The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Reviewed in February 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of the late Lana Turner's 91st birthday.
Director: Tay Garnett. Cast: John Garfield, Lana Turner, Cecil Kellaway, Leon Ames, Hume Cronyn, Alan Reed, Jeff York, Audrey Totter. Screenplay: Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch (based on the novel by James M. Cain).
Twitter Capsule: Yields famous spark of erotic danger, plus surprising charge of cyclical, working-class desperation

Photo © 1946 Warner Bros. Pictures
I don't remember when or from whom I first heard the tall tale about Lana Turner being discovered at the counter of Schwab's drug store. I definitely knew this story before I had ever seen one of her performances, and before I had any idea who Rita Hayworth was, or Ava Gardner, or any number of the other sex-bomb actresses who were more or less Turner's contemporaries and whose filmographies are at least the rival of hers. I think I knew of her before I knew of Marilyn Monroe. Lana Turner, first as a name, then as a kind of blonde blur, was the Platonic ideal I had absorbed for what an Old Hollywood movie star was. These days this surprises me, because her oblong voluptuousness is stirring but also a little bit odd, her face a compelling oval, but resting on its side rather than standing at sleek attention. The bigger irony to me is that, for a woman who assumed such fixed, early credentials of stardom for a young boy before he had remotely surveyed the lay of the Hollywood land, it turns out Lana never stopped having to work for them. More than that, she was most famous for playing women who—despite their beauty, and whatever their level of renown—were forever being asked for their license and registration.

In Ziegfeld Girl, she lunges for stardom, but in a poignantly wrong way, and the whole, kitsch-tacular production winds up selling her as someone who badly needs the centered self-possession of Judy Garland, for crying out loud. In Peyton Place, she's a sedate single mother in a small town, and even that is a pedestal from which she stands to get knocked. In Imitation of Life, no matter how successful Lora becomes, she is forever dogged by imprecations, spoken or unspoken, that she is a well-meaning woman but an ersatz actress, a deficient mother, an inattentive lover, and a myopic friend and employer. Claudette Colbert wasn't hit with half as many aspersions, no matter how gently some of them land. Though the Schwab's story isn't true, there's a reason people believe it, even after they know her work. Lana Turner's characters are always striving, always shadowed by humble origins. She has the aura of a genuine star, no question, but her aura itself has an aura—of the plasticine retail counter, the smell of flea powder, the pastel holding-zone of the dress-making boutique in an arcadian town that turns out to be a really shitty place to live. Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner, born either in 1920 or 1921 in Wallace, Idaho, stays forever palpable beneath Lana Turner's penumbra of glamour. (It's been interesting this month watching a would-be chanteuse fight off some especially hostile skepticism, having armored herself with the same pseudonym, a name many small-town girls might think of as glamorous.) Lana's a workhorse. You never see her sweat, but you detect it on her. The giveaway isn't lantern-jawed implacability, the way it is with Joan Crawford, who barely even bothers to hide it. The evidence is all in Turner's vague air of panic, her ineffaceable insecurity, even when she's lounging like a lynx. Hayworth danced with Fred Astaire and fired shots at Orson Welles, and even when she was most incongruous, she had us on her side. Ava Gardner was merciless toward herself behind the scenes, but the edifice she presents onscreen is redoubtable. Grace Kelly's patrician hauteur came through not just in her magnetic ability to strike a gorgeous silhouette at all times but in the way she could fire a look at Bing Crosby or Jimmy Stewart, the glare of someone who's always had things pulled together and wonders, sympathetically or not, why so many others are lagging behind. Lana Turner is somehow no match for these people. She stands vulnerable to the condescension of Sandra Dee and Diane Varsi, for god's sakes. She's a tough cookie, yes, but making her crumble is an almost junior varsity sport.

No wonder everyone, including James M. Cain, thought Lana was perfect casting in The Postman Always Rings Twice. No wonder she fits so snugly into this piece, no matter how many times the wardrobe people keep trying to render her absurd, padding around a roadside cafeteria in a swimming cap or a turban or a pair of barely-extant shorts. Postman, quite against my expectations, rejects the winching inexorability of a film like Double Indemnity, and the Twin Oaks Café is not a honey pot or a venus flytrap. No matter how much she dreams of something else, Turner's Cora Smith might or might not have wrestled her way out; she doesn't seem like she's waiting for a victim. Even after the arrival of Frank Chambers (John Garfield), the stranger who changes everything, Cora takes a good while hatching her escape, and when she does, Frank does a lot of the hatching. She cuts a strong figure but she's never less than pitiable, like someone under house arrest in a hash joint; the name of the place is inked in huge letters on her sleeve, like a prison tattoo. "You've been making me a tramp since the second you got here," she jabs at Frank after one of their plots goes wrong, and you believe her ambivalence and her resentment. It's not just that she's semi-reconciled to her unhappiness with her older, less attractive husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) but that she seems almost openly, despite her superficial steeliness, to doubt her own mettle as someone who can pull off a scam or an exit. Frank is not the most important thing in her life, and nor is the fantasy of where he might take her, which is a vague sketch at best. What's most vivid is the griddle, the clock, and the burger meat. It's the hung-jury verdict on whether she can stand life this way or whether she can't. When she finally shows up in Frank's bedroom one night, ready to foment a plan for blowing this popsicle-stand even if it means offing her husband, the first thing she does when she closes the door behind her is emit a very tired sigh.

The Postman Always Rings Twice plays out as a series of revelations: every 15 minutes or so, something happens that would be the fourth- or fifth-act climax of many similar stories. But that doesn't mean that Postman is a locomotive of accelerating tension. It flags repeatedly, and exquisitely. The anti-heroes back-pedal from their sordid stratagems as often as they soldier on with them. Eventually they have reason to doubt each other's sincerity, but for a long while they both—but Cora especially—seem more worried about their own resolve, their own knacks for sustained and scrutinized deceit, and their own plaguing hunch that life just doesn't work out for people like them. By "people like them," I don't mean villains, and nor do they. I mean working people, average people. When they first elope together, on sheer principle of Cora's unhappiness and Frank's infatuation with her, she gets the heebie-jeebies about his job prospects and they simply turn back. Once they settle on more desperate measures, they aspire only briefly to devising the perfect crime, after which they settle for constructing a good enough crime, a B+ crime. They don't expect to ace this test, or any test. They just want to make it hard for Nick's death to get pinned on them. The film is constantly ratifying their reasons for self-doubt. One murder is foiled by absurd happenstance. Cora and Frank pass from wanting Nick dead to pleading for his survival. Everyone, the D.A., the attending doctor, seems to guess what's up. The next time out, their planning is both better and worse. Their determination is greater and more reckless, and so are their oversights.

As frustrating as they must find their constant foibles, they are manna for the audience. Even having read The Postman Always Rings Twice, so many years ago that I'd completely forgotten it, I marveled at how the script and the direction managed to choreograph two tracks of suspense: the one related to whether Cora and Frank would succeed, the other related to how, precisely, a stacked-deck world and their own limitations as players would wind up biting them in the ass. The movie heightens suspense even as it appears to undercut it, by structuring itself in a series of halting vignettes. Every time you think you've hit a cataract of conflict, or found the undertow that will lead you and the characters straight to the end of the film, you find you're stuck in yet another eddy. The movie is not a wild river but a humid delta of stagnant frustration and stymied movement, so it's all the more impressive that it's such a gripping spectatorial experience.

It's not just narrative propulsion that the film plays around with, working concertedly against expectations of rich intrigue. The art direction of Postman emphasizes blank gray walls, bare cabinets, and flat planes of dull monochrome. Garfield's magnetism and Turner's halo and the dexterously managed momentum and the occasional flash of richly lit landscape or of vividly photographed crowds all testify to this being a major-studio production, and yet it flirts with cheapness in productive ways. The jail-bar patterns that get projected onto back walls, often as the only mark of visual tension in the shot, feel like Poverty Row clichés. The café really is an uninspiring environment, not an incongruously fussed mirage of dismal living, such as MGM would have insisted upon. Certainly no one at Turner's former studio would have allowed her clothes to be so monotonously white and so architecturally simple as they are here, such that she herself is sometimes a bland visual presence—that is, until director Tay Garnett allows her to sock us with a charismatic close-up. In some of the best of these, Turner is wide-eyed in fury and almost tawdry in appearance, her hair fried by bleach the way Bette Davis's was in her earliest Warner pictures. She plays indignity the way that only a woman who has truly known what it means to feel trapped, written off, forced to work hard for the money can do it. But the indignity and the conviction are temporary even when they're searing. It's amazing how often, even after the sharpest exchanges in the movie, even after the nastiest double-crosses, the momentum of the plot and the erotic boil of the Garfield-Turner scenes have to be cut short because Cora and Frank can't afford not to open the restaurant. They're on the lookout for suspicious police but she, especially, is just as fully on the lookout for a paying customer. It's in her bones to worry about that.

It's also in Cora's bones to recognize when she's been licked, and to be nervous, frightened, and more than a little angry when she finds herself having to think faster than Cora usually does, in order to survive some smarter person's bewildering plan. Frank is no better a schemer than she is; he just seems less beaten down by mundane humiliation than she is, and therefore less enervated when he spots life getting ready to laugh at him again. Frank, for example, sees no problem during their initial elopement with an almost certain future in jobs that are just as dismal as serving burgers at Nick's café; Cora finds the prospect a sick joke of which they are the butts, and she'd rather turn back, even risking their own exposure, instead of submitting herself to it. Again, the D.A., played by the offhandedly debonair Leon Ames, is never not onto these two, and the defense attorney played so well by an atypically venal Hume Cronyn is even sharper than he is. That character offers a welcome spike to the movie, because for once we're just as confused as Cora and Frank about whether they're in the hands of a sure-handed manipulator or of somebody who, like them, has much less foresight than he thinks he does. They're both tricked by Cronyn's character, but Cora is especially so, and it prompts a couple of those moments where you can't tell if Turner is performing her nettled confusion or whether the actress herself is lost and a little steamed by the machinations of a script that she understands emotionally, way deep down, but hasn't quite mastered in its narrative particulars. As in Imitation of Life, the sense of Turner being thrown in just above her head—even though under-estimating Lana or Cora is a pretty bad idea—is actually an aid to her performance. Here, as there, she's lucky to be working with a director and producer with a strong, rich, unusual vision that makes a non-issue of her limits as a performer and cast a well-trained light on the appetites, the regrets, and the flickers of self-loathing that she's very good at projecting.

The films are united, too, in extending both Cora and Lora (!) measures of sympathy that many filmmakers would have denied them. I am stunned, having finally seen Postman, how many reviews and discussion-board comments describe Cora as an embodiment of pure evil. Cora, a born villain? She's cunning when she needs to be, but is she really diabolical? If anything, the film seems to thrive on the question of who, between Frank and Cora, really wants this escape most, and on the reasons they both feel more comfortable with failure than with the prospect of succeeding, a future that neither of them seems fully able to conceptualize. One character will eventually laugh at Cora for scratching her way out of a blazing car after a mountainside "accident," because she's so mercenary and money-minded and so bad at misleading the police that she remembered to grab her clutch-sized purse before abandoning the vehicle. In an MGM movie, this would just happen; it would be a law of nature that women are not separated from their fabulous accessories. In a Warner Bros. movie, though, it is highlighted as a character point. But what I saw wasn't cynicism so much as semi-competence: Cora isn't a born evildoer, and unlike Phyllis Dietrichson, who has her own blindspots in this regard but can still see three or four moves ahead in any game of chess, Cora flails a little at doing what a single-minded murderess would do, by reflex if not by careful preparation. Phyllis has a scene in Double Indemnity where she pleads with Walter not to run through their well-rehearsed alibis one more time on their way to the train, and it's clear she's exasperated by his worrying, and by the fact that if anybody blows anything, it's clear the fault will be his, not hers. Conversely, when Cora asks Frank to leave their alibi story alone, it's because she's already learned the one they cobbled together, and she's nervous she'd flub a different one. I think Phyllis, too, has more in her heart than a pit of cobra venom, but that tight close-up on Barbara Stanwyck's implacable, lip-licking gaze while her husband is dying mere inches away from her does say an awful lot. So, too, but in a different key, does Cora's terrified screaming the first time she has to put a cudgel where her mouth is.

The Production Code of course demands harsh comeuppance for at least one of these conspiring love-birds, but I won't tell you which one, or how. What surprised me more than the final fistful of narrative twists was just how much misadventure Cora and Frank are permitted before the film finally bites back. If anything, Postman risks an open sympathy with these two, not because they are transfixing rebel-heroes like Bonnie and Clyde, which they absolutely are not, but because they are already paying for their crimes well before the movie really lowers the boom on them. I'm sure Cora thinks she's been paying even longer than that, as in before she even committed them. Late in the movie comes a stunning, offhandedly cruel moment (though played for modest comedy) when Cora is serving her patrons in the suddenly populous "beer garden" that she and Frank are now managing on their new patio. An oldish biddy at one of the tables asks Cora for her autograph. Notoriety is bad enough, but the fascinated, zoohouse disdain of matrons from Pasadena is too much, even in a shot filled with some of the brightest, most beautiful natural lighting in the film.

The impact of the moment is so bleak, despite its surface sunniness, and despite its implication of Cora and Frank having beaten the law (if only by a technicality, and not for long). A modern movie would probably see fit to make this their final punishment. No need to push the narrative further when it's a perfectly odious sentence to live out your years in a purgatory as two hash-slingers that the world tsk-tsks—small business-owners whose only advantage is that people are just prurient enough to want to drive out and see you, uniformed in sin like it's an extra apron. And even at that, the customers look quickly bored by the thrill and get back to their french fries and intramural small-talk. Cora signs the autograph, and in so doing, she's a dead-ringer for the actress from Idaho who gambled everything on a career as a world-famous glamour-puss, only to discover she'd never really stop auditioning: for studio bosses, for directors, for seven husbands (one of them twice), and for countless fans. People always seemed to find Turner's fame unbecoming, inevitable and yet ambiguously earned, even though similarly semi-talented girls from comparably modest origins seemed to glide by, enjoying their fame, without being cast quite so often as women disappointed by what they haven't got, or exposed as vaguely fraudulent when they actually succeed in getting it, or revealed as slightly unequal to the very tasks they had set for themselves: as mother, as wife, as film star, as murderer. Twin Oaks might as well be called Schwab's. People loved the story of Turner being found there, but it seemed to provoke a constant, nagging suspicion that it's where she most truly belonged.

The Postman Always Rings Twice has been filmed several times, and twice in other languages before Hollywood even tried it once. It's even harder to kill than Nick Smith, né Nick Papadakis. Warner Bros. seems interested in everything about this story except the racial dynamic that prompts a bored wife and a handsome drifter to gang up on her immigrant husband, although the dividends paid by this deracinating adaptation infinitely richer than those of Jerichow, the recent German remake that is barely interesting except in the ramifications of casting the husband as a Turk. Postman leaves itself open to the kinds of metaphysical, even existentialist readings that people understandably love to throw at noirs and at hard-boiled crime stories. There's a larger truth to be hulled from the fact that even when you get away with a crime, you never really get away with it, and some of the people who show up to make you pay are the biggest bottom-feeders of all, people whom it's embarrassing to consider as your opponents. Yet what can you do but give them what they want, or else dig your hole even further? I'm both thrilled and surprised that Tay Garnett, a director I knew only from minor Irene Dunne screwballs and featherweight yet overlong Greer Garson "dramas," is capable of such careful managing of tone, theme, and structure. I'm most gratified by his well of palpable compassion for two losers who keep hoping to be winners without really believing it's going to happen. They keep testing themselves, and each other, till the end, and Garnett never laughs at them for it, the way Wilder does at MacMurray and Stanwyck wearing heavy shades in the baby-food aisle.

The final monologue that brings the title phrase home doesn't quite trip off the tongue, but it's clear enough that no matter how many times the postman rings, all he ever leaves you with is a clutch of bills that you'll never finish paying, no matter how scrupulously you open the restaurant on time, day in and day out. Happiness, in the world of this film, means being killed for the crime you intended but executed rather badly, and not the one you didn't mean to commit but brought off with flawless precision. Happiness is running into the surf, so many times that even this thrill starts to look routine. You hang every time on the hope that you won't drown, or that somebody won't drown you. The Postman Always Rings Twice is as involving and as sure-handed and, when it wants to be, as sexy as you've heard, but in my experience, it's also an awful lot sadder. Grade: A–

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