THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) B/W 114m dir: Tay Garnett
w/Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Leon Ames, Audrey Totter, Alan Reed, Jeff York
This version of James M. Cain's novel soft-pedaled the brutal sexuality of the book in favor of smoldering looks and dialogue riddled with double entendres. Turner's shallow beauty is perfectly suited to the role of the amoral wife who plots to murder her husband, but even luscious Lana is overshadowed by Garfield's street-smart bravado as the drifter who becomes her co-conspirator and lover.
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "This harshly-lit, tense version is one of the best of the Hollywood film noir of the Forties, perfectly bringing to life the atmosphere of the novel and its suggestion of soulless American ambition in the character of the wife."
From Variety's review of the film: "It was box-office wisdom to cast Lana Turner as the sexy, blonde murderess, and John Garfield as the foot-loose vagabond whose lust for the girl made him stop at nothing. Each give [sic] to the assignment the best of their talents. Development of the characters makes Tay Garnett's direction seem slowly paced during the first part of the picture, but this establishment was necessary to give the speed and punch to the uncompromising evil which follows.
"As in Cain's book, there will be little audience sympathy for the characters, although plotting will arouse moments of pity for the little people too weak to fight against passion and the evil circumstances it brings. The script is a rather faithful translation of Cain's story of a boy and girl who murder the girl's husband, live through terror and eventually make payment for their crime. The writing is terse and natural to the characters and events that transpire."
From the Alternate Ending website (www.alternateending.com), this 2014 article about the film by Tim Brayton:
"I'm not the first nor the hundredth nor the thousandth to point out that the explosion of film noir could only have happened in the aftermath of World War II (the genre was established by 1940, and its roots extend back into Germany in the '20s, but as a phenomenon, it's a strictly post-war concern). It was a perfect storm of sociological pressures: a host of men returning after years away, flooding the job market, with the women who'd stayed behind to serve as the backbone of the American labor force not terribly keen to cede back the new-found self-reliance and professional freedom that the war years had represented. Meanwhile, the capricious, obscene violence of the war and the systematic murder of millions of innocents by the Nazi regime had led the world at large into a new cynicism and disgust at the cruelty humans could do. And when you mix all of those impulses up and pour them out, you have a whole cycle of more or less nihilistic thrillers in which desperate, pathetic men who'd do anything to get a leg up in a hostile world crossing paths with women of dangerous, controlling sexuality and masculine strength (the inherent sexism of noir is impossible to ignore and important to acknowledge, but there's enough else in the genre that works so beautifully that I would be loath to throw it out; anyway; our present subject is a bit more complex in that regard than many of them), and things always end up badly for somebody, if not everybody. It is, in brief, the film genre for a world that has just been broken apart and got glued back together all wrong.
"Owing both to its 1946 release date and to its content, there's hardly a better film to serve as emblem for this cultural moment than The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch from James M. Cain's 1934 crime novel, directed by Tay Garnett, and released, astonishingly, by MGM, just about the last studio you'd expect to do something as grubby and bitter as this (even immediately after watching it for the third, and knowing damn well that Lana Turner was under contract with MGM at the time, I'd have laid money on it being from Warner Bros.), something so invested in human desperation and ugliness and nothing that comes within a country mile of glamor, elegance, or wish fulfillment. The war really did change everything.
"The story gives no indication if it takes place in '34, '46, or any other year, though the fashions and cars are contemporary, so let's feel free to read a certain post-war anomie into the life of narrator Frank Chambers (John Garfield), a drifter whose path takes him to a hamburger shack called Twin Oaks, off the highway outside of Los Angeles, California. It's owned and operated by a mindlessly upbeat fellow named Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), whose only apparent employee is his much younger wife Cora (Lana Turner). Without much else to do --- and perhaps motivated by the attractive, obviously bored trophy wife right there before his eyes --- Frank stays to take the job Nick is advertising to be a general jack of all trades. But he's really only interested in jacking Cora's trades, if you get what I mean. And please let me know if you do, because I think I let that one get away from me a little bit.
"Long story short, Frank and Cora have an affair, and idly plot murder, so that Cora can take over Twin Oaks, and install Frank as both her husband and her co-owner. And they are, seriously, the fucking worst at it. The film plays as a companion piece to 1944's Double Indemnity, also a Cain adaptation, with even more of a sense of doom than the reliably sunny misanthrope Billy Wilder brought to bear in that film. Frank and Cora aren't idiots, exactly, but they're pretty damn incompetent and, more importantly, they're the most lamentable fools of fate. Virtually everything that happens in The Postman Always Rings Twice happens by accident, both the good things and the bad things; Frank and Cora, the latter especially, are likelier to react with horrified shock when events turn the way they planned than with the icewater focus of Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson. Natural-born killers these aren't.
"Out of a lot of directions that the film could have gone, the one that Garnett and the actors take it --- and it is a supremely rewarding one --- is that of suffocating, lower-middle class misery and the urgent desire to get out of it (it's unusually class-conscious and economically-minded for an American film in the '40s). These are not, as per the usual noir tropes, a seductive, purely evil femme fatale (the blonde hair and white outfits which predominately accompany Turner throughout the movie are in and of themselves enough to hint at how unnaturally being evil comes to her) and the hapless, sex-struck dupe who commits evil at her will, but a pair of sad sacks whose lives have played out in such colorless, flat ways that bloodlessly, cruelly killing a man who is by all means pleasanter and happier and more fulfilled than they are seems to be a perfectly reasonable way to --- what, really? It's already right on the surface of the story, and Garnett makes sure to play it up anyway, that Cora's big scheme is to replace working at a diner in the boonies with her old fat husband, with working at the same diner with a young virile man by her side, but still stuck in the same rut as before. When money comes into the picture, both characters respond with recoiling horror; their limited imaginations aren't up to dealing with the thought of killing for money. Killing for sex, sure, but for all the sordid erotic chemistry between Garfield and Turner --- this is a downright smutty film by '46 standards --- the actors carefully reserve a degree of mistrust and detachment that lingers far more than their big, dramatic protestations of love do. They might be horny for each other, but it doesn't always seem that they even like each other all that much. For Cora, Frank is the hot guy who showed up when she was just about fed up; for Frank, Cora was the hot woman who happened to living in the place he landed at when he'd temporarily run out of go.
"The thing I get more than anything out of the two wonderful lead performances in the film is a sense of overriding fatigue. These people are tired of life, joyless, flat, blank: and the film happily concedes to them this blankness, with much unexpectedly spartan production design by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons that realistically and baldly captures the idea of a rural California diner while stripping it of all personality or vitality, as Sidney Wagner's camera stresses the flat brightness of all the white spaces that result (this is a particularly bright film noir, though its death and violence all take place in the customary shadows --- comically exaggerated, in one scene --- and it has enough of a sour mood that I don't think its place of pride within the genre can be seriously questioned despite its aesthetic). For Cora especially, the omnipresent, all-encompassing whiteness is definitive, and Turner's work --- the best of her career, from where I stand --- brilliantly embodies the frazzled, irritable, desperate smallness of the character and her world: without ever once being invited to think that maybe her crime isn't so awful as all that, we have an impeccably clear idea of why she'd be driven to do it. It helps that Kellaway is such an alien presence: with his far more theatrical performance style and a catch-all accent that evokes the entire span of the British Empire and very much not the generic America of his co-stars: his bland good cheer stands out against the rest of the texture of the movie and underlines just how intensely that cheer isn't shared by the other characters.
"The whole movie creates such an excellent, sustained sense of things being wrong, things being dissatisfying --- and Garfield, who maybe isn't giving the best performance of his career (though it's awfully good), had an excellent, innate ability to seem unfulfilled and impatient onscreen (the result of what seems to have not been a very happy life, sadly), made for an exquisite, one-of-a-kind noir antihero in this mold --- that even before it begins to explore the outright absurd bends and wrinkles of the events befalling the central duo, The Postman Always Rings Twice has long since established itself as one of the great cruel jokes in early film noir. Without feeling the need to position Frank and Cora as metaphors for anything bigger than themselves, the film still succeeds in diagnosing a society that's gone off course in distressing, idiotic ways. The bumbling, desperate protagonists of the film are modernist even before American cinema knew that modernism was a thing: fools in the hands of a capricious fate, so pathetic and ground down that they can't even do evil properly. Noir would get a great deal more nuanced in its cynicism over the next decade, but not too many films ever managed to best The Postman Always Rings Twice for sheer hopeless fatalism."
Cain's novel was also made into an earlier film, 1942's Italian neorealist classic, OSSESSIONE.