Directed by Tay Garnett
Written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch
Based on the novel by James M Cain
Consider that I’ve seen a good deal more film noir since I wrote my review of Double Indemnity. Before seeing that, I thought noir was detectives and femme fatales. At this point, I know that noir is really any crime film, although inevitably, it still falls into two categories: “Who killed her husband?” or “How are they going to kill her husband?” The Postman Always Rings Twice falls into the latter category, but as with all good noir, it’s a fascinating scenario with plenty of twists.
Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a drifter who winds up at the Twin Oaks, a small California diner. He’s persuaded by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) to take up a job there…well, Nick and the presence of his wife, Cora (Lana Turner). And as Cora and Frank begin a secret affair, they also start to plan to kill Nick.
In most cases, Cora would be the femme fatale here, the one who leads the plot, leads Frank to love her and murder Frank. That’s not really the case here. In fact, the love affair is more pushed away by Cora, who seems set on keeping things as normal. The plans Frank has to simply run away with Cora tend to be ended thanks to Cora wanting to stay at the Twin Oaks. We’re even given a handwave for why Cora can’t just leave Nick, as if she did, she would lose the Twin Oaks. She’s also the one more nervous about the murder plans, while Nick stays calm and collected. But Cora is a woman fighting in a man’s world, and when it becomes clear that she’s losing ground, she has no choice but to go through with the murder. She’s not a femme fatale. She’s just someone forced into a situation beyond her control.
The movie’s other interesting twist is what happens in the second half. Even though the movie is over 60 years old, I’d feel poorly about giving it away. Suffice it to say, though, that as usual for film noir, while the murder may succeed, what happens after the murder is doomed to failure. And the world quickly shows itself to be a chaotic environment. Nobody can truly be trusted. Good characters and bad characters become indistinguishable. It’s all here, and it’s all surrounding Frank and Cora, who become more and more lost as they seems to realize that their affair was nothing but a fling. The tragic but inevitable ending puts the final mark on the whole thing.
The Postman Always Rings Twice shows how classic film noir can be, remaining suspenseful and interesting after all these years.