Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.
Release Date: May 2nd, 1946 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Tay Garnett Actors: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Leon Ames, Audrey Totter, Alan Reed
itchhiking from San Francisco down to San Diego, Frank Chambers (John Garfield) seems to perpetually wander from place to place, unconcerned with securing jobs or staying put. “Not worried about your future?” asks the District Attorney (Leon Ames) who happens to give the loner a ride. At the Twin Oaks diner just outside Los Angeles, Frank stops for a bite to eat, and is offered a job by owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) for his troubles. Of course, his troubles only grow more complex when he meets Nick’s wife, Cora (Lana Turner), a noticeably younger, shapely blonde with bouncy curls and thick eyelashes, who would seem more at home in a lush seaside resort than in a hole-in-the-wall cafe in the middle of the desert.
“You won’t find anything cheap around here.” Frank immediately has his eyes set on the lusty, leggy dame, who just doesn’t seem right for her older, pudgy husband. In the world of this noirish drama (based on the novel by James M. Cain), the tenets of marriage are made to be broken. Though she plays hard-to-get at first, particularly in response to Frank’s brazenness with flirtations, all it takes is a romantic moonlight swim to seal the deal. “I can sell anything to anybody.”
“Stealing a man’s wife; that’s nothing. But stealing his car; that’s larceny.” Madly in love, Cora and Frank run away down the road, thinking they’ll hitch a ride to paradise. But a few miles along, the facade of freedom and happiness wears off; Cora soon realizes that they’re just a pair of tramps without careers or money – and that if she divorces her husband, she’ll remain penniless. But if Nick were to meet an untimely demise, she’d inherit the diner and everything else …
The stage is set for disaster, considering that the two main characters aren’t immune to moral shortcomings; true heroes aren’t part of the formula. And though this film arrived at a time when the stars could be the villains (“Double Indemnity” a few years earlier was a prime example), it’s still a difficult task to deprive audiences of wholesome personas. Yet “The Postman Always Rings Twice” does what so many effective crime dramas do when the protagonists are also the antagonists: it generates sympathy and a level of understanding for why they might deviate so far from righteousness. Desperation is a powerful muse.
Turner is a deliciously manipulative femme fatale, alternating between bouts of purposefulness and spontaneity; it’s never a stretch of the imagination that she could persuade someone to break the law. Love – or the illusion of it – can corrupt anyone, especially when Turner is the subject of the emotion. Like a moth drawn to a flame, Chambers can’t seem to keep his distance; he’s doomed to conspire until his passion can be satiated. Although the premise is dark and dour, aided by a film noir narration and the continual, coincidental, close proximity of the authorities, there’s also subtle humor, blended into the plots of murder, suicide, and infidelity.
The censorship may have eased up in the ’40s, but the film can only end in one way; getting away with homicide isn’t in the cards. The finale isn’t quite that simple, however, as a courtroom showdown is in order, bringing shrewd defense attorney Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn) into the fold, where the superb character actor can introduce a few surprises (including a shocking lack of communication between the defendant and her lawyer). Innovatively, just when viewers might think the picture is drawing to a close, things become more complex, while additional characters pop up and minor roles return for legal intricacies. As it turns out, when murder is on the table, the biggest uncertainties rest with the accomplices. It’s a fascinating study of crime and consequences, of love and fatalism, even if the parting shots are contrived and rushed – but also perversely poetic and redemptive.
– Mike Massie