Friday, April 9, 2010

#16: The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)

Released: May 2, 1946

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.


  1. Glad to see this so high in your countdown as it is such a great movie and one of Garfield's best - he and Turner make an electric combination. I like your point about the diner and house being made to look like a dungeon. Quite a contrast with the sequence where they try to get away by walking/hitching along that dusty road in the heat and the world outside seems to be another kind of prison - I think this is one of the sequences where I felt the most sympathy for the couple, hoping against hope they would manage to get away.

  2. First let me say that I like this a lot but I have always had problems with some aspects of the film. There are problems, mainly the MGM gloss and Lana Turner who looks like she stepped out of the pages of Vogue as opposed to being the wife of a diner owner on an empty strip of road. She never makes you forget she is Lana Turner. From what I read, Turner did not want to appear unglamorous and refused to appear dowdy. Unfortunately, it is detrimental to the mood of the film. Then there is the ending where Frank talks to a priest asking if he and Cora might be reunited in heaven, this whole scene is a hokey attempt at a happy ending, totally out of place for a noir.
    The good points are Garfield's performance, and he and Turner do raise the steam levels quite a bit (the beach scenes). I personally like the Visconti version better (Ossessione), a grittier version without the MGM shine.

  3. I also prefer Visconti's OSSESSIONE, and have never seen this film as an absolute masterpiece, but it's funny that last night in my living room while discussing Dave's countdown with my 60 year-old older cousin Bobby McCartney, this film was brought up. Bobby feels this is one of the greatest noirs ever made (a fact I've always known--this and SCARLET STREET are his absolute favorites) and last night he was praising John Garfield to the heavens.

    I told him: "Dave will have POSTMAN somewhere in his final 16, though I can't be certain how high." Lo and behold, it appears the very next morning, but this wasn't a difficult prognostication, as this is widely seen by so many noir fans and historians as one of the apexes of the genre.
    It's interesting how Judy and John seem to be on opposite ends here, but I can really see both views here, and I do realize that this point here is also telling in the overall mix:
    "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 I agree with your subsequent conclusion that this is a perfect choice for a noir fan to begin his/her study of the genre, and that strictly from an entertainment viewpoint this really delivers the goods.
    What Garnett does succeed in by way of 'audience sentiments' is pretty much what we had decades later with BONNIE AND CLYDE and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and it's no small achievement.

    As far as quality essays go, the beat goes on!

  4. I have not seen this film for about 10 years so I'm a little hazy on specifics. I did purchase it on DVD about 2 years ago so I will try to view it this weekend. My girlfriend will be attending a bridal shower on sunday so It gives me the perfect opportunity to sit back and assemble a Garfield triple feature. She's trying to drag me to the movies tomorrow to see either Hot Tub Time Machine or Date Night!!! I remember loving Postman immensely when I viewed it and found Garfield to be triumphant as usual. Lana was Lana but I didn't feel she hurt the picture. I found the fact that it had the MGM gloss interesting since the story was so seedy. It was a nice counterbalance. Dave I'm assuming that you will not be adding any Hitchcock films to this list since it's so far along and one or two would of popped up by now. I always had a problem with his films being labeled film noir anyway. I would love to give a shout out to The Wrong Man, which I find terribly underrated and his one film which I would classify as film noir (though Shadow Of A Doubt and Strangers On The Train are close).....M.Roca

  5. Yes, yes, the introduction of Cora Smith will surely grab anyone watching this for the first time by his throat!!! And Lana Turner made the role of bored wife cum femme fatale her own. John Garfield too shined as the cynical drifter. The only problem I had with this movie was its overtly didactic finale, something James M. Cain expertly avoided in the book. The film version, though it wouldn't rank this high in my list, nonetheless does remain a pretty good film noir.

  6. I kinda thought this movie was too long. And I didn't bought the casting of Cecil Kellaway as the husband (I mean... Seriously?). And I didn't feel much chemistry between John Garfield and Lana Turner. Of course, this could be 'cos I don't like Lana Turner AT ALL... I believe, Hume Cronyn steals the movie and is an absolute fun to watch during these few minutes he is on screen.

  7. Judy - Great observations that I am obviously in agreement with. This seems to be a film that can divide noir fans, so great to see some support on this one!

    John - The glamor issue doesn't bother me, because I felt it fit in with her striving to maintain that glamorous image as justification for her doing anything to get out and "move up" in the world. I can understand your complaint though, so I'm not saying that I don't see where you're coming from with it.

    Sam - OSSESSIONE is glaring blind spot in my viewing... just haven't seen it yet, so I can't compare the two. It's one that I obviously do need to see ASAP. Glad to hear that the countdown is stirring up some interest in various parts! This is honestly one that I moved around a little bit while tinkering with the rankings when things got started. It was never lower than about 18 and at one point I was considering slotting it in at around 12. This feels right though considering what will be coming ahead of it.

    M.Roca - The Hitchcock point is one that I wasn't going to bring up until the end, but yes I did decide to leave his films out. It gets interesting trying to decide precisely which of his films I would qualify as noir and which I wouldn't. Some I feel confident are noir (Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man) where others are harder to decide on (Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt). So I decided just to not include, which also in turn opened more slots for some other films I wanted to get to.

    Shubhajit - I agree with you absolutely about the tacked-on ending, but it is one of those necessary evils of the studio system of the time. I definitely agree that Cain wisely avoided tidying everything up.

    Quirky Character - You seem to hold personal feelings toward actors against each of their roles! (LOL) I'm only joking, because I find it funny. But I agree with you that Cronyn is outstanding in his brief role.

  8. Yeah that's the problem with Hitchcock films, deciding which ones are film noirs and which ones are just his normal suspense films. I see people including Notorious as a noir which I never understood. Its a great movie but it doesn't seem to have the required feel and look. Vertigo which is maybe my favorite movie ever has also never struck me as noir. Maybe the fact that its in color makes me not want to include it.....M.Roca