Director: Tay Garnett; Screenplay: Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch based on the novel by James M. Cain; Cinematography: Sidney Wagner; Music: George Bassman and Erich Zeisl; Producer: Carey Wilson; Studio: MGM
Cast: Lana Turner (Cora Smith), John Garfield (Frank Chambers), Cecil Kellaway (Nick Smith), Hume Cronyn (Arthur Keats), Leon Ames (District Attorney Sackett), Cameron Grant (Willie), Alan Reed (Ezra Liam Kennedy), Audrey Totter (Madge Gorland)
- “With my brains and your looks, we could go places…”
It’s the entrance that will grab you every time. Even if you’re not drawn in immediately on reputation, I defy you to watch the introduction of Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice and not at least find it alluring. Frank Chambers (John Garfield), a drifter who has just inquired about a job at the diner owned by Cora’s husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway), is sitting at the counter waiting on him to return. A tube of lipstick hits the floor and begins rolling toward his feet. The camera then switches to the point of view of Frank, as his gaze follows the path that the lipstick just traveled. He scans the small stretch of floor that the tube just rolled before being stopped dead in his tracks when he reaches the point of origin. The camera likewise stops, fixated on the well-formed legs of Cora Smith (Lana Turner). The shot stays there for a few moments, from high heels to calves, giving the shapely fixtures their due, before pulling back to reveal Cora standing in the doorway, the rest of her as gorgeous as the legs that just captivated the restless drifter. Without a single word, without anything resembling nudity or lewdness, the stage is set for a movie that is as erotic as was permissible at this time in Hollywood.
The story is toned down from the original novel by pulp master James M. Cain, a necessary decision in order for the project to get the green light and be in compliance with the Hays Code. But to strip this story entirely of its sexuality would be to completely gut the nucleus of it all, so what toning it down implied was taking any and all overt sexuality and finding more subtle ways to put it across. Rather than try anything drastic, director Tay Garnett and others in charge decided on the simplest road to success – find two leads that can sell it purely on the strength of their performances. Put together a couple whose sexual attraction and energy just oozes off the screen. With Lana Turner and John Garfield, they found a couple that fit this model perfectly.
It is now a familiar storyline, but when Cain first published his novel, the idea of a bored housewife conspiring with a boyfriend to murder her husband was downright salacious. The movie, although cleaned up from its source material, maintains the same filthy feeling. John Garfield is Frank, the drifter who can never stay settled in one place for any period of time. When he stops at Nick Smith’s diner he sees “man wanted” sign and inquires. Frank accepts the job, working at the lunch counter and gas station, but quickly finds that he has walked into a situation that he might not be able to handle. After his startling introduction to Cora, he soon realizes that he is unable to avoid an attraction toward her. At first, she completely dismisses him, but she too soon begins to fall for him. The closer they get, the more that they wish that Nick would simply disappear. Once they realize that won’t just happen by itself, they then begin to move – sheepishly at first, then much more aggressively – toward getting Nick out of the picture by any means necessary.
Deeper plot summary seems unnecessary here, as I’m guessing most have seen this one, or for those that haven’t that the plot will at least be familiar. There is no doubt that everything revolves around the murder plot and its aftermath, but there are so many other interesting subtexts throughout. The idea of postwar malaise is everywhere. Frank is the drifter whose feet “keep itchin’ for me to go places,” as he cannot find contentment in any one place. Likewise, Cora is constantly trying to move up and get away. She marries Nick because she sees it as a first step toward wealth and a better lifestyle. When these dreams aren’t quick to materialize, she begins scrambling for another way to get it – even if that means the dreadful plotting that she and Frank engage in. I have read complaints about Cora not being believable as the housewife of a diner owner, about how she is too glamorous for the role. I think that is the entire point - Cora _is_ out of place as a housewife and waitress. She didn't expect to still be in this position after years of marriage, which is why she is so anxious to concoct any scheme to get out.
The most interesting aspect of how the story is told is the ability of Garnett to make the audience almost root for the murderous couple. The connection between Frank and Cora is established very early in the film, before any of the nefarious plotting takes place. They are painted as a couple who might actually deserve to be together. Once this is established, it’s hard not to then begin hoping that things work out for them. At the same time, you don’t want to root for them because you know what they will eventually try and do. Cinematographer Sidney Wagner is not a name that gets mentioned very often, but he and Garnett photograph the film perfectly. Everything takes place at night, whether it is at the diner or on the beach, with the muted glow of the moon hanging above. They film the diner and house of the Smiths like a dungeon, serving both as a reminder of the entrapment felt by both Frank and Cora, and also foreshadowing what will eventually become of them. The constraining nature of the interiors are emphasized by Garnett’s use of close-ups and very little camera movement. This drives home the confined space which Frank and Cora have to try and carry on their secret romance.
There are supporting performances that shine as well – the squaring off of Hume Cronyn’s unscrupulous defense attorney Keats against District Attorney Sackett (Leon Ames) is interesting by itself. The two attorneys are determined to win the case, but do so with little regard to the actual victim and defendants. But make no mistake, the focus is never taken off the two central characters. Turner and Garfield shine in what should be one of the first noirs that any newcomer seeks out.