The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Directed by Tay Garnett

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It seems there were a lot of unhappy marriages in postwar America, one in which the woman married too young to an older man who could promise financial security and little more.  It’s these types of marriages, at least cinematically-speaking, that lead to the Double Indemnity-esque murder plots, where the conspirators finally have somewhere to place their inspired scheming, blocked off by years of frustration in their dead end marriages.

This time the conspirators are Frank and Cora (John Garfield, Lana Turner), and the victim is Cora’s husband, Nick (Cecil Kallaway).  It’s Frank who stumbles onto a small roadside diner run by Nick and Cora.  While Nick takes a liking to him, Cora keeps her distance.  This being a 1940’s noir, however, it’s not long before they fall into each other’s arms and plan to run away together.

Frank is a character for whom running away has always been the first course of action.  Cora would seem to be his downfall, the familiar femme fatale, but there are so many twists and turns to The Postman Always Rings Twice that it’s hard to know who’s ever at fault and who deserves what’s coming.  You really just get the sense that they’re all rotten enough to deserve a long prison sentence because if the world is composed of people like this, well then we’re doomed.

Frank and Cora try to run away before determining this won’t be a good enough solution.  They’re penniless and aimless, so they decide to stick it out at the diner where Frank has been working as a handyman for some number of weeks.  When Nick announces that he’s going to sell the place and take Cora to live with his ailing sister, she decides she’s had enough.

It’s Cora who comes up with a way they can murder Nick, but it’s Frank who proves to be the muscle behind the plan.  Oh, and this follows an instance in which they already nearly killed Nick, so the police will be onto them should something else suspicious happen.

Anyways, Nick dies, but the plan doesn’t go off without a hitch.  An accident leaves Frank nearly dead himself and Cora on trial for murder.  The second half of the film is an odd but amusing comedy in which the two central characters become Cora’s lawyer and the local defense attorney.  They have their own rivalry in which the stakes boil down to a hundred dollar bet, even as Cora’s and Frank’s lives hang in the balance.

There are further story turns, misdirections and whatnot as Frank and Cora must eventually reckon with the crimes they’ve committed against Nick, and thus, humanity.

The film’s title refers to the idea that when the postman rings, you may not hear the first call, but you’ll always hear the second.  In this context it’s used to suggest that there’s no escaping fate, or the deserved consequences of your actions.  When Frank and Cora first conspired to murder Nick, regardless of what happened next, they set themselves down a path that would require a cosmic intervention, something to give them the punishment they deserve.

So this might as well be a horror film, you know, one of those mid-80s slashers where the characters are picked off by a serial killer who has some kind of subtextual sense of each teenager’s supposed sins.  These characters, the movies often seem to say, deserve what’s coming, whether because they’re reckless or simply young.

Frank and Cora get what they deserve, and Frank finds an unexpected peace at the end of the story because of what he deems to be his true crime.  He doesn’t mind paying the punishment as long as he can accept his role in the crime.  There’s also a certain amount of delusion to his thinking.

Up Next: Christine (2016), A Quiet Place (2018), The Match Factory Girl (1990)

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