The first American adaptation of Cain’s 1934 lurid classic is the 1946 Tay Garnett directorial effort The Postman Always Rings Twice. The funny thing is, in the novel, there’s no postman and he never rings twice. It’s never alluded to, nor is the line ever spoken by any of the characters. Many have speculated on Cain’s reasoning for the title, though the author himself explained that it came out of a conversation with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who would become relieved when he would hear the postman ringing twice because he was eager to know the results of a submitted manuscript. Cain figured it would well as a metaphor, so he used it.
In Garnett’s film, the character of Frank gives a totally ridiculous and superfluous dialogue about “ringing twice” right before his execution. I suppose they didn’t want to confuse audiences with the title, so they threw that in there. Anyways, The 1946 Postman Rings Twice is a dark and claustrophobic film that lacks the tragic punch of Visconti’s Ossessione three years earlier, but packs its own steamy noir wallop that’s got sexual chemistry to spare between its two stars, John Garfield and Lana Turner.
Frank Chambers (Garfield) drifts into a desert truck stop where the hospitable owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) offers him a job. Frank’s intro in Cain’s novel is fantastic (he’s thrown off the back of a truck), but his entrance here is just as effective. He’s let off at the stop by the district attorney he hitched a ride with and is greeted by a “Man Wanted” sign. Talk about double entendre, huh?
Frank is about to turn down the job when he spots Nick’s trophy wife, Cora (Turner). Her introduction is cited as one of the best in film history (though I prefer Phyllis Dietrichson’s in Double Indemnity). Frank is sitting at the truck stop’s lunch counter alone when a tube of lipstick rolls to his feet. He looks up to see Cora standing in the doorway in all of her 1940s bathing suit glory. The camera pan up from the lipstick to her knockout set of legs and rests there. Then there’s a shot of Frank’s breathe literally being taken away.
The entire plot derives from that first, lingering shot of her body. One look at her and Frank’s fate is signed, sealed, and delivered to the web of doom. The sexual chemistry between Turner and Garfield nearly melts the screen in a few moments, as they sneak behind Nick’s back to exchange those 1940s Hollywood kisses where actors would smash their faces together and grab one another’s upper ams real tight. The passion! Of course, once they get stupid for each other, Nick has to go. They first murder attempt doesn’t take. In true noir fashion a series of unforeseen mishaps fouls everything up (that fucking cat), but the second try manages to successfully bury him.
The second murder scene is filled with a stupendous amount of dark atmosphere. It’s set on a foggy back road up in the mountains somewhere and is really gothic treat. The shot of the car going off the cliff is really chilling as well. Even though you know it’s coming, there’s still an effectively poetic shock to the visual. And Cora’s scream…hot damn.
The murder of Nick is just the beginning of Nick and Cora’s problems. As they dodge the district attorney (and each other), they both scramble for some kind of moral high ground. The series of betrayals and blackmails that occurs post-Nick is damn relentless. Once the shit hit the fan in a court of law, the mediator between Nick and Cora is her lawyer, Arthur Keats. He’s played by the great character actor Hume Cronyn, probably best known for his geriatric work in films like Cocoon and Batteries Not Included.
While Garfield and Turner do their best moping and fawning, Cronyn almost steals the show out from underneath them. The resulting trial becomes almost like a contest to him, and both him and the district attorney completely lose sight of right and wrong in the process. After making a $100 bet with the D.A., Cora charged with murder, but Keats manages to get her probation. Seriously, best lawyer ever.
Despite some story hiccups (like the probation), Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic powerhouse of light and dark, seduction and murder. There’s no truly likeable character besides Nick, who you can tell truly loves Cora, though he’s unknowingly trapped her in a life flipping burgers at his truck stop. Later, before the second murder, Nick again doesn’t consider when Cora when making a huge life decision. This is what pushes her over the edge again, leading to the second murder attempt. So while Nick loves her a whole lot, he’s just not a good husband. A bit on the selfish side, but he does want the best for her.
Besides Nick, everyone else is an opportunistic scumbag unable to tell the truth. And god do I love it. Frank and Cora’s deadly combination of denial and stupidity lead them to their own dismal fates – in a powerfully ironic fashion.
I slightly prefer Visconti’s Ossessione over Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, though comparing the two is tough since the Italian went with a classical tragedy approach and Garnett’s is more of a melodramatic noir. Still, the 1946 film is overall an incredible film that hits you right in the gut even if you know where the dark path is leading you.
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