Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Man Wanted -- "The Postman Always Rings Twice "

 James M. Cain can be viewed as God’s gift to American film noir. His fictional works The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941) were all adapted into major studio hits, and  he had his hand in many other Hollywood projects, like the classic Out of the Past. I admit I have not read Cain’s fiction (though I’m awaiting a library volume to help make up the gap in my pop culture education). So I’ll have to judge Cain by the films made from his prose.

 Women in Cain’s world are very beautiful, very smart, and very powerful.  As Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford shows the tough-minded business savvy of a single mom who rises on the social ladder by founding a chain of popular restaurants. In Double Indemnity (1944), Barbara Stanwyck is the classic femme fatale, romancing Fred MacMurray as a convenient way to get rid of her wealthy but unwanted husband. (Billy Wilder, who both directed and collaborated on the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, felt that this was his very best film, and treasured the fact that Cain praised his adaptation.) The Postman Always Rings Twice, filmed in 1946, also contains a wow of a female role. Once again, murder is afoot, but the twists and turns of this story keep the audience guessing.

 In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck makes one of the all-time great movie entrances, gliding down the staircase of a high-class home. The blonde pageboy hair-do, the scanty clothing, the sexy anklet . . . all spell trouble with a capital T. Tay Garnett’s film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice gives us another version of that same entrance. This time it’s Lana Turner at the foot of the stairs leading from the living quarters down into her husband’s luncheonette. She’s clad all in pristine white: white turban, white shorts, white midriff-baring top. No  wonder the handsome drifter played by John Garfield looks gobsmacked. When he hands her the dropped lipstick tube that’s rolled across the floor and ended up at his feet, we know what’s coming . . . or we think we do.

 What makes Postman so fascinating is that the characters keep changing their minds about what they really want. As Cora, Turner first makes it her business to rebuff her husband’s new hire, harshly telling him to leave town. Her main goal, she insists, is fixing up the lunchroom, and Frank’s salary will only deprive her and husband Nick of needed income. But the amiable Nick, who loves his liquor and trusts his wife, insists that Frank stay on. (Nick, at midpoint, lovingly serenades Cora with a 1931 tune that captures his naïve view of the situation: “I’ve got a woman crazy ‘bout me--she’s funny that way.”) 

 Of course the inevitable comes to pass. There’s an elaborate plot by the lovers to rid themselves  of Nick, but a meddling cat changes everything. From that point forward, nothing ever works out as planned.  Even when Nick is finally gone for good, some clever legal shenanigans have Cora and Frank at one another’s throat. The ending is bleak for all concerned, though in a strange way connected with the story’s unusual title, Frank comes to feel at peace with the fact that he’s only getting what he deserves.

 I noted, at the outset, that the sign that lures Frank into the luncheonette reads Man Wanted. In both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, this come-hither call should be construed as a warning. The sirens are singing, and there’s danger ahead.



  1. I love these movies, especially Double Indemnity. In the novels, it's fascinating to see how James M. Cain used the workings of business to drive the plots. (Some of that, of course, remains in the film adaptations.) He's probably the only novelist equally interested in business administration and opera.

  2. Thanks for your input, Marcia. I love your insight into James M. Cain's interest in business (and opera). I hope you will visit Movieland again soon!