Saturday, July 13, 2019

Movie Reviews: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice
directed by Tay Garnett
This was the first English language adaptation of the book of the same name. Along with movies like The Big Sleep, The Big Heat and others this film was one of the best examples of what film noir should mean. It had a "hero" who is neither particularly smart nor heroic, rules that trap people no matter if they do right or wrong, and of course a femme fatale. 

Here the femme fatale was particularly compelling as the character was played by bombshell actress Lana Turner, sometimes known for obvious reasons as the Sweater Girl. In real life Turner was known to have a pretty healthy appetite for men and for not caring whether such men were married to other women. So unlike some movies where the love interest is miscast, in this film it was very easy to see why a man would find Turner worth killing for, worth dying for, and worth going to hell for. Amen. 

As with most movies of this era today's directors and actors might be able to learn that sometimes less is more. By today's standards there is nothing at all explicit. It's the implications and inferences that matter. We don't see certain things happen. We see the build up and aftermath. So our imagination can fill in the rest. And here, that technique is more powerful. This plot has been told many times before this film and influenced many stories after it. So there are some human emotions and stories that pop up again and again in life. 

Many women like a certain level of male success, status, and wealth. But there are limits to this. Age, looks, personality and a large number of other factors count as well. The late Hugh Hefner claimed to be happily dating women forty, fifty and even sixty years younger than him. 

In truth he paid the women and was regularly chagrined to learn that most of his so-called "official" girlfriends often snuck out of the Playboy mansion to maintain relationships with their real boyfriends, who weren't anywhere near as wealthy as Hefner but who were all closer in age to them. So it goes.

The Postman Always Rings Twice also features an older man in a relationship with a beautiful younger woman who is looking about for a man closer to her in age. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) owns a roadside diner with his wife Cora (Lana Turner). Nick is not a bad man or a greedy one. But he's on the exit ramp in terms of life ambitions and energy. In a pre-Viagra time, Nick is a little past the age where sex is a driving factor for him. 

Unfortunately Nick is also not particularly observant. He doesn't see the glances of frustration that Cora sometime forgets to hide or really hear her when she talks about wanting more out of life than being a waitress/cashier at a diner/service station.

And Nick definitely doesn't pick up on the almost immediate sexually charged tension between Cora and the drifter Frank (John Garfield), who hitched a ride with the local DA, Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames). Sackett is a man who notices things that are out of place. Nick hires Frank to help around the diner and do any extra yard work. 

But the only work Frank really wants to do is to help Cora out of her clothes. Cora is tired of Nick but doesn't think she will get anything in a divorce. It's debatable whether Cora loves Frank or is just using him for physical needs. But Frank is head over heels in love with Cora. Cora decides that running away together won't work. The duo will have to remove Nick from the planet. Cora wants the diner all to herself. Frank is hesitant but after Cora puts the whammy on him again he gets with the program. 

However the lovers are incompetent and blunder their first attempt. Nick doesn't suspect anything. For a while Cora and Frank play it cool. But when Nick makes an announcement which will change Cora's life, Cora's determined that the next attempt won't miss.

The film leads us into a netherworld of shady lawyers (Hume Cronyn), blackmail, misunderstood motivations, desperation, betrayal, an opaque justice system and more.  As stated, the intensity of sexual desire, jealousy and envy is all the stronger for being in a film without any explicit sex or violence. 

The film is shot in glorious black and white. Turner's Cora is a woman who appears frustrated that her beauty and sexual wiles no longer work on her husband. She seems delighted to have a new man to bend to her will. But like the joke from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, maybe Cora's not bad but is just drawn that way. She married Nick expecting things to be one way and found out they were another. Of course most women in that situation don't start thinking about murder so maybe Cora's bad through and through after all. Turner is energetic in this role. The same can't be said of Garfield, whose Frank gives every indication of having been dropped on his head as a child. Not too bright, is old Frank.

The film's second act suffers a bit as Turner is zooming all over the place without a strong opposite number to play off of in her scenes.  Frank comes across as too nice and too phlegmatic too often. Anyhow this is one of the defining movies of the film noir genre and as I'll say for the umpteenth time, an instruction manual in how to depict desire and need without anyone getting naked. You may wonder at the ending if everyone got their just deserts or indeed if you wanted that to happen. There is a 1981 version of this movie with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange which Turner said was trash. 
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