One of the best-known film noirs, and sort of the companion piece to Double Indemnity from a few years earlier. These were adapted from James M. Cain stories, featuring a young guy moving in on a beautiful woman (Barbara Stanwyck in Indemnity, Lana Turner in Postman) who’s married to an older man. In both movies, the sputtering romance kindles a desire to get rid of the unwanted husband, so youth can have its day. And the femme fatales seemingly call the shots; as though Fred MacMurray and John Garfield were just innocent by-standers instead of conspirators in murder. Another device common to these movies is the protagonist’s narration.
Unlike the rather distant, austere husband from Double Indemnity, Cecil Kellaway’s Nick is a decent, regular guy (though domineering, as we see). Cora shows a beguiling facade to Garfield’s Frank, but gives him haughty disdain more often than not “there’s nothing cheap around here!” she reminds him. He more than matches her game though, kissing her in their first scene together.
Turner’s Cora is so calculated, her face morphing perceptibly when she’s not talking, reactive and provocative at the same time. No doubt the chemistry between her and Frank is actively volcanic, attractive in its way, but dangerous. Interestingly, she tells him that she married Nick so guys would leave her alone. Their first attempt to escape together ends in an argument over finances, and well, status; she doesn’t fashion “…starting out like a couple of tramps.”
But by this time, the eliminating-Nick scenario comes up for consideration. “Right then I shoulda walked out of that place” Frank narrates. Instead they go back to sneaking around. More plotting. “I’m not what you think I am” Cora tells him, meaning, ‘just because I want to kill my husband, it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person.’ They have the supreme illusion that love-conquers-all can be taken literally.
Shazam! The electrocution attempt is frustrated by a cat. The D.A. Sackett (Leon Ames) shows up at the hospital, obviously suspicious about the light-falling-into-the-tub sequence. The patrolman sort of materializes at inopportune times. In any case, Cora’s professing her limitless devotion to Frank–but Nick recovers. Meanwhile, time for more beach fun. Frank again figures it’s time to split; actually, he does, working for a bit in the city. Ironically, Nick finds him and talks him into coming back.
So, more of Cora’s stiff demeanor. Nick announces they’re going to sell out and move to Canada to help take care of his sister. Rightly, she argues with him that he’s not caring about her, leaving her feelings out completely. Needless to say, both Cora and Frank are upset. Time for Plan B. For one of a very few scenes, Cora is wearing black. Bad omen? “Let’s figure something out” Frank tells her “If you really loved me, you could…” what? Frank probably muses. A “regular drunk automobile accident” is in the cards.
But officialdom intervenes, this time it’s Sackett and not the patrolman. Frank, Cora, and very drunk Nick shove off anyway in the ’38 Plymouth. On a remote mountain road, they whack him over the head with a bottle, and let him roll down an embankment in the car. Fate is really up to something now–once Frank gets back into the car to make it look like he was in an ‘accident’ too–the car rolls the rest of the way down the cliff.
But he’s pretty much okay. Except that Sackett confronts him in the hospital, accusing he and Cora of staging the accident. Similar to Double Indemnity, there’s a new insurance policy that they both stand to gain from. Sackett then weaves the case around to finger Cora only; i.e., she got him drunk, and planned to kill both of them. Frank signs the affidavit.
Then we get Cora’s attorney Arthur Keats (Hugh Cronin). It’s a little unseemly how he and Sackett get on in such a nonchalant, sporting fashion, as though the law were a game. In court, it’s clear that the two attorneys have made a deal. Frank and Cora are left alone together, “We’ve been double-crossed, Cora” he says. She gives Keats a dressing-down. Strangely, the court reporter isn’t really on the level; it’s Ezra Kennedy (Alan Reed), the insurance company investigator.
Kennedy works for Keats. So, Keats did help in the sense that Cora really hasn’t confessed; the document, though, is a skeleton in the closet. The legal wrangling is fascinating. In short, Frank is cleared, and Cora is merely given probation. Plus she gets the insurance money. The problem is, the law (Sackett) is still lurking out there, the embodiment of fate. Frank and Cora are basically forces them to get married to stay in business, thanks to ‘morals clauses’ etc.
Cora to Frank: “You’ve been trying to trying to turn me into a tramp ever since you’ve known me!” So, she doesn’t want to ride off into the sunset with him now either. While Cora’s gone to see about her dying mother, Frank has a quick fling with Madge (Audrey Totter). The third time he’s wanted to escape, and almost does this time. But, no, Cora, in mourning, comes back. She in black, of course, meaning something else is up.
It’s Kennedy, attempting to blackmail them for the illegal confession. A pretty quick turning of tables, as Frank beats up Kennedy instead. So, they set up an ambush for Kennedy’s accomplice. Cora is really twitching her nose at Frank; she got wise to his fling with Madge. So, now that she’s throwing him over, they’re “right back where we started …we’re chained to each other, Cora” He’s right; so that’s the shape of their love. Plus she’s having their child.
Last time at the beach for them. A sort of game of chicken ensues, they almost try to die by swimming out too far. Another way to look at it is that their contest–culminating in a truce–means that at last they trust each other. Their genuine dreamy talk inadvertently leads to the accident that kills Cora. It should probably end with his ironic indictment for murder.
Well, that’s more or less the result. He finds solace in the fact that Sackett believes that he didn’t intend to kill Cora, but that her recently discovered note implies that they did conspire to kill Nick. That’s a little confusing, as the only note that we see that she hid at the diner simply said “Nick, I’m going away with Frank–I love him.” Definitely establishes infidelity, but nothing more. The other note would be her ‘confession,’ which was burned.
Maybe there’s another note. Still, getting back to the accident, how can it possibly be construed as a murder? Did Frank put the truck in front of them to dodge? Did he put the bridge rail there for the car to hit? Suppose he’s killed instead of her? Unless the accident is obviously staged, as was the one that involved Nick, it’s probably going to be seeing as just an accident.
Also, he was cleared from involvement in Nick’s death. He could be tried for that, I suppose, but there’s no new evidence that we know of. My point is that Cora’s genuinely accidental death is enough; Frank’s not exactly going to feel great having done away with Nick only to have Cora die. Apparently, the amount of justice done here (Frank’s coming execution, which he feels ok about) had more to do with expected outcomes for movies of this sort in their era than with the screenwriter’s intent.
As with Double Indemnity, Postman makes the romance the center and key to the plot; the criminals aren’t outsiders (gangsters, goons) they’re the compromised couple, resorting to murder to selfishly get what they want. That noir leveling mechanism, fate, keeps jabbing away at those who overstep the bounds of civilization (Cora, Frank).
For this genre, it’s fitting that the attorneys, especially Keats, are antagonists whom, although they have good standing in society, nonetheless figure that the occasional underhanded method will wash with desperate outliers like their clients. In other words, there’s little margins for error that can be taken advantage of. We see in a very early scene that Sackett uses his position to brush off the patrolman.
When we get down to it then, despite a steamy (especially for the ’40s) romance with an attractive couple, the protagonists are selfish jerks. That’s not to say that they both deserve to die. For one thing, even the sneaky Keats works a legal miracle to get Cora off the hot seat. Although, I still feel that dramatically it would’ve been more interesting if Frank doesn’t get stuck on death row, that’s not to say that his fate is unjust.
What really cements Postman into the noir block is that there’s no characters who aren’t in some way compromised. Cora and Frank seem incapable of making good decisions; there’s probably half a dozen places in the movie when one or both of them were going to leave, but only mske a show of it; until, like Russian roulette, their last chance blows up in their faces.
One of the essential film noir movies; very entertaining. Farmermouse like Sackett’s ’42 DeSoto (the sedan with the futuristic hidden headlights), so he gives The Postman Always Rings Twice nine roadside diners. 9/10.