The Postman Always Rings Twice

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By James Bowman

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[This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series of films under the rubric of "Crime and Punishment" at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (Go here for details or to register to attend.) The third film in the series, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) by Tay Garnett, was screened yesterday evening, June 30, 2009. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the movie. My introduction is below, and available in MP3 format here.]

In both of the first two movies in our series on “Crime and Punishment” I have mentioned what I take to be the underlying paradigm of the American film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, namely that of the ambitious young man from the wrong side of the tracks whose belief in his natural and God-given right to “the pursuit of happiness” is just pushy enough to elbow aside any moral scruples he may have when he sees a quick and easy way to rise in the world. When he does, however, a combination of the Hays Code on the right, which forbade movie criminals to profit from their crimes, and a politically-motivated hatred of “the system” on the left combined to crush him.

In both of those first two movies, however, there were important deviations from this underlying pattern. In The Public Enemy, our ambitious hero was sexually and emotionally stunted while his ambition was less for the material blessings of this world than it was for an old-fashioned and rather un-American kind of honor. He just wanted to be a tough guy. In Double Indemnity, too, the hero seems to be motivated neither by material goods nor by love but by a desire to prove himself smarter than his friend and mentor. Both men were defined more by their rivalries — Tommy Powers with his brother Mike, Walter Neff with Barton Keys — than they were by their ambition, and ambition is what we expect to be the center of attention in a noir picture made by politically-conscious materialists constantly aware of and sympathetic towards that large segment of the population known as the “have-nots” who might be expected to possess such ambition.

The film we’re going to see tonight, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice of 1946, is based on a novel by James M. Cain, as Double Indemnity is, and it is in one way closer to that underlying paradigm than either of the other two. Here we do have someone who is one of the have-nots, someone from a poor background who is determined to get ahead at no matter what the cost and who ends up paying ambition’s price. But darned if there isn’t another deviation from the pattern here, too. For the ambitious young man on the make isn’t a man. The ambitious one in this picture is the wife at the apex of the love triangle, Cora Smith, played by Lana Turner, who comes out of a world so unhappy that she married the first man who asked her just to escape from it, but who is now determined to be “somebody,” as she puts it on more than one occasion — even at the cost of murder.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think, except that it leaves us with a superfluous hero, John Garfield’s Frank Chambers, whose place in this scenario becomes more obscure the more you look at it. The one thing that it seems safe to say about Frank is that, unlike Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, he really is besotted with his femme fatale. He tells us so himself in a voiceover narration that serves a rather different purpose from the one in Double Indemnity. There, Fred MacMurray gives us a dispassionate recital of events but is so reticent about his feelings that we have to wonder if he knows what they are himself, and therefore why he does what he does. Garfield’s account of himself to the audience is gratuitous and not built into the plot and structure of the movie in the way that Walter’s dictaphone confession to Keyes was, but it is, seemingly, much more frank about his feelings.

That should be helpful to us, right? Except that there are reasons to regard Frank as a bit of an unreliable narrator. When he and Cora try running away together but are forced to come back, Frank’s narration tells us that he is aware that “right then I should have walked out of that place, but I couldn’t make myself do it. She had me licked, and she knew it.” That sounds like self-justification to me. This is a man who has grown accustomed to telling stories about himself as a way of accounting — both to himself and to others — for why he does the things he does. Thus, for example, the trope of the itchy feet which force him to move on occurs more than once. He tells Nick when he arrives at the diner that he’s a “born mechanic” and Cora that he can “sell anything to anyone.” She replies to this, “That’s what you think.”

As I read this comment, it is less because she doubts his salesmanship than because she recognizes it at once as just a part of his practised pose before the world — confident to the point of cockiness but with a deep uncertainty behind that confidence. Like Cora, he sort of wants to be a somebody — or at least not to be a nobody. When she ignores him, his voiceover tells us, “I began to feel like a cheap nobody making a play for a girl that had no use for me.” But, unlike Cora, he never seems to have anything but the vaguest of ideas about how he might be a somebody. Like many immature people, he appears to think that being somebody is something that just happens to you, because of the special person you know yourself to be, and I think that this self-mythologization extends to his relationship with Cora as he struggles to build the animal attraction we see so vividly at his first meeting with her into something more meaningful.

To me the most pathetic exchange in the whole movie comes when Cora tells Frank that he’s “got to” help her. “It”s because I do love you,” she says. And he answers, “Yes you do. You couldn”t get me to say yes to a thing like this if you didn”t.” But there’s also buried in there a reassurance to himself, I think. She couldn’t get him to say yes to a thing like this if he didn’t love her. He needs to explain his behavior to himself as a choice he makes on compellingly rational grounds because, deep down, he believes that he has no good choices. Accordingly, part of his self-mythologization is to see himself as the helpless victim of his passion for Cora. He tries to run away because, as he says, “I could see where we were headed,” but he claims to be irresistibly drawn back. And when he is finally forced to agree with Cora’s second plot to kill Nick, he comments resignedly, “I guess it’s in the cards.”

Interestingly, Cora’s husband Nick, played by Cecil Kellaway, is also something of a self-mythologizer, at least when it comes to Cora. The lyrics to the song he sings on two different occasions during the course of the movie go like this:

I”m not much to look at, nothin” to see
Just glad I”m livin” and happy to be
I got a woman, crazy for me
She”s funny that way

I can”t save a dollar, ain”t worth a cent
She”d never holler, she”d live in a tent
I got a woman, crazy for me
She”s funny that way

Though she”d love to work and slave for me every day
She”d be so much better off if I went away

But why should I leave her, why should I go?
She”d be unhappy without me, I know
I got a woman, crazy for me
She”s funny that way

When I hurt her feelin”s once i
n a while
Her only answer is one little smile
I got a woman, crazy for me
She”s funny that way

In fact, she’s funny in quite a different way, though you can see why he’d prefer to believe in this one. The ironies here are especially painful — “Just glad I’m livin’ and happy to be” — but essentially he and Frank are doing the same thing. Both men, that is, find a way to persuade themselves that Cora, this astonishingly desirable creature, is madly in love with them, though Frank has the added burden of persuading himself that he is in love with her as well. Otherwise, why would he be risking his life in a dangerous and wicked scheme like the murder of Nick?

And what about Cora? Is she in love with either of them? I must say at the risk of falling victim to the stereotype of the calculating female who uses her sexual allure to tempt men to their doom that it doesn’t look that way to me. For the audience, as for Frank, there must be a strong temptation to see that “Man Wanted” sign that is his first introduction to the gas station and lunch counter at Twin Oaks as a purely sexual double entendre. The venerable male fantasy of “Desperate Housewives” — which I think must have a lot to do with the popular success of the ABC program of that name — is the sort of flattery to his vanity that she must know she can make use of, though for her the sign really does seem to mean what her husband intended when he put it up. The man is wanted for a job of work, all right, and not to satisfy her frustrated sexual longings. It’s just not the job he thinks it is.

At the same time, it’s hard to conclude that Cora is entirely cynical and calculating in drawing Frank in. When she thinks about it, she is focused with impressive single-mindedness on her plan to “be somebody,” it’s true, but she’s easily side-tracked both by her feelings for Frank and by her feelings against him. Also, she’s not terribly bright either about what being somebody means or about how to accomplish it. During the brief period when her dream seems to come true, she seems happy enough to be “somebody” as a celebrity-criminal as the smart set from L.A. come out to Twin Oaks to drink her beer and get her autograph. Nowadays we are so accustomed to the celebrity culture that that might pass without further comment as an acceptable way of being somebody, but in 1946 I think it would have looked as pathetic as most of what Cora and Frank end up doing in this movie.

The best evidence of Cora’s dimness is that she thinks Frank, who is even dimmer than she is, is the right guy to help her realize her ambition. She’s no feminist prototype and never doubts that she needs a man to get her where she wants to go. That’s why she marries Nick in the first place. But her judgment in the one case is as bad as it is in the other. “Frank, if I had only met you first,” she sighs wistfully. On several occasions, she tells Frank that he’s smart when it should be pretty clear to us that he’s nothing of the kind. This is of course more flattery to his vanity, and so serves a utilitarian purpose, but it’s still undeniable that she is betting her life on what she thinks of as his smarts. It’s not a smart thing to do. Her indignation when Frank falls for the D.A.’s trick has a comical side to it. “I used to think to myself the reason I fell for you was because you were smart. Now I find out that you are smart” — because his stupidity looks to her like a clever trick. Such confusion has the sad ring of sincerity about it.

It may be that, when she and Frank set out to run away together as hitchhikers with nothing but their suitcases and their love, she knew all along that she would be able to induce him to come back again, but from what we see of her it’s easy to believe that she’s just dumb enough to have fallen, however briefly, for her own version of Nick’s song:

I can”t save a dollar, ain”t worth a cent
She”d never holler, she”d live in a tent

At any rate, the movie seems to me to make better sense if she, like Nick and Frank is at least somewhat susceptible to the pop-cultural view of the all-sufficiency of love —

Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order

as Philip Larkin puts it in his great poem, “Love Songs in Age.” A movie that is as much about self-deception as this one is can only make its point more powerfully if the character who exploits the self-deceptions of others is also self-deceived, albeit not so hopelessly as they are. In the country of the blind, the one eyed platinum blonde is queen.

The other thing the movie is about is fate. As those who were here for last year’s series may remember, romance characteristically has a fatalistic dimension, and in this it has something in common with crime. As we have seen, Frank is only too eager to turn his own moral responsibility over to “the cards” or to his hopeless, fatal love for Cora — which turns out to be more or less the same thing. Moreover, the movie conspires with him to create a belief in this fated quality to the story of Cora and Frank. The chapter of accidents that besets their rather pedestrian murder plot from the very outset until the end of the movie is so outlandish as to suggest an absurdist comedy, and Tay Garnett and his script-writers, Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, seem to want to pile on the absurdist touches. I particularly like the motorcycle cop with a weakness for feline curiosity. Cats — like Cora, perhaps — are “always up to something,” but they’re also “poor dumb things” who, says Frank, “don”t know anything about electricity.”

The electrocuted cat could serve to remind us of all those other poor dumb creatures who are unwise enough to fool around with one of the forces of nature that nature has not equipped them to understand. At the same time, the people in this picture, unlike the cat, are at some level aware of the moral dimension of what they are doing. Or, to put it another way, they know how to avoid the danger they are putting themselves into, they just don’t want to. They prefer to see themselves as being in the grip of an inexorable fate. That, I believe, is how we ought to look at the enigmatical title of the picture, which doesn’t make much better sense after Frank explains it to us, just before being led off to execution at the end. Cain is not always a careful writer, but I think he meant to convey with the story of the postman’s double ring something of the same sense of fatality he produces with those absurdist touches I mentioned earlier.

Like Frank and Nick and even Cora, occasionally, he and the film-makers desperately want to romanticize their story as one that leaves them the victims of fate and without any decent moral choices in a world where the cosmic deck has been stacked against them since birth. But, like Frank in that final scene, they can’t keep up their romanticization in the face of death. “Father, you were right,” says Frank to the priest when he has discovered, to his great relief, that he’s not really dying for having killed the woman he loves. “It all works out. I guess God knows more about these things than we do. Somehow or other, Cora paid for Nick’s life with hers. And now I’m going to. Father, would you send up a prayer for me and Cora, and if you could find it in your heart, make it that we’re together, wherever it is?” At last Frank has persuaded himself that he is something more and better than a victim: someone who is simply paying for what he has taken in a divinely ordained calculus of justice. But the question remains as to whether or not this is just another, and the last, of his self-deceptions. See what you think.