Classic Film Review: ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1946)

In the early 1940s, film noir cast it’s lingering shadow over Hollywood. As war and economic uncertainty   tightened its grip on America, studios began producing dark crime dramas; stories of the human condition that reflected mankind’s darker side and it’s venomous effects. Film noir  was (and is) a genre that may traditionally be seen in black and white, but casts the world in shades of grey.Beyond that, it’s a difficult genre to describe. It may not even be a genre at all. It could arguably  be described as an aesthetic rather than a genre because so much of film noir is brought about by atmosphere and lighting.It is a mood that invites  one to enter a dark corner of the world and, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, “..go down these mean streets…” However, I digress, on with the review!

‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ is a 1946 drama/film noir, based on the controversial novel by James M. Cain and directed by Tay Garnett. It is a story about destructive passion and insidious desire, and all  the audience can do is watch with morbid fascination as the protagonists dig their own graves.  Cunning drifter Frank (John Garfield) and ambitious housewife Cora (Lana Turner) desperately want to be together. The only thing standing in their way is Cora’s much older husband, Nick.For a while, they make do with longing glances and the occasional stolen kiss, but the it quickly becomes clear; Nick has to go. The couple’s forbidden love develops into a murderous obsession and the two begin to turn against each other as their world crashes down around them.

What makes this film work is the fact  that it invokes a feeling of emotional frustration and claustrophobia that makes the setting drip with tension. The setting of a lonely restaurant during a heatwave contributes to this, creating a haunting, isolated stage for murder most foul. Because we see so much of the two main characters, and we develop a fascination with their unconventional attraction and, when the film was at it’s most tense, I confess that I almost wanted the couple’s shady machinations to succeed. It is only when cracks began to show in Cora and Frank’s romance that I began to realize something; these two weren’t good people, but they weren’t necessarily bad people either. I couldn’t cheer for them, but I couldn’t help wanting a happy ending of sorts- for Frank if not for Cora (who I quickly began to hate  strongly dislike).

The source material is, apparently, much much much more explicit, and James Cain wasn’t happy with the more PC film version. I haven’t read the novel (and probably won’t anytime soon; I have a pile of books to smash) but I think that the fact that so much is left to the audiences’ imagination makes the film more powerful; it allows us to contemplate their actions, rather than be momentarily shocked by them. I won’t give away the ending, but I’ll leave you with this interesting opinion about the source material’s author;

 like a lot of professed nihilists, Cain is a secret moralist after all, rot and God are just other names for fate — the postman that rings again at the door of hell, not leaving till someone answers.

(from the essay Nothing More American: On James M Cain by Steve Erickson):

Perhaps the world of Frank and Cora is only as grey as they chose to make it….

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