‘Lipstick Killers’ – Viewing The Postman Twice

Roger Westcombe



The Postman Always Rings Twice was first published in 1934, and feature film versions were made in wartime Italy (1942) and then twice in Hollywood (1946 and 1981).  Said to be the inspiration for Camus’ existentialist classic L’Etranger (The Stranger), Postman made author James M.Cain a star, paving the way for his later successes Double Indemnity (published 1936; filmed 1944) and Mildred Pierce (1941/1945).  Clearly The Postman Always Rings Twice is a text that has transcended its Depression origins.

On its release the novel, Cain’s first, created a sensation, both in public outrage and sales figures.  It was considered so steamy as to be unfilmmable, which didn’t stop MGM from purchasing the rights it would sit on for over a decade. Hollywood’s first version, when it materialised in 1946, was credited with “nearly destroying the dam” of censorship (Leff & Simmons, 132).

Critics seemed both appalled  and compelled – sometimes simultaneously: “There are several disgusting scenes and the characters are scum… but that book is a work of art” (ibid). 

Dispensing with characters’ agonising over motivation in favour of ‘just doing it’ sent critics into a frenzy of barnyard similes to convey what must have seemed feral behaviour: “reptilian”; “zoo exhibits”; “a couple of cats”; as degrading as “a bullfight” were some responses (op cit, 139).  Even in the 1980s pulp fiction devotee Geoffrey O’Brien described its protagonists living “an insectlike life without memory or intellect” (O’Brien, 73). 

Yet others elevated Cain to the pantheon of great American writers like Ring Lardner, Hemingway and Erskine Caldwell (Leff & Simmons, 132); director Lewis Milestone called him “the American Dostoevsky” (ibid).  The book’s language alone justifies its status as a great work.  Its stripped down argot of the Depression workingman instantly and vividly creates a complete and believable world totally foreign to readers. 

Interestingly, the 1946 movie's look strove to sanitise the book’s dark atmosphere and avoids the visual strategies usually associated with film noir – inky black half-lighting, long sharp shadows, tight claustrophobic compositions and tilted off-balance framing.  Its bright look has been described as a “study in white” (op cit, 135).  Static, awash in healthy California sunshine, MGM’s 1946 Postman protests too much.  Noir fatalism is actually strengthened as the visual cues’ expectations of hearty outdoor toil are comprehensively undermined by the narrative’s dark currents. 

So is The Postman really film noir?

Although this genre’s boundaries are quite porous at the margins, fuelling ongoing debate as to what constitutes noir, certain thematic elements are strongly associated with the genre (as discussed in the introductory essay What Is This Thing Called Film Noir? - attached).

The film’s fatalism, as the characters acknowledge their powerlessness to resist their fate, taps a dark undercurrent in 1940s America that finds parallels with the helplessness of the Depression years that spawned the book. But unlike the darkness of the 1940s film noir aesthetic, 1930s writers such as “Cain and Hammett and [Horace] McCoy deal in a clear unblinking light” (O’Brien, 88).  It is not noir’s visual darkness but its fatalism that links the 1930s and 40s in Postman’s narrative posture.

Also common to narratives from ‘the underbelly of the American Dream’ (such as Nelson Algren, John Fante, etc) was a dread of the ‘system’, a feeling strong in both the book and film.  These roughhewn characters are excluded from the economic system and function violently outside it, at least until the intervention of “a vigorous and all-powerful social unit [that] awaits them and will protect us” (Oates, 114).  The ‘hand of law’ is always there, looking over their shoulder and punctuating the action at key moments, amplifying the first person narrative’s sense of imminent doom. 

What protagonist Frank sees as a threat, the female in this obligatory triangle (victim or femme fatale?), Cora, sees as opportunity.  Cora wants in, whereas Frank just wants to keep movin’, the perpetual rolling stone.  On this hinge the narrative, and the characters’ power struggle, turns. 

“Aggressor but really victim” (Oates, 113), initially it is Frank who is the most powerful… until he wins her.  Then Cora ups the ante, citing quality of life as the question, and capitalism as the answer.  To achieve her postwar (cinematically speaking) dream of upward mobility along with all the returning GIs and their families, Cora is constructed as a film noir archetype, the spiderwoman, luring her man with sexual sizzle into a trap which is a capitalist one, where his ‘doom’ is to settle down and become a grindstone cowboy, a workaday Johnny. 

Cora is the most pragmatic ‘spiderwoman’ of all noir’s numerous femmes fatales.  Even Barbara Stanwyck’s coldly calculating Phyllis Dietrichson in Cain’s Double Indemnity carries overtones of dark sexual hysteria behind her upwardly mobile motivations.  It is why Cora, and by extension Frank, must be punished – for overstepping the boundaries of their economic class. 

Lana Turner’s first appearance as Cora is vital to everything that follows in the movie.  Like the female lead’s introduction in Double Indemnity, our gaze, which is Frank’s – thus privileging the male point of view – falls initially upon her ankle.  The camera then tracks slowly, lasciviously up to finally hold on her face, establishing her character as dependent on and flowing from her physical presence and sex appeal. 

When Turner shortly thereafter augments the white two piece suit with a little turban, a third horizontal plane of whiteness, in order to work the kitchen, sexual attraction and the work ethic are fused.  The final touch is the turban’s tightness – signaling the constraint Cora is willing to place on her sexuality to earn an income. 

The film has a stunning symbol to signal the beginning and end of the lovers’ relationship – the rolling tube of lipstick.  In Lana’s opening sequence it rolls along the floor from her to him, he stoops to pick it up and their bond is forged. Movement, female and male imagery coalesce in this one sublimely cinematic symbol.  At film’s end it rolls away from them but this time there is no one there to pick it up.  Both threat and goal, the straight world is always outside for these lipstick killers, a universe which they can neither enter nor understand. 

Nature symbolism, though less imaginative, is also powerful.  Going swimming in the surf at night says it all: in nature’s cleansing waves they are purified and their love here is expressed with a purity (more so in the film than the book) that contrasts sharply with the entrapment they chafe against in the manmade environments.  But it is a relief only available to them in darkness. 

Dismissed by US literary critic Edmund Wilson as “the poet of tabloid murder”, Cain’s early work including Postman and Double Indemnity operated an unusual pattern of exchange with actual crime reporting.  The homicidal lovers here base their first murder attempt on a newspaper story about the prevalence of ‘death in the home’, while the audacious insurance scam in Indemnity was cited in a 1968 California case as being the basis for an actual copycat crime.  Perhaps this interactive quality could be one of the reasons why The Postman Always Rings Twice continues to exert a fascination, even into the new century.  

Roger Westcombe (copyright 2004)




  • Leonard J.Leff and Jerold L.Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono – Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code, University Press of Kentucky, 2nd edition, 2001
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Man Under Sentence of Death – The Novels of James M.Cain  in Tough GuyWriters of the Thirties, ed. David Madden, Southern Illinois University Press, 3rd edition, 1977
  • Geoffrey O’Brien, Hardboiled America– The Lurid Years of Paperbacks, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981