I have seen three film versions of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Director Tay Garnett’s 1946 version is not my favorite—that honor falls to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943)—but it is still entertaining to watch. The acting is superb, and the cinematography is classic film noir. Still, there are pesky plot development inconsistencies that make me not appreciate this as much as others do.
John Garfield plays Frank Chambers, a drifter who sees a “Man Wanted” sign hanging in front of a hamburger stand/gas station. In typical noir fashion, this sign has two meanings. One: the proprietor, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), needs help pumping gas and flipping burgers. Two: Nick’s much younger and way too attractive wife, Cora (Lana Turner), needs a man to sexually satisfy her. From the moment Cora and Frank meet you know things aren’t going to end well—he plants a kiss on her within minutes of meeting her. Eventually, they decide the only way they can be happy is to get rid of Nick. Yet, like any good noir things never turn out happy.
This was probably the best performance Turner gave in her career. Often she got away with just looking pretty, but here she gives a nuanced portrayal of a complex woman. Yes, her Cora is sexy, but she’s also a woman who wants to build a successful business. She truly looks conflicted about engaging in an affair with Frank, while at the same time it’s obvious she is filled with lust. Her character’s ethical dichotomy is often emphasized by whatever color she happens to be wearing: white or black (though white seems to be costume designer Irene’s hue of choice). Contrasted against the dark sets and lighting, Cora in white looks as though she is emanating heat—perhaps that was the point. Anyway, Turner does a fabulous job.
Dark and brooding parts seemed to suit Garfield. He brings a touch of unbridled sexuality and a heap of self-loathing to his role of Frank. His fire plays very well off Turner’s ice, and the end result is a whole lot of steam. While I don’t think his role was nearly as demanding or complex as Turner’s, he does play the anti-hero well. What I always admire about Garfield is his ability to play unlikable characters in such a way that you don’t completely hate them.
I couldn’t talk about the film’s superb acting without mentioning Hume Cronyn. He plays one of the most hard-ass shyster lawyers ever. His Arthur Keats is so smarmy and unethical that all you can do is admire his bravado. Cronyn had a habit of taking small parts and making them memorable (think 1947′s Brute Force, among many). For me, he’s the best thing about The Postman Always Rings Twice.
No noir would be a respectable noir without atmospheric cinematogrphy. Sidney Wagner (a.k.a Syd Wagner) is not as well-known as Gregg Toland, but he was more than capable of expertly framing shots and working with shadows and light. His work on both Northwest Passage (1940) and Dragon Seed (1944) earned him Academy Award nominations, and his camerawork on The Cross of Lorraine (1943) was stellar, too. Here he employs tight framing and harsh lighting (both dark and bright) to create an uneasy mood.
What I don’t like about The Postman Always Rings Twice is the contrived plot developments. For example, what old man in his right mind would suggest his hot, young wife go for a midnight swim with his hunky assistant? He deserved to die! And, wouldn’t someone plotting a murder notice that the District Attorney (Leon Ames) was following them before they decided to stage an accident? Oh, and when and how did Cora become pregnant if she and Frank were on the outs for months after her trial? I could have lived with one of these annoying questions, but all three together just pissed me off.
Overall, The Postman Always Rings Twice is an entertaining movie with standout performances. It is also a film that suffers from idiotic plot devices.
Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog ( http://1001moviesblog.blogspot.com)