Monday, November 20, 2017

Postman Always Rings Twice, The (1946)

Director: Tay Garnett

America was forced to mature quickly during the 1940s due in part of World War II. The terror and tragedies shared and witnessed made the world less innocent. Hollywood appeared to understand that things were not quite the same, finding ways to explore or circumvent its self-imposed code of ethics, exploring darker stories of less innocent characters within seemingly normal society. This can be observed with the 1946 production of The Postman Always Rings Twice, a story of lust, deception, greed, and murder set to the backdrop or an innocent corner of society. Starring blond bombshell Lana Turner in her first dramatic role of substance, the film’s more mature tones did not please studio head Louis B. Mayer’s morals, but would please the studio’s pocket book.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir about a drifter that falls in love with the wife of his employer whom together they plot to murder, but must face the consequences. Traveling his way down the coast Frank (John Garfield) finds a small job at a road side lunch room where he is surprised that his middle-aged boss, Nick (Cecil Kellaway), is married to a far younger and very attractive lady named Cora (Lana Turner). Frank and Cora begin a passionate affair behind Nick’s back, plotting to ways of getting Nick out of the picture. After hesitating at running away together and a failed murder attempt staged as a home accident, they succeed at a second attempt staged as an auto accident.

Fallowing the accident, local district attorney, Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames) deduces Frank and Cora’s motives, but cannot provide enough evidence to convict. Frank and Cora work to return to a path of happiness together when Cora dies in an auto accident while Frank was behind the wheel. Despite this case being an accident the events are lined up in a way that convicts Frank for the murder of Cora. Faced with an impending death penalty, Frank is informed of newly discovered evidence that sheds light on the plot that killed Nick that if shared would exonerate him for the death of Cora, but would convict him of Nick’s murder. This leaves Nick to ponder the irony of his fate that either way he pays for his crime, or how he puts it in an analogy of a postman ringing the bell a second time when the door is not answered after the first ring.

Essentially the picture’s title is one long analogy that leads to a rather hoe-hum pay off monologue at the conclusion, but all that aside it is a very good film. The feature is filled with moments of tension, suspense, sex, as well as minor uses film noir stylings in a setting that feels tangible for audiences. Lacking is the claustrophobic feeling of being cooped up on a studio lot as director Tay Garnett uses location shooting enough to open up its setting. The small, roadside area somewhere north of Los Angeles feels refreshing as the audience can almost feel the ocean air we see our characters enjoy. The picture is well contained with minimal sets and characters, but with a plot goes beyond the little world that Frank and Cora live in.

The production of The Postman Always Rings Twice was a project over a decade in the making. Story rights of the James M. Cain novel were in talks as far back as 1934, before the novel’s release. Due to the Production Code of the time many studios such as RKO, Warner Bros., and Columbia deduced too many changes would need to be made to “clean up” this story of lust and murder that it would lose everything that made the story so gripping. This left MGM to acquire the Cain novel, which they held on to for over a decade. Following the success of Paramount’s 1944 feature Double Indemnity, based on another work by Cain with very similar moral plot points, MGM finally found The Postman Always Rings Twice enticing enough to green-light.

Longing for a chance to prove her worth as an actress Lana Turner was cast as the leading femme fatale. Turner was an MGM contract actress underutilized for acting, known more for her alluring looks and hardly ever given any depth other than a tool of attraction for male characters. She still delivers the looks that got her noticed in this picture, but perhaps for the first time is given so much more as a leading lady with drama and emotion. It would be her breakthrough performance, opening Turner to a new dimension in her career, stating years later that this role as Cora was her favorite of all her works.

After the consideration of Gregory Peck and the rejection from Joel McCrea, John Garfield is cast as the leading man, Frank, the character which we the audience follows though the picture. Despite an initial friction early on between Garfield and Turner, the two came to work well together. Garfield is a bit of a different kind of actor for his day. Barrowed from Warner Bros., Garfield carried a grittier feel to his performance compared to many polished leading men of Hollywood. His acting style portrays more of a practical style, not relying on making dramatic poses as he is allowing himself to be led by the character should naturally act. Instead of puffing out his chest to show dominance, he is one to sit back and kick up his feet in a relaxed form of arrogance to give the Frank a sense of calm, yet strong self-assurance over a situation.

The supporting cast also carry a strong effort in the picture worth noting. Cecil Kellaway gives a wonderful performance as Nick, Cora’s husband and eventual victim. Best known as a character actor, Kellaway delivers a performance at that is so sympathetic that you rarely can turn away from him while on screen. As Nick, he puts us through a slew of emotions even though he is not a main character. We love how kind hearted and devoted he is to Cora and even his new friend Frank, while also being a bit of a miser, pinching pennies at every corner. Most of all Kellaway delivers Nick as a flawed man as he is easily swayed, sometimes drinks too much, and make poor decisions. In the end Kellaway is one of best things about this movie, even though he is a pawn for the plot.

Performances by Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames appear to play against their types, but with much success. Ames, best known as playing fatherly figures portrays District Attorney Kyle Sackett, who spends most of the picture in pursuit of convicting Frank and Cora. Somehow even though his character is right and serving good, he is portrayed as a villain of sorts, ever out to bring down our main characters. The small framed Cronyn was use to playing meek characters, but here he is a the proud, manipulative, conniving lawyer that helps to keep Frank and Cora from being convicted. His tone and delivery is that of a vile misleading man, but his role as a person that aids our main characters makes him somewhat of a antihero, more smug for his victory than helping others. Both Cronyn and Ames play well against what their known types, but deliver so well in their respective roles.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was a critical and box office success. It gets the very best out of its performers from the leading roles to supporting cast. For Lana Turner, it was a turning point in her career. Now she would be utilized for more than a woman that tight fitting clothing that simply walked across the frame, but could be looked at as a serious actress. Studio head Louis B. Mayer, a movie mogul fond of fine wholesome morals in his picture, would frown on a picture such as this coming from his studio, but results did not lie. America was maturing and so did his studio. Of course this would not be the last time we see this story adapted as 1981 brought a Paramount produced version starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, proving the attraction of devilish affair stories in Hollywood.

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