Seeing Double: The Structural Underpinnings of The Postman Always Rings Twice

By the time Tay Garnett got his hands on The Postman Always Rings Twice, the novel had been adapted two previous times in French and Italian (LE DERNIER TOURNANT, 1939. dir Pierre Chenal; OSSESSIONE, 1942. dir Luchino Visconti). However, only the 1946 Hollywood adaptation clarifies the meaning of the novel’s title. Here is a section of Frank’s closing monologue, after he has been sentenced to death for a second murder, after escaping justice in his first trial:

FRANK: You know, there’s something about this that’s like…well, it’s like you’re expecting a letter that you’re just crazy to get, and hang around the front door, for fear you might not hear him ring. You never realize that he always rings twice. […] He rang twice for Cora, and now he’s ringing twice for me, isn’t he? The truth is, you always hear him ring the second time, even if you’re way out in the back yard. Father, you were right, it all works out. I guess God knows more about these things than we do.
This moralistic explanation is not provided in Cain’s novel, but may have been inspired by a similar story told by screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. Within context, this monologue confirms what the viewer has noticed all along: Garnett creates suspense in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) by establishing the precedent of doubles, and then withholding the second “ring.”

The doubles emerge slowly, first with the name of the diner: Twin Oaks. However, as the movie continues, the story becomes saturated with the concept of twinning and begins to pair itself up. The stable, penny-pinching husband of Cora (Lana Turner) easily foils with her tumbleweed paramour, Frank (John Garfield); after they murder the husband, two lawyers attempt to resolve the case; even the diner undergoes a process of splitting in two, as Lana transforms it into a swanky outdoor restaurant after her husband’s murder. Other forms of doubling happen in the form of voice echoes, dropped lipstick containers, pairs of feet (two distinct close-ups), the two Twin Oaks signs, the two briefcases which Cora and Frank use when they run away—the list goes on. Perhaps more subtle is the use of double entendre within the script, which creates the expectation of alternative realities bubbling under the surface. Take for example the scene where Frank offers Cora a cigarette:

FRANK: I can sell anything to anybody.
CORA: That’s what you think.

Cora attempts to light her cigarette at this point, but the match doesn’t strike. Frank offers a match of his own, and Cora accepts it.

FRANK: Tell me one thing. How did you ever come to marry a guy like that.
CORA: Is that any of your business?
FRANK: Maybe.

The two lighters become blatant stand-ins for the men in Cora’s life—one that can light her fire, and the one that she possesses, which cannot. The cigarette is not just an erotic symbol, but a predictive analogy that shows how Cora will respond to her two options: she chooses Frank’s lighter almost immediately after it is offered.

However, perhaps the most significant case of doubling is embedded within the structure of the film. The two beach scenes and car crashes frame the narrative and create parallel plot arcs, where, in both cases, the beach scene sets the tone for the following car crash. Consider that in both beach scenes, Frank and Cora play a kind of game in the ocean. The game in the first scene is wrestling, with Cora pouncing on Frank and playfully pushing him under the surf. The game they play in the second scene is much darker: Cora gambles her life to test Frank’s loyalty, swimming out into the ocean farther than she can return on her own. The car crashes that correspond to these scenes have strikingly similar outcomes. In the first car crash, both Frank and Cora survive, although Cora arrives to safety first while Frank topples further down the cliff—a terrifying echo of Cora pushing Frank under the water. In the second scene, Cora dies suspecting that Frank has murdered her: the fears of betrayal she revealed during the proceeding beach scene come to life, at least in her imagination.

Watch THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE more than once, and the significance of double meanings and echoed scenes becomes strikingly apparent. They are the elements that make the movie, which centers around the evasion of justice and two lovers playing “God,” so interesting. The symbolic “second ring” becomes inescapable; some postman, or screenwriter, has already set it up for them.

 

 

 

 

Celina Reynes is a writer from Oakland, California. She loves contemporary science fiction, magical realism, horror movies, and anything absurd. She sometimes posts to her blog @ celinareynes.tumblr.com.

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