The Postman Always Rings Twice as Film Noir

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  • Topic: Film noir, Femme fatale
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  • Published : December 22, 2012
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The Postman Always Rings Twice as Film Noir

Tony Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) seems a quintessential film noir. The title suggests a fateful conclusion for the two main characters—a flawed drifter named Frank (John Garfield) and his restless female conspirator, Cora (Lana Turner). Garnett’s crime drama is crafted with the stylish devices usually characteristic of the film noir genre—low-key lighting; a flawed, inept hero; and an archetypal femme fatale. Certain thematic codes are also persistent: psychological conflict, paranoia, fate, and moral ambiguity. Three telling scenes communicate the noir stylistics effectively—where nearly all of the devices converge simultaneously: (1) Frank’s first meeting with Cora at the Twin Oaks roadside diner, (2) The couple’s arraignment at the municipal court, and (3) Their final attempt to reconcile their relationship.

Frank, a drifter, has bummed a ride and is dropped off at the Twin Oaks diner outside Los Angeles because he spots a “man wanted” sign posted outside. His introduction to the owner’s beautiful wife, named Cora Smith, is a fateful one as attested to by Frank’s voice-over narration of the story in which he later states, “I wish I had never met her.” Cora is a femme fatale, who leads to Frank’s destruction. The film language suggests—by the use of light and shadow—that she has power over him. Once Frank is inside, Cora’s husband seats him at the restaurant counter, where he is neatly framed by the criss-crossed grid of shadows cast onto the wall from the windowpanes. When Frank hears a clink on the floor, he looks down and sees a lipstick, dropped by Cora, rolling across the grid lines of the shadows on the floor near him. He retrieves the lipstick and is struck dumb by Cora’s beauty—her mesmerizing eyes and her sophisticated attire. Her close-fitting white shorts and a white turban are highly unusual clothing for a cook’s wife at a roadside diner. Frank is captivated, and the shadows, like the bars of a cage, suggest that he is being lured by lipstick bait into some sort of female trap. Her smoking-hot looks—she exudes carnality—also attest to her dangerous nature. When Cora disappears behind a door Frank smells something burning—hamburgers, as it turns out. He was enthralled by her looks, so hot her very presence in the room seemed to make burgers cook faster. After Cora walks back in, their banter expresses a fateful contest of wills, in which Frank’s street-tough attitude is put to the test. At one point she tells him, “The best way to get my husband to fire you would be not doing what I tell you to.” Frank responds innocently, “You haven’t asked me to do anything, yet.” But when Frank goes outside and puts the “man wanted” sign onto a burning trash pile, it is a fateful symbol of his choice to stay; for he, like the sign in the fire, is consumed by his passion for Cora.

By the time Frank and Cora have murdered Cora’s husband, Mr. Smith, the Distract Attorney, Kyle Sackett, is quickly onto them. Frank, who is nearly killed along with Mr. Smith in a fall in a car from a cliff, is interrogated by the D.A., who is able to manipulate Frank’s fears of being betrayed by Cora and blamed for the whole thing. Here, the film communicates well Frank’s feelings of paranoia and alienation. It is again the film’s use of lighting and shadow in the hospital room and subsequent settings at the municipal court that suggests these feelings. At the hospital Frank is bandaged and confined to a bed. The walls here are criss-crossed with the bar-shaped shadows from the windowpanes. The visiting District Attorney convinces Frank that Cora will let him take the fall for the murder. He is momentarily trusting of the D.A., who explains that Cora’s motive for the murder was the $10,000 insurance policy that her husband took out on his life the day before his murder. Frank is fearful of the possibility of Cora’s treachery...
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