Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

May 31, 2008

Noir Mystery: What's the Meaning of the Title, "The Postman Always Rings Twice"

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:30 pm

It’s the title of the great James M. Cain novel, the great John Garfield/Lana Turner fim noir, and the sexy Jessica Lange/Jack Nicholson re-make.

It’s a geat novel. Cain was a truly great American writer and I’ve re read it often. But every time I’ve re read it, I’ve found myself wondering about the title. I don’t remember coming across the phrase “the postman always rings twice”, in the novel, and I don’t think it is heard in either film. I’d always assumed that it was the punch line to a vintage dirty joke, probably about an adulterous housewife (which in a murderous way the Cain plot was about). Something like the really bad dirty joke about the way a “Chinaman” makes love in Chinatown. In fact I thought that deliberately bad dirty joke was meant as an homage to the kind of joke that gave Cain the title for “Postman”.

But what does it mean? What is the lost joke? I’ve asked a lot of people over the years and no one seems to know. Some are not even certain it’s the punchline to a joke. That it stands alone as some comment on the insistent inexorability of fate. The double meaning of identity. (interesting that the doubling re apears in Cain’s next novel Double Indemnity)

But I think it sounds like a punchline and I want to know the joke. Does anybody know the answer?



  1. When I lived in San Francisco in the early 60’s the mailman rang twice to let us know who it was. Could be a California thing.

    Comment by Mo Cohen — June 1, 2008 @ 7:56 am | Reply

  2. Found this on the Internet, my faithful companion:

    In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain recounts how he showed the manuscript of The Postman Always Rings Twice to Vincent Lawrence, and continues:

    Lawrence liked it, and even gave me a title for it. We were talking one day, about the time he had mailed a play, his first, to a producer. Then, he said, “I almost went nuts. I’d sit and watch for the postman, and then I’d think, ‘You got to cut this out,’ and then when I left the window I’d be listening for his ring. How I’d know it was the postman was that he’d always ring twice.”
    He went on with more of the harrowing tale, but I cut in on him suddenly. I said: “Vincent, I think you’ve given me a title for that book.”
    “What’s that?”
    “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
    “Say, he rang twice for Chambers, didn’t he?”
    “That’s the idea.”
    “And on that second ring, Chambers had to answer, didn’t he? Couldn’t hide out in the backyard any more.”
    “His number was up, I’d say.”
    “I like it.”
    “Then, that’s it.”

    Comment by Mark Van Wagoner — June 1, 2008 @ 10:16 am | Reply

  3. Wikipedia’s entry explains.

    Comment by Addie Pray — June 1, 2008 @ 10:30 am | Reply

  4. Once to deliver the mail, and when he thus determines that no one is home but the wife, he returns, rings again, and makes whoopee. If the husband has returned in the interim,a la the film(s), TROUBLE!! Remember, the postman must finish his route first (“neither snow nor rain nor Lana Turner will inhibit the appointed rounds”) And if he ALWAYS rings twice, that means he and Lana are an item

    Comment by charlie finch — June 2, 2008 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  5. According to a short summary on here of “It takes a Certain Type to be a Writer And Hundreds of Other Facts from the World of Writing” by Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, it was a private joke. In order to prepare for yet another rejection, Cain’s postman would ring his doorbell twice whenever the manuscript came back from a publisher.

    Comment by linhelen — June 2, 2008 @ 4:13 pm | Reply

  6. Ron,

    2 possible answers:

    On his morning delivery, out of respest for housewife working inside the home away from the doorbell (hanging laundry in the backyard, etc.), the Postman would ring twice.

    The better explaination is that the Mail was delivered TWICE a day in the 1930’s and “40’s. It was common respect to ring the doorbell upon delivery. Hence, on their afternoon return roun, there would come the 2nd doorbell ringing. If you missed the morning delivery, the doorbell would ring again (TWICE) for afternoon delivery. At least, the 2 a-day delivery was prominent in the Midwest back then.


    Comment by Mick — June 4, 2008 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  7. While it’s not too hard to construct a sex joke that would have this punchline, it’s a lot harder to make it as relevant to the book as the commonsense explanation:

    Nowadays it’s rare for a postman to have to make a delivery face to face, but in the days when C.O.D. was common, he would usually have two bites at the apple. If he didn’t get an answer on the outbound leg of his route, he could — and probably was required to — try again on his way back. If you think about the possible ways to do a postal route, whether starting from a small-town post office or more likely from a car periodically parked, you would usually go up one side of a street and then back down the other side, whether immediately on a dead end or as part of a larger circuit. Either way, this gives you a second chance (by crossing the street) to make that special delivery.

    The punchline to a joke (“Is that your lover?” “No, the postman always rings twice” sort of thing) doesn’t fit the plot of the novel; nor does a postman who rings the bell twice at his one attempt at delivery. But the postman making his second attempt at a delivery fits the story perfectly, and as an everyday postal procedure of the times it seems overwhelmingly likely.

    Comment by Bill Adams — June 13, 2008 @ 5:17 am | Reply

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