Tuesday, November 1

Good 40s Films: The Postman Always Rings Twice

1946 Film Noir
From MGM
Directed by Tay Garnett

Lana Turner
John Garfield
Cecil Kellaway
Hume Cronyn
Leon Ames
Audrey Totter
Alan Reed
Jeff York

When a film noir is really good, fully engaged in doing the job it's supposed to, after viewing it one should want to immediately bathe to get the stink off.  I just finished watching the film and I need to go look for the 20 Mule Team to run over me with a perfumed cleanser. This is really one nasty little flick with two lead characters that are dirty through and through.

James M. Cain wrote the novel upon which the film is based.  His amoral crime novels certainly helped bring about and keep the film noir genre alive and well throughout the 1940s.  His three most successful books... this one, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity... were turned into highly successful films in the reverse order in which they were written.  They all feature predatory females but Postman and Indemnity are remarkably similar in that these women lure drooling saps to commit murder for them. 

As I said it my piece on MGM, the studio certainly stepped out of its wholesome, symphony-playing-in-the-background, pastel comfort zone to take on this project.  The salubrious L. B. Mayer must have been off the lot tending to his racehorses on the day someone bought this project.  

Equally mystifying is that old L. B. allowed it to be assigned to one of his least favorite actresses... although perhaps he was told that the beautiful, promiscuous Cora was a role Turner was born to play. If all this weren't enough, it was rare for him to go outside his studio to hire a leading man-- what, his highly-paid male contract actors weren't good enough?-- although perhaps he was also told that Frank was a perfect fit for the troubled and often in-trouble John Garfield. All through today's viewing I kept thinking how perfectly cast these two were... they knew their characters well. They didn't have to act as much as they simply needed to show up and stand where they were told.

It opens with a hitch-hiking drifter getting out of a car in front of the Twin Oaks Cafe, somewhere on the dusty outskirts of L.A.  He immediately sees a sign that says man wanted.  At the time he had no idea how true that was.  He meets Nick, the frumpy proprietor, who offers Frank a job as a general, all-around helper... flip a burger, pump some gas, fix a flat.  Nick seems a little naive and scatter-brained and certainly has no clue as to the amount of flipping, pumping and fixing there is going to be. Let's see what happens when Frank meets Cora...

Mmmm, that should give you some idea as to how handy this handyman would turn out. You'll note the all-white ensemble Turner has on.  It is repeated throughout the film... the clothing changes but it remains white. Well, except for three times when she's all in black.  Never anything else... solid white or solid black. And with that white-blonde hair and that beautiful face, man, I can see why someone would consider murder.  (Ok, when this is hacked... I'm kidding, I'm kidding.) This is not an incidental comment, by the way. How Lana Turner is presented throughout The Postman Always Rings Twice is known to anyone who really knows film noir or 40s films.

And you noted the little power struggle the two had over returning the lipstick?  Here we have the heart of the problem of Frank and Cora.  Add to that both are a little dumb, careless and allow their passions to completely overcome common sense.  We know from this opening scene that trouble is brewing.  I always love watching this disastrous relationship unfold.

Frank doesn't have much going on.  He just drifts.  Maybe he'll come across something and stay put but it hasn't happened so far. He wasn't looking to score with some other man's wife but then maybe he'd never met anyone quite like Cora before.

Before he leaves the interior of the diner, he pulls Cora to him and kisses her passionately.  She likes it but the power struggle has begun and she wipes off the kiss.  She immediately decides he must be obedient and she orders him to begin his work by painting the chairs in the diner. When there's not enough paint to do the job, he volunteers to go into town and pick up some cheap paint.  No way, she pounces. You won't find anything cheap in here.  Oh no?

She handles Frank's curiosity about why she married Nick, which is a nice way to ask why a woman who looks like Cora married a man who looks like Nick.  She purrs that Nick was the first man who didn't paw her.  She needed someone to take care of her and admits that she never loved Nick.  She adds that she wants to make something of herself, make something of the diner.  She sure hopes Frank understands what she means. He does.  We all do.

At the same time, silly ol' trusting Nick encourages Cora and Frank to spend time together... drives, the beach... even to dance together while Nick sings a love song and strums his guitar.

By the second act Cora and Frank decide to pack their bags (one each) and head on down the highway.  Walking.  While doing so, Cora realizes that Nick will divorce her and leave her nothing. Walking away like this is crazy.  What would they have?  Where will they go?  Returning to the cafe and while looking out the front windows they see Nick's car swerving all over the road.  He is obviously drunk again.  He's been drinking a lot lately. Does he suspect something? Frank chillingly blurts out I'd like to see him get plastered some night and drive off a cliff. It has begun.

Soon the two lovers have cooked up some scheme of Nick in the bathtub with some electrical involvement that Cora will handle but just as the deed's about to commence, the power goes out.  It seems to serve as an omen as the two decide to part with their nefarious ways and behave themselves.

And then one sultry night Nick delivers a bombshell.  He is going to sell the diner and take Cora and move in with his sister who is ill. It's plain enough looking at Cora to see that she is mad as a wet hen and soon a second plan to kill Nick is hatched.  They clumsily decide to stage a car accident.  (Did I mentioned they're not real smart?)

As the trio is leaving the diner with bags packed, an aggressive prosecuting attorney (actually the driver who originally dropped off Frank at the diner) follows them from a distance.  Frank hits Nick over the head, Cora gets out of the car and as Frank attempts to push the car over a cliff but he gets caught in the vehicle and he goes down with Nick.

Frank survives and he and Cora are arrested.  Unknown to both of them, Nick had just taken out a $10,000 life insurance policy the day before.  The aforementioned attorney (Ames) appears to be in cahoots with Cora's devious attorney (Cronyn) and they manage to turn the lovers against one another.  Through a number of machinations (not always easily understood, but that's noir for you), the two get off.  They head back to the cafe and slowly manage to start to be civil to one another again.  

Ultimately they decide to head out for greener pastures and as they are kissing in the car, there is an accident and Cora is killed. Grief-stricken Frank is accused of her murder, which he, of course, did not do but isn't it payback for the murder he did do and got away with?  Damn that postman.

I did not particularly care for the scenes after Frank is re-arrested. They didn't play as well as the rest of the film although I wrestle with how it could have been made better.  I also felt that the wonderful character actor, Cecil Kellaway, was just plain wrong for the role of Nick.  Yes, the character must be one who is wrong for Cora, but this wrong?  I can't see a beautiful temptress with the Pillsbury Doughboy.  I think not.  Kellaway also seemed out-of-step with the tempo of the piece as well.

From my view Turner was never more beautiful than she was here and this is unquestionably the best acting she ever delivered.  It is high praise indeed when one considers this world-famous performer turned in so many lackluster performances. And to see MGMs glamour queen washing dishes and ironing, one knows that's acting.

In a sea of exquisite Garfield performances, this may be my favorite.  It is certainly his most famous role. These two characters are beautifully written (kudos to screenwriters Niven Busch and Harry Ruskin).  Cora is the more cold and calculating of the two. We feel her sense of being stuck in life; we cringe at her notions of overcoming it.   Frank the sap had enjoyed his carefree existence but now sees nothing but Cora.  We feel uneasy that he has fallen into such an obvious trap.  The sap in the trap. The lovesick look he often shoots at her was the perfect touch.  Of course the great sexual tension between the two characters evolved into a brief affair between the two actors. Boy, what some folks will do for their art. 

Tay Garnett was a fairly undistinguished director who was in the middle of a short contract at MGM when he was assigned this picture.  That likely came about because Mayer had no confidence or interest in the film and felt about the same of Garnett. Nonetheless, the director performed admirably. He had a handle on the material, knew the way he wanted it to work and it would be, hands down, the film for which he is best remembered. 

Sidney Wagner's exquisite cinematography delivered all those famous noir features... shadows, light, mood.  The tense geometry of various shots with the all-white Turner as the focus is very memorable.  One is taken in by the general drab look of the diner scenes with Turner looking gloriously out of place.  The black and white courtroom and especially prison scenes are most effectively photographed.

While this was the first American offering of Cain's steamy novel, it had been filmed earlier in both France and Italy under other titles. The postman did ring again in America when Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson filmed it in 1981 and although it generally received tepid reviews, I very much liked it as well.  Funny, too, despite the financial and critical success of the 1946 version, L. B. Mayer always hated it.  Sorry, L.B., this is one of the best film noirs ever made.

Next posting:
Mr. Reliable

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