The first time I saw this gripping noir, my least favorite part of the film probably was the title, and it still is. That’s saying a lot, and the film is adapted from the James M. Cain crime novel anyways, with the title included free of charge. Otherwise, Postman is a wonderful example of the film noir canon, and yet it lacks the elements of your more typical private eye mystery.
It trades dark streets of crime for a small roadside burger joint owned by a shrewd man and his noticeably younger wife. Bring a drifter searching for a quick buck and you have everything set for the deadliest of love triangles. At the tips are John Garfield as the rambling man Frank who initially couldn’t care less for his boss’s pretty wife. Then there’s Cora, the alluring girl who seems out of place in her life. Then you have the money-grubbing Nick (Cecil Kellaway) who seems naively oblivious to the whole situation.
At first, nothing seems to be afoot, and Cora is adamant about not getting involved with the new hand. However, ultimately things evolve. That’s not necessarily the exciting part. We expect the rapid and lurid love affair that soon besets Frank and Cora. We expect, more likely than not, that Nick will either catch them or they will knock him off first. They choose the latter and its far from preferable. Soon the district attorney is down their throats with his own suspicions about the forbidden couple. He’s pretty smart too.
Sackett plays Frank and Cora off of each other. They’re both scared. Neither one wants jail or worst the gas chamber. Nora ends up being the only one prosecuted, but her sly lawyer (Hume Cronyn) is able to call his opponents bluff and get Cora off with hardly a hitch. The only problem is that Frank and Cora hate each other guts now. They are positively poisoned to each other.
The story could end there and it would be ironic enough, but it doesn’t. It has yet another act where Frank and Cora make up following the illness of her mother, the flourishing of her establishment after the trial, and a bout with blackmail. All seems to be better than it ever was, but fate can have a cruel sense of humor.
On one out of the ordinary car ride, Frank crashes and in the aftermath, Cora is left dead with Frank on the fast track to the gas chamber. And that’s where the title comes in. The Postman Always Rings Twice. In other words, if you don’t pay for your crimes the first time around, you always end paying up one way or another. Cora was killed and Frank faced execution. Neither one got off in the end.
Putting aside the Hay’s Codes need for justice to be dealt, this is a wonderfully sardonic tale and ultimately sensual noir for the 1940s. Lana Turner was never better dancing with relative ease between amorous sweetness and acidic intentions. And the moment she first shows up on the screen is one of the most eye-catching entrances by a femme fatale period. Although not the greatest of leading men, John Garfield is surprisingly credible opposite, Turner. He plays the hard-working everyman incredibly well. Hume Cronyn, for his part, plays his wily prosecutor wonderfully with a sly smile all the while. I cannot quite put a finger on it, but I like him.