Growing up in the South Bronx you were exposed to a different worldview than say those who lived in mid-Manhattan or downtown Iowa City. Mid-Manhattan might as well have been in another state or country. You would arrive at widely different interpretations of then-occurring phenomena. You also tended to hear about the latest hymen checks, exorcism attempts and paternity claims and rumors. Maury Pauvich was a popular show on the block that I grew up on.
Consequently, when I went to college and studied film noir, I was shocked to learn what the movie the “Postman Always Rings Twice” was really about. Have you heard of this film? There have been five film versions, plus an opera adaptation. When I was growing up, I often sat alone in the corner of a Tupperware party or some other housewife gossiping sessions. I overheard a lot of things. One phrase that I heard often: “are you sure that the baby is not the mailman’s?” See, whenever a baby was born on the block that looked a little blond, the rumors came fast and furious. Things went viral before we even started using that phrase.
The block’s mailman was a blond, blue-eyed man. There weren’t many of those on my block. He stood out. People noticed and remembered hi. For some reason, he tended to also knock on many doors. I was confused since there were mailboxes in the building’s entrance stairwell and people didn’t tend to receive many boxes in the mail. But some women must have been receiving boxes from somewhere. All together, according to the rumors, the mailman might have had like twenty kids on that block. One of his supposed affairs included the young woman who was the mistress of the landlord. Oh, what convoluted tales and lives.
I loved my film noir class in college for I got a chance to watch these old, widely praised films in which the women were quite powerful although quite manipulative and, evil, at times. At minimum, the women were alluring yet misguided. That had a certain strange appeal to me. In particular, Rita Hayworth in Gilda was phenomenal. But, I digress and will write more about that in a future blog. Back to the Postman. So, when I sat to watch the Postman Always Rings Twice, I was quite bewildered to find that the love triangle did not involve a postman. Nope, no mailman involved. Yet everyone on my neighborhood block, had referenced, snickeringly, said movie when talking about the blond newborns.
There are two main versions of this film that are actually based on a then-seen-as scandalous 1934 book by James M Cain. There is the 1946 version starring Lana Turner (an icon of film noir genre) and the 1981 version starring Jack Nicholson (an icon for decades now). The 1981 version is most famous for the love scene on the kitchen table, which I think the movie 9 ½ weeks tried to emulate and go further than years later. Well, besides the sex scene, what stands out about this film is that they never explain where the title comes from. Thus, if you have only ever watched the 1981 version you may not know why the Postman Always Rings Twice.
If you want to know why the Postman Always Rings Twice, you have to watch the 1946 version. Ok. The 1981 version is extremely similar to the 1946 version (and thus not very creative or innovative kind of like the recent Psycho remake) except for the last scenes. In the 1981 version, Cora dies in a car accident while Frank is driving and that is that. You are kind of left thinking hmm, guess she got what she deserved but what about him? See, Cora and Frank fell in love while she was still married and conspired to kill her diner-owner husband so they could be together and get the restaurant as well. In both movies, although tried by a court, they get away with the murder and all looks like they will have a warped happily ever after until she dies in the car accident. In the 1946 version, the police suspect that Frank staged the car accident and actually killed her. In the 1981 version that is not the case.
What is the importance of Frank being mistakenly accused of killing Cora and then eventually being given the death penalty? Well, karma. That is what the Postman Always Rings Twice is about. See, at the end of the 1946 version, Frank narrates that when a person is expecting to receive a letter, it is of no concern if at first he does not hear the postman ring the doorbell, because the postman will always ring a second time, and that second ring will invariably be heard. Huh? Ok. So, this is what it means. After Frank and Cora got away with murder, and evaded punishment from the court for Nick’s (her husband’s) murder, she still wound up dead and Frank was about to be executed by the government for her supposed murder. As Frank is being taken to the death chamber, he notes that the “postman has indeed rung a second time for each of them.” What goes around, comes around! Does any of this ring a note of recent familiarity? What about OJ Simpson? Isn’t he in jail now for stealing his own memorabilia? Don’t think many people thought he would be incarcerated for stealing. But the Postman, many would now argue, did ring twice for him.
When the author James M Cain was asked about the title of the “Postman Always Rings Twice” he commented that the term “postman” was not meant to be taken literally. Rather, the title was supposed to refer to fate or justice eventually catching up with the perpetrator of a crime, even if they were not punished for the original offense. That is what many now would say “karma is a bitch.” So, if you didn’t caught for X eventually, you will be caught for Y. This sentiment is actually very much in line with what also happened in my block in the South Bronx. Admittedly, for many where I grew up, a life of crime was the norm. A certain mix of the often-cited sense of fatalism and what I now call the Postman-Ringing-twice belief permeated the neighborhood back then. Many knew that eventually they would spend some time incarcerated for “something or the other.”
Till this day, I have no idea of the mail actually had affairs with that many women on my block or if he fathered all the blond children. According to the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted annually since 1972 by University of Chicago researchers 7% of women admit to cheating. It’s a funny idea that all 7% on my old block cheated with the mailman. Either way, the Postman did tend to Ring twice in the South Bronx.
Now, if only I could get an NIH grant to go study this Postman Ringing Twice Phenomenon?
Categories: Culture, Film, new york, Pop Culture
In England where I lived for a few years in the 80s the joke mentioned the milkman. They still deliver milk door to door, I am told. I remember fancying neither the postman nor the milkman. The bus conductors, however,swarthy Pakistanis and Yorkshiremen, yes, blond, were all purple rain material!
One sequel which I thought was better than original. John Garfield and Lana Turner just too glam for their roles, and the husband too likeable. Well, it was the 1940s. Jessica Lange played gritty well.
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