The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

I’d meant to review this film in time for Lana Turner’s birthday on February 8. But other things kept me busy, and what with trying to meet a deadline for my novel and write a short story before I lose the thread of it and watch an irresistible film (The Black Rose) which I’d just gotten hold of… well, better late than never. Belated happy birthday, Ms Turner! And RIP.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was based on a novel of the same name by James M Cain, published in 1934. James Cain was also the writer of Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, both highly regarded in the world of noir.  The Postman Always Rings Twice was supposedly (I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment) quite sexual and violent in its content—so much so that it took ten years to create a screenplay tame enough to pass the censors. It ended up, however, being a very good example of film noir. And the role that Lana Turner thought her best.

Her first appearance onscreen in the film is definitely very dramatic, and very in your face. Cora Smith (Lana) is the young and—need one mention it—gorgeous wife of the much older and definitely unattractive Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Nick and Cora run a roadside diner called Twin Oaks off the Los Angeles-San Diego highway, and Cora spends her days washing dishes, serving up hamburgers and regretting her marriage to this man.

They’ve put out a sign outside Twin Oaks, asking for help: Man Wanted. [An interesting choice of words; Nick might want a man to help clean up and do the heavy work, but it’s not hard to guess why Cora might want a man]. And a man does turn up: the drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield), who decides to stop by and earn some dollars before his itchy feet take him further down the road.

One look at Cora and her very obvious come-hither look, and Frank is ensnared. He doesn’t realise immediately that this vision in white [Observation: Cora Smith, a femme fatale in every sense of the word, wears virginal white throughout the film except in two scenes]—is Nick Smith’s wife. Eventually, though, that doesn’t matter to Frank. He takes the job, and as his first task, puts the Man Wanted sign in the fire.

Things progress swiftly, and before we know it, Frank and Cora are in the middle of a steamy affair, going down to the beach for night-time swims, dancing, kissing when Nick isn’t around. [Nick, for someone who’s obviously been put in the shadow by his beautiful wife, seems to be completely devoid of what might be considered normal jealousy. He doesn’t seem to notice the attraction between Cora and Frank, and in fact even sings for them while they’re dancing].

…until one day, Cora and Frank run away together. Or at least try to; they walk a long way without being able to hitch a ride. Cora falls and dirties her dress; her feet hurt and she finally decides she won’t’ go through with it. She loves Frank, but this isn’t the way to fulfil that love. And, more importantly, she’s worked very hard to make Twin Oaks what it is; if she leaves now, all that work goes down the drain. No. Cora wants to go back and make something of her life.

So they go back and Nick, who’s been out all day, is none the wiser. Life settles back into its old groove. But Cora’s resentment keeps growing, of Nick and all that he stops her from doing—revamping Twin Oaks, making Frank her own, living life to its fullest. So one day, getting an idea from a magazine article, she asks Frank if he will help her murder Nick.

The plan’s a simple one. When Nick’s in his bath, Cora will go into the bathroom on the pretext of getting a towel, and while his back is turned, she’ll hit him on the head. Goodbye, Nick. The police will think this is another old man who slipped in his bathtub and hit his head on the edge. Unfortunately for Cora and Nick, their plan runs into an unexpected snag. A cat climbs up the step ladder that Frank had set up outside the house, leading up to the bathroom. The cat runs into some exposed wiring, trips it up, dies in the process—and plunges the house into darkness just as Cora hits Nick. She doesn’t hit hard enough. Nick collapses, and Cora screams until Frank comes running.

Cora and Frank realise that if Nick is still alive, their only hope to avoid suspicion is to get him to the hospital themselves. They do, but someone’s already suspicious: Sackett (Leon Ames), the district attorney, smells a rat and comes to see Nick in hospital.
Cora’s guardian angel is working hard; Nick, when he regains consciousness, does not remember what happened. All he recalls is that it all went dark.

So, a reprieve. Frank, shaken by this near brush with what could have been murder, leaves. Cora goes back to her old mundane life at Twin Oaks.
And one day, Nick runs into Frank in Los Angeles and insists on bringing him home to Twin Oaks to share a piece of news.

News which is, according to Nick, very good. He’s selling off Twin Oaks. And why? So that he and Cora can move to Santa Barbara. And why Santa Barbara? Because Nick has a sister there (whom Cora has never heard of before) who’s now partly paralysed and needs care—the care only a woman [read: Cora] can provide.
This is the first Cora has heard of this plan. She tries to remonstrate with Nick, but his mind’s made up. They’re moving.

That night, Frank finds Cora contemplating suicide. She cannot move to Santa Barbara, giving up all her dreams for Twin Oaks, just so that she can take care of Nick’s sister. There is only one way around this mess: kill Nick. Finally, irrevocably.

Which they do succeed in doing. But will that bring Cora and Frank the happiness and success they’d dreamed of? How far will they be able to go with Nick’s murder on their consciences? And it’s not just a case of conscience; there’s also the very real fact that Sackett is suspicious. Where will his suspicion take him?

What I liked about this film:

The pace of the film, the way it builds, the inevitability of it all. This is a gripping story of two people whose unbridled lust for each other and whose ambition (especially Cora’s) leads them down paths they may not have trodden if they hadn’t come into each other’s lives. There are some excellent twists and turns in the plot, particularly in the second half (watch out for Hume Cronyn as Cora’s lawyer, Keats). There is suspense: will they get away with it, or will the law catch up with them? How?

One thought about this film: I didn’t think I’d find myself sympathising with a pair of lust-crazed murderers. But oddly enough, The Postman Always Rings Twice is sort of cyclical in its sympathy (and lack of it) for Cora and Frank. The cold-blooded way in which they plan to murder Nick made me sick; but later, when Nick callously tells Cora that they’ll be moving, selling off Twin Oaks (without consulting Cora, mind you) just so that Cora can look after his sister…  I had to sympathise with Cora. I’d have helped kill Nick at that point. And so on, sympathy, horror, sympathy, horror. There were moments I wanted these two to find happiness, no matter what they’d done. There were moments I wanted Sackett to catch them and slap them in prison. And there were moments I couldn’t care less.

Then, there’s the characterisation. The three main characters are so brilliantly etched, so alive. There’s Cora, ambitious, frustrated, feisty (in her own way), yet not exactly intelligent or mature in the decisions she takes in her life. Frank, governed more by his passions than anything else; perhaps with more scruples than Cora, but eventually somewhat of a wimp. And Nick, all hail-fellow-well-met, but selfish and insensitive too. And a foolish man, who can’t see what’s happening right in front of his very eyes.
Oh, and I like the fact that the cast is so manageably small, so uncluttered.

Last but not the least, Lana Turner. Just about everybody seems to say how gorgeous Lana Turner looked in The Postman Always Rings Twice. She does, but that’s not why I loved her in this film. I loved her because of her acting; she brings the frustrated, repressed, seductive Cora perfectly to life. A great character, and superbly portrayed.

What I didn’t like:

Spoiler ahead:

The legal twists and turns of the case are interesting, but they aren’t very believable. For instance, Sackett’s quick assent to Keats’s request for co-operation seems not just too sudden, but also a little illogical; why would Sackett agree to something like that, when in all other respects he seems to want to bring Cora and Frank to justice?  And there’s the point of law on which Keats manages to get Cora out—while letting Frank get his neck in the noose on the same charges. Would any judge really agree to that? I guess it is possible in the US (or was, back in 1946), but to me it seemed odd.

Spoiler ends.

But that isn’t really the crux of the film; what holds this film apart from the rest is the darkly grim insight it offers into the black hole of lust and ambition, sending lives whirling out of control and eventually swallowing them up… watch. It’s good, very good.

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34 thoughts on “The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

  1. What a great film to review for Lana’s belated bday! This is such a scorcher for 1946, especially that hot chemistry between Lana and John Garfield who were apparently fooling around off set too! But really there needs to be far more love for John Garfield who is so naturalistic and such a babe! I do prefer the epic ‘Imitation of Life’ with Lana Turner and by my fave women’s picture director Douglas Sirk!

    • I agree with you completely – this is quite a scorcher for 1946! Even though there’s nothing really explicit, it manages to convey a lot with just some smouldering looks and a few kisses. That’s what I call good acting and good direction (well, good scripting too). I haven’t yet seen Imitation of Life but Lana Turner in a Sirk film? Lead me to it!!

  2. I have heard so much about the film and so much about the novel, but have neither managed to read the novel nor see the film.
    have you seen the 1981 version as well?

    • No, I haven’t seen the 1981 version – though I read that it had a lot more of the essence of the book (read: explicit!) than this one did. Jack Nicholson, I think? Don’t recall who acted the Cora part.

  3. TCM is very fond of this film, so I’ve seen parts of it here and there, but was never inspired to watch the whole film. I’m not sure why, but the moment the film comes on, I dearly want to be elsewhere! Maybe it’s the slow pace of the film, or maybe the fact that I saw the end first, so I know exactly what will happen… At any rate, I’ve never even cared for John Garfield because this is where I saw him first, and since then, and he’s always been classified as ‘boring bad boy’ in my mind! Lana Turner is a whole different kettle of fish. She is so good at being bad – especially as the chilly “Milady”. :D

    • The Three Musketeers was one of the first films in which I saw Lana Turner and she just blew my mind away, she was so good as the icy Lady de Winter (what an appropriate name for someone so chilly!). Loved her in that. Here, she’s very different – not quite so ruthlessly evil, because she has more shades of grey and she’s not the cardboard villainess she is in The Three Musketeers.

      If you saw the end first, then I guess this is not the best noir film to be watching. :-)

    • Most suspense films could! :-) I would rate films like CID and Kala Pani (Nau Do Gyarah too) as among the most enjoyable suspense flicks I have ever seen. He was very good at that. The Postman Always Rings Twice might have been too bold even for him back in those days, though…

      • WOW! Thank you both, Upendra & dustedoff, for reminding me that there actually IS a Dev film I like. I must rewatch CID to confirm this, and for the young Waheeda. The sensation of watching Dev onscreen without getting angry and wanting to smack that smug selfrighteous egotism right out of him will be a treat.

        • Yes! Dev Anand is one of those people for whom I have varying feelings at different periods of his career – I like him in many of his late 50s and early 60s films, but can’t bear him in 70s and later stuff. And even during the 60s, the films where he’s gone overboard with the mannerisms – ugh!! CID though remains one of those films that I have always liked, and in which I like Dev Anand too.

    • Banno, you are so good for my ego! :-) The novel is being written right now (it’s due to be submitted in May), but in the interim, there’ll be a set of short stories, all featuring Muzaffar Jang, the detective of The Englishman’s Cameo. That’s written and with the publishers right now – we’re hoping for a release by October this year. I personally like my short stories better than my novels, so I’m especially excited about this book!

  4. I had seen this film on Doordarshan long, long ago and loved it, these are the kind of films I really like to watch, which is why I remember almost everything about the film although I saw it many years ago. I find I am not able to remember some of the modern day films even after a few days.

    • That always seems to me to be the hallmark of a good film – that you can recall it pretty well even after years have passed. I was reminded of the Deborah Kerr-starrer The Innocents, and my mother’s recollections of it. She saw it only once, when she was in her early 20s. Even now, over 45 years later, she remembers it very well.

      And I was trying to remember the story of a film I saw two months back, and couldn’t for the life of me remember anything…!

  5. I’m getting this in my to-watch-list this very instant. Thankeee :)
    Somehow there’s something wrong with blogger :( I’m not able to upload anything :( Frustrating; not quite like Cora but frustrating nevertheless :(

    • Oh, I hope the blogger problem gets sorted out soon – I am already looking forward to whichever review you post next!

      Yes, do try and get hold of The Postman Always Rings Twice: it’s a classic. Also fairly easy to get, actually.

      • I am also facing the same problem as Sharmi, obviously blogger did not single me out so am quite relieved to know that not just Sharmi many other bloggers too are facing the same problem, so now I have the time to read some more reviews Madhu,ha!,ha!

        • Yes, in fact I was mentioning that just today to someone I was talking to about blogs – that blogger seems to be playing up. I had a lot of trouble even accessing both your as well as Sharmi’s blog. Another friend who uses blogger has just (the day before yesterday) moved her entire blog to wordpress. I wonder if she had prior information…!

  6. Hello, back home now. Had seen this film, thought it was a really good version, although knowing the story and lack of sympathy for the characters motives (as you pointed out) takes something away from the movie for me.
    Then last year saw the Italian version of the novel, filmed in 1941-42, made before this version. Filmed under fascist, church and wartime restrictions, Visconti’s OSSESSIONE is just so so so brilliant…that both American versions pale beside it. A Must See.

    • I read about Ossessione – just that it was one of the adaptations, no more – when I was doing some background reading on Cain’s book. I’d no idea it was so good. Thank you for the recommendation; I’ll add it to my list of films to be acquired!

      • It is an adaptation, e.g. Visconti adds a character that is not there in the book, and I do not know which story is closer to the original. Visconti was apparently given the French translation of the novel by Renoir. Do see the film, it is Visconti’s first, but its a powerful debut.

        • So does that mean that the French translation had differences even in plot from the original Cain novel?

          Incidentally (and off topic), that reminds me of what a Brazilian writer told me about Paulo Coelho’s books. He said that the original books are pretty average; it just so happened that Coelho’s books were first translated into French by someone who did a very good job, thus pushing up the book’s quality a few notches. And since all subsequent translations were made from the French… we have Paulo Coelho as a BIG writer!

  7. I don’t think so. Just that because of the war he could never acquire the rights to the novel and this is what stopped the distribution of the film in the US for a long time.
    I think the extra character was added deliberately and in fact fits in well in this version.
    I have only read one novel of Paul Coelho, and am nor greatly attracted to picking up any pf his others. I did not know that about the English translations!
    However, I think the Spanish translations, which is what I have read, would be done straight from Poruguese, given the amount of translators and the close proximity of the language.

    • I too have read only one Coelho novel (it was gifted to me) and decided that was enough. More than enough! I suppose it makes sense to have had the Spanish version translated directly from the Portuguese – so perhaps, since you read the Spanish version, you got it with all the flaws of the original! ;-)

      Now I’m very curious about Ossessione! I hope I can get hold of it soon.

  8. ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ is James M. Cain’s masterpiece, a novel written for mature, thinking people; as opposed to ‘Double Indemnity’ whose plot is rather harebrained, “I just met you/And this is crazy/But here’s my husband/Will you murder him, maybe?” That kind.

    I second (or is it third?) recommendation for Ossessione. Its specialty lies in how Visconti approaches the source material. Instead of going into the courtroom details, it focuses on the fluctuating relationship between the two main characters, how they battle with themselves whether to trust the other or not.

    The 1981 version failed to grab me, even though no one does smarmy, fast-talking and self-centred better than Jack Nicholson. He and the fantastic cinematography by the Swedish master Sven Nykvist are the two things that have stayed in my mind.

    • I’d forgotten about the recommendation for Ossessione – I must put that on my list, so that I remember to look out for it. Thanks for reminding me of it.

      I’ve never got around to watching the 1981 version of this film, though Jack Nicholson is an actor I admire I lot. I shall stay away from it – too many really old films to be watched, and good ones at that, instead.

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