Not too many folks remember James M. Cain, the hard-boiled novelist who had a string of best-sellers in the 1930s. His stories featured ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. There was always a subtext of a moral in his fiction. For example, in the celebrated novel,The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain is hinting at the moral cost of our choices.
Inevitably the first time we check the mail, we find good news, or at least the prospect of good news. How we use that news depends on the choices we make. Call it the karmic equivalent of The Golden Rule. The second time the postman calls inevitably brings the consequences of our actions. This is somewhat similar to Karl Marx’s astute observation: “History repeats itself. first as tragedy, second as farce. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, the sequence of that repetition appears to have been reversed.
We meet Frank Chambers (a drifter played by John Garfield) on a side road just outside Los Angeles. He sees a MAN WANTED sign at Twin Oaks, a California diner/gas station. He is a drifter filled with wanderlust and decides to go inside and ask about the job. The easy-going proprietor, Nick Smith, offers him room and board, fresh air and plenty of sunshine. “Boy, you’ll be living!” he tells the uncertain wanderer before walking outside to attend to a customer needing gas.
Frank’s first look at the hot-blooded, voluptuous Cora (Lana Turner) is preceded by her lipstick case rolling across the floor of the cafe towards him. An omen if ever there was one! She is provocatively sexy and scantily clad in white shorts, white halter top and a white turban. And she continues to dress in ironically virginal white throughout the entire picture!
In most film noir dramas from this era, there is a plot, aka a plan. It may be for loot. It may be for sensual gratification. Or it may just be for the thrill of it all. In Tay Garnett’s brilliant film adaptation, you can check all three boxes! Both Cora and Frank are looking for something and the vehicle for their search involves the crime one commits for the other. How it works out and who ends up with what depends on your view of human nature.
Frank accepts the job offer from amiable Nick and begins his apprenticeship in the diner. The MAN WANTED sign, to which Frank had initially inquired soon becomes a double-entendre, as if Cora had been advertising her desire for a new man to do a job for her, in this case – murdering her husband.
The entire story turns on unhappy people luring and getting lured into doing things that they might not be inclined to do otherwise. As in the greatest of myths, the price they pay is never discussed, but always paid. Ask the postman.