‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ is a tantalizingly messy affair
Directed by Tay Garnett
Written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch (screenplay), based on James M. Cain’s novel
Movies provide escapism in most cases, save perhaps for the most ardent art house devotees. They can operate as complete fantasies or slightly heightened extensions of our own reality. In the latter case, the films might try to represent ideas and themes about who people are and our collective lot in life. Within this category can be found two sub-sections, the first being movies that play things in tidier fashion, the second being those which hold an appreciation for the often muddled psychology and moral ambiguity that is so pervasive in human behaviour. Noir excels at this, but of all the noirs ever made, few are as good at tackling the subject as Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Frank (John Garfield) is a young man with brains, a strong work ethic, but absolutely no plan in life. He hitchhikes from town to town, never staying in the same place nor working at the same job for too long. His most recent stop is at the Twin Oaks restaurant, owned by the amiable Nick Smith (Cecile Kellaway). Cleaning the joint and flipping meat patties is not anyone’s ideal employment, although Frank realizes their may be some extremely compelling benefits when he makes the acquaintance of his boss’s wife, Cora (Lana Turner). At first all she does is pout and belittle Frank. However, as the two spend more time with one another, it becomes clear that Cora is in fact unsatisfied with her marriage and place within her husband’s business. She has her own ideas of how to run the establishment, not to mention that life as Nick’s wife is not the least bit exciting. With Frank, there is a chance at not only running the place her own way, but a chance at a fulfilling love life as well. Now the question becomes: how to butt Nick out of the way? When, to their own surprise, murder appears to be the best solution, things get out of hand faster than they can hitch a ride out of town.
The conceit is simple enough, one eerily similar to another, slightly more widely recognized and highly praised film, Double Indemnity from director Billy Wilder. Perhaps unsurprisingly that film’s script was also inspired by a novel from author James M. Cain, thus explaining, in some respects, the similar identities of each picture. The differences run very deep however, all the way down to the duplicitous nature of the doomed lovers, Frank and Cora. Their love is born out of the pure desire for something better in life, at least so far as Lana Turner’s Cora is concerned. Both characters emerge, at the start of the film, from a decent place, psychologically and emotionally speaking. Frank, the drifter, adopts a very ‘happy-go-lucky’ attitude towards whatever the world tosses his way. He habitually hops from one place to another across the United States, switching jobs and friends as easily as he switches clothes. There is no job too demanding, too strenuous to defeat his optimism. Cora’s point of origin in the movie is much different, yet no less honest in its intentions. She is young, beautiful, intelligent, decent, ambitious…and tied down in a marriage to an older man who brings nothing new in her life. He seems pleasant enough, despite that he only begrudgingly heeds any advice from others as to the management of their Two Oaks restaurant. Frank’s arrival creates a spark, which sounds obvious enough given the type of film Postman is, although there is something quite special building between the two. Frank, in all likelihood inexperienced in settling down, discovers a woman he wants to be with. Cora, who is watching her life stagnate, sees in Frank a young man with whom she can build a more ambitious future. Each compliments the other in the most desperate kind of way: newly discovered stability for one and a window towards more in life for the other.
Therefore the setup for each character’s motivations are clear enough for all to understand. Where the film takes a turn down a brilliantly complex road is in its structure the rest of the way and the dissection of the lovers. Whereas the first third of the film is easily identifiable as love stories go, almost everything that follows makes the viewing experience challenging for the viewer. Even the first steps Frank and Cora take in order to flee Twin Oaks prove ill fated due to some important inconsistencies in what each wants. Frank hoped to continue traversing the land, only with Cora by his side this time, while Cora reveals her desire to remain at Twin Oaks, her real objective being to run it her way and make a name for herself as a proper, dignified businesswoman. Hence, they return to their starting point, having to wrestle with the desire to be together or part ways. All throughout this stage there are few, if any indications that either of these two characters is capable of evil. They might be frustrated with what they can and cannot do, but the film ensures that both can still be perceived as okay people by the viewer. Naturally, things go downhill in the worst conceivable way when they agree to kill off. Even at this stage, the movie somehow refuses to paint Frank in Cora in poor light. Their decision making process is terrible, repulsive even, but they still somehow earn some empathy from the viewers. Much of this has to do with the performances from John Garfield and the inimitable Lana Turner. They play the parts with such nuance, balancing youthful innocence which can easily be appreciated and admired alongside sheer stupidity and rashness that arise out of overwhelming emotions.
Those aspects alone, the perfectly calibrated performances charging the morally ambiguous characters who navigate murky waters of passion and murder, are sufficient for the film to earn serious praise. Postman does not rest on such laurels, oh no sir, not by a long shot. Director Tay Garnett, basing himself on a script marvelous for its complexity, takes additional steps by having everything this article has reviewed up until now occur in the first half. Yes, there is an entire second half to this story which rattles and shakes the protagonists to their very core, thus turning them against one another for a period. As a matter of fact, what follows the murder are not one but two separate chapters, each equally influential on the central figures.
The first of the two is a real surprise as Cora and Frank, essentially presumed guilty of the crime, are caught in a tug of war in the legal system. District attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames) represents Frank after dubiously convincing the latter to sign a letter of complaint towards Cora, whereas the lady is represented by the calculating, conniving Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn). In essence, each is played against the other in a twisted bet between two rival attorneys. The sequence feels like it comes out of nowhere. So often in stories such as this the filmmakers will concentrate their efforts on the arising tension between the two lovers after committing the crime as they attempt to flee the long arms of the law. In Postman, the law snatches them literally moments after the fact. The ensuing courtroom and backroom drama, unexpected though it may be, not only tosses a lumbering, unavoidable wrench into their plan to live happily together, but functions as karma would, ensuring that both suffer for their regrettable course of action. Despite that both Cora and Frank were originally presented as decent enough folk, they nevertheless bring themselves to kill a man for lustful self-serving purposes, an act which subsequently sees them suffer under the machinations of Sackett and Keats as those two play coy gamesmanship. As good as Leon Ames is an actor, Hume Cronyn is another entity altogether. His Athur Keats is a delightfully obsessive control freak. It is a performance one can both loath and love at the same time, a testament to the actor’s ability to truly inhabit a despicable character. Following this, Cora and Frank, who evade jail time, return to Twin Oaks. Just like the postman will always ring twice, so too do the protagonists get a second chance to make things right, although the deep bitterness may be too much to overcome.
Postman is one of the great film noirs to twist and bend the images of two seemingly nice people with profound intensity. There are no easy or simple roads chosen. There is no candy coating taking place here. People, good people sometimes, make very dumb, life altering decisions sometimes despite that they know full well how terrible said decisions are. The movie’s narrative blueprint is odd for the unorthodox plot turns it takes, yet it ends up all making sense in the end. The journey is long and arduous in the most satisfying way.