiting for him to bring it over to her. But he holds onto her possession in the palm of his own hand and then leans back on the counter - she struts over and takes the case out of his hand.
Cora applies lipstick with a small vanity mirror, and then shuts the door to the adjoining living quarters of the cafe. He turns toward the grill when he senses that the hamburger is burning - analogous to his own "burnt" soul after being tempted by her. Frank accepts the job as handyman, symbolized by the burning of the "MAN WANTED" sign in an outdoor fire. [The "MAN WANTED" sign suddenly becomes a double-entendre, as if Cora had been advertising her desires for a new man -- and to do a "job" for her --- murdering her husband.] Nick is pleased to fill the job: "That's it. Burnin' up. I'll go tell my wife you're gonna stay." Frank immediately has second thoughts, calls after Nick: "Your wife?", and removes the sign from the pyre, but replaces it in the flames when he sees Cora leaning back in the doorway of the cafe and gazing at him.
That evening, Cora asks her husband if he could give the newly-hired man a "week's salary and let him go" - fearful of the consequences of their close proximity to each other. The social milieu in which they live is frustrating for Cora - her husband penny-pinches whenever he can, and he is twice her age. When Frank and Cora officially meet and speak for the first time, she begins bossing and sizing him up - he makes suggestive advances toward the untouchable yet glamorous woman.
Cora: My husband tells me your name is Frank.
Frank: That's right.
Cora: Well Frank, around here, you'll kindly do your reading on your own time.
Frank: Your husband, Nick told me I was through for the day and I thought he was boss around here.
Cora: The best way to get my husband to fire you would be not doing what I tell you to do.
Frank: Well, you haven't asked me to do anything - yet.
Cora: I want all these chairs painted.
Frank: All right. I'll look in the paper. Maybe I can find a sale on some cheap paint.
Cora: You won't find anything cheap around here! [An obvious double-entendre -- by film's end, her price turns out to be very high] Look in the cupboard under the counter.
Frank: (He looks and finds a can of paint) As my friend Nick would say, 'That's wonderful.' Next time anybody makes a trip into town, they can pick up a paintbrush.
Cora: Look on the bottom shelf.
Frank: Well, what do you know about that. Why didn't you start this campaign of rehabilitation before I came? Or were you waiting for me?
Cora: Nick was saving that paint.
Frank: Nick saves a lot of things.
Cora: It's none of your business what he saves.
Frank: I didn't say it was. Only when I have something, I don't save it. What do you want to paint these chairs for. They look all right to me.
Cora: Because I want to make something of this place. I want to make it into an honest-to-goodness...
Frank: Well, aren't we ambitious? We want to make a lot of money so we can buy lots of pretty clothes. Or maybe we want to put a little aside for our husband and us in our old age?
He grabs her and plants a kiss on her lips. She reacts with great poise - she pulls out her vanity mirror, cleans up the smudged lipstick on her lips, and then reapplies the lipstick before leaving - without a word. Frank describes how he suffers from her reserved reaction for weeks afterwards in a first-person narration:
For a couple of weeks then, she wouldn't look at me, or say a word to me if she could help it. I began to feel like a cheap nobody making a play for a girl that had no use for me. While I disturbed her, and I knew she hated me for that worst of all....
Cora complains to Frank that it has been impossible for her to convince her husband to replace the drab, torn-down, wooden sign for Twin Oaks. Frank easily persuades Nick to borrow the car to run the sign into town to get it fixed, arguing that it needs a new design as well: "Your sign doesn't make me hungry." After his success, Frank brags to Cora, with a machismo double-entendre:
Frank: I could sell anything to anybody.
Cora: That's what you think. (When she can't light her own cigarette, she lets him hold his burning flame to her cigarette)
Frank: Tell me one thing. How did you ever come to marry a guy like that?
Cora: Is that any of your business?
In the next scene, at nighttime, both Cora and Frank admire the newly-installed electric neon TWIN OAKS sign, blinking on and off toward the highway. Their own figures are alternately lit and darkened [they both represent two opposite poles themselves - he is the dark 'beast' and she is the light 'beauty']:
Frank: Maybe it's none of my business, but, uh, what's Nick sore about?
Cora: He's so crazy about the sign, he's afraid you'll claim it's your idea instead of his.
Frank: Yeah. (He winks at her) Watch. (Toward Nick) Nick, I've seen many a sign in my time, but that's the daddy of them all. I certainly got to hand it to ya.
Nick: Why, Frank?
Frank: Well, there I was, trying to get the old one fixed up, and already you'd seen the neon salesman - and BINGO! A new sign prettier than a Christmas tree.
Nick: Thanks, Frank. Does it make you hungry?
Frank: Unh unh. Thirsty.
To entertain them, the middle-aged, affable proprietor strums on a guitar and sings a tune about his own marriage:
I'm not much to look at, nothing to see
Just glad I'm living, lucky to be
I've got a woman, crazy for me
She's funny that way
Although she has "practically forgotten" how to dance, and is reluctant to dance with Frank in front of her husband, her resistance breaks down when she is encouraged to do so by the jovial Nick. They dance to a Latin tune from the jukebox. Hot-blooded Cora's passion rapidly begins to swell to the danger point - she quickly curtails the dance by pulling the plug on the jukebox: "Save your strength, Nick. It's too hot to dance." To cool off, she departs in her white bathing suit to swim in the ocean. She is startled that Frank has already taken the driver's seat and is accompanying her for a swim:
Climb right in. It's okay. Nick said it was all right with him if it's all right with you.
She shrugs, allowing him to join her. In the moonlight, they both run toward the breaking surf and play together in the water. After returning, Cora is considerably more friendly and suggests making a lemon meringue pie for Frank the next day. Responding with a weak "please don't" when Frank approaches to kiss her, she is receptive to a passionate good-night kiss.
The next day, we were so busy, I hardly had a chance to look at her. Not until the middle of the morning. There was always a lull about that time. And Nick had just left for LA.
Frank stares down the last remaining coffee and doughnuts customer, and then sets the 'closed' sign on the cafe front door. He approaches Cora in the kitchen as she is washing dishes. She tells him that she married the good-hearted man when taken in by the promise of security and wealth - but she compromised herself by entering into a loveless marriage:
Cora: Frank, about that question?
Frank: What question?
Cora: Why I married Nick?
Frank: My answer is that Nick came along at the right time and with a wedding ring.
Cora: The wedding ring. It was the first thing he mentioned.
Frank: And you liked it. A certain reason.
Cora: You don't know the half of it. Frank, I-I hate to say this but, I wasn't ever, ever homely. So..
Frank: You must have had to fight off a lot of guys.
Cora: A lot of guys? All the guys. I don't especially like the way I look sometimes. But I never met a man since I was fourteen that didn't want to give me an argument about it.
Frank: Sure. And by the time Nick came along, well you were ready to marry anybody that owned a gold watch.
Cora: It seemed the best thing to do, from my angle. And as for him, I told him, I told him I didn't love him.
Frank: He said that would come in time.
Frank: But it didn't.
Cora: But I meant to stick by him, and that's why...
Frank: That's why you married him and retired. The undefeated champ.
Cora: Not one hundred percent undefeated. Not now.
Breathlessly, the voluptuous Cora succumbs to Frank's promise of adventure to escape her life of boredom and defeat, and her marriage of convenience. They plot to run away together, and she writes an explanatory note to Nick:
I'm going away with Frank - I love him.
After placing the note in the cash register, they walk from the cafe to the highway, her arm in his, and with their luggage under Frank's arm. Cora is sorry that they don't have Nick's car and must hitchhike:
Cora: Too bad Nick took the car.
Frank: Even if the car were here, we couldn't take it, not unless we want to spend the first night in jail. Stealing a man's wife, that's nothing. But stealing his car, that's larceny.
On the road, Cora has no real desire to live the unpredictable, drifter-type existence that Frank is accustomed to. In their first few hours, she tumbles backwards into the dust and soils her pure-white dress, sweats in the heat, steps in tar, and tires quickly, longing for the financial security of the restaurant business:
Cora: Frank, look. If I divorce Nick, he'll never give me a nickel. He'll keep the Twin Oaks and everything.
Frank: So? What do we care?
Cora: Yeah, but where are we headed?
Frank: What's the difference? Anywhere.
Cora: Oh anywhere, anywhere. Do you know where that is?
Frank: Anywhere we choose.
Cora: No, it isn't. It's back to hash-house for me, and for you, some parking lot where you wear a smock with 'Super Service' on it. I would just die if I saw you in a smock like that.
Frank: Well, I wore one at the Twin Oaks.
Cora: But that was mine. Oh, don't you see, Frank? You're smart. Others could be wearing the smocks and you could be manager.
Frank: Yeah. I can hardly wait.
Cora: Oh stop acting. You're ashamed of being smart. Well, I'm ashamed of standing out here begging for a ride that'll take me right back where I started.
Frank: You mean you want to go back, huh?
Cora: I want to be somebody. And if I walk out like this, I'll lose everything and I'll never be anybody. Oh, I love you Frank, and I want you, but not this way. Not starting out like a couple of tramps. I'm going back.
They hurriedly return by bus to Twin Oaks, arriving just before Nick does. Immediately, Cora destroys the note left for Nick in the cash register. Together, they hatch the idea of a murder plot after witnessing the near-collision of an inebriated Nick narrowly avoiding a freight truck:
Frank: I'd like to see him get plastered like that some night and drive off a cliff.
Cora: You didn't mean that. You were joking.
Frank: Well sure. Sure. I-I was joking.
Cora: Of course you were. Of course.
Drunk and silly, Nick accuses Frank of being a "thief" when he notices the packed suitcases. Cora defends her lover: "You're crazy, Nick. Why Frank's not a thief. All of a sudden this afternoon, he got an attack of road fever and said his feet were itching for a new place." And then she explains how Frank has changed his mind about leaving: "Frank's road fever wasn't very serious. In fact, he forgot all about it as soon as I promised you'd pay him three dollars more a week."
In his retrospective narration, Frank remembers how fatal his decision to stay became. Cora's smoldering sexuality is a trap which pulls Frank further toward murder and a defiant form of love:
Right then, I shoulda walked out of that place but I couldn't make myself do it. She had me licked. And she knew it. So for a week, she treated me as if I was only somebody working around the place. I nearly went out of my mind. I couldn't go, and I couldn't stay the way things were. Then, one night, I finally decided I had to have a talk with her to see if there wasn't some future, some way for the two of us.
After denying him a chance to speak, Cora, the quintessential femme fatale, sneaks into Frank's room later in the evening to talk about their future on her own terms. The lovers plan to murder the woman's unloved husband - and it is the unfaithful wife Cora who plants the idea of murder into Frank's head so that they can be together. The ambitious, yet soul-less seductress argues that with her husband dead, she would inherit the financial security of the restaurant:
Cora: What are we going to do?
Frank: That's great comin' from you after you've been high-hatting me the way you have.
Cora: What else could I do? Oh Frank. Frank, if I'd only met you first.
Cora: Frank, do you love me?
Cora: Do you love me so much that nothing else matters?
Cora: There's, there's one thing we could do that would fix everything for us.
Frank: What? Pray for something to happen to Nick?
Cora: Something like that.
Cora: Well, you suggested it yourself once, didn't you?
Frank: I was only joking.
Cora: Were you?
Frank: Yes, I was.
Cora: Why had you started to think about it a little?
Frank: Maybe I said it, but I didn't really mean it.
Cora: Well, I say it again now and I do mean it.
Cora: Listen to me, Frank. I'm not what you think I am. I want to keep this place and work hard and be something, that's all. But you can't do it without love - at least a woman can't. I've made a big mistake in my life and I've got to be this way just once to fix it.
Frank: But they'd hang you for a thing like that.
Cora: Oh, but not if we do it right and you're smart Frank. You'll think of a way. Plenty of men have.
Frank: He never did anything to me.
Cora: But darling, can't you see how happy you and I would be together here, without him?
Frank: Do you love me, Cora?
Cora: That's why you've got to help me. It's because I do love you.
Frank: (He answers his own question) Yes you do. You couldn't get me to say yes to a thing like this if you didn't...