Double Indemnity captured the intensity of adulterous love and painted a picture of Southern California malaise that spawned a flood of film noir conventions while opening up the production code to material previously outlawed. Mildred Pierce presented the sordid ambition of a depression-era working class housewife desperate to amount to something to improve herself. This film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice retains the convoluted turns of Cain's plot, but already seems a derivative retelling of stock elements, instead of ground zero for the classic noir femme fatale saga.
Billy Wilder's dialogue turned hardboiled patter into an art form, and Michael Curtiz' breathless direction made the occasional dud line in Mildred Pierce irrelevant. By contrast, the flat, straightforward direction of Postman lets the constant gab get out of hand. Characters talk too much about how they feel, so that the the quick succession of romantic flip-flops at the end become almost comical. We admire Postman's reasonably uncompromised story and John Garfield's powerhouse acting, and little else.
Perhaps her 'type' has dated, but I find little to like about most of Lana Turner's performances and Postman is no exception. Her glamour shots look like poses, especially her introduction in white shorts, standing stiffly after dropping her lipstick. She's completely artificial waiting tables with nary a platinum hair out of place, or washing a dish or two in perfect makeup. In fact, the patrons of Nick's diner must be the most understanding customers in history. Nobody does much waiting on tables and it's not uncommon for dramatic scenes to happen in the back rooms while twenty customers are unattended out front. Yet Lana never has to step lively or deliver plates of food to anybody.
That's just the superficial end of things, but Turner's glamour gets in the way of her acting too. It's rarely better than just okay. Lana's often noted for hot romantic scenes, but I don't sense much electricity between her and Garfield, just Garfield's powerful attraction for her. In her final scene, she melts somewhat and has a really good moment, but the film ends immediately thereafter. We're left with some inadequate attempts to show how spite and rage steer Cora into really dumb decisions.
John Garfield is a natural for this role and we feel every bead he sweats, whether planning a murder or squirming under the merciless manipulation of Hume Cronyn. Almost all of the credibility in the unconvincing diner (it's just too MGM clean, too MGM antiseptic) is due to Garfield, who carries the first half of the film on his back.
The support is excellent. Cecil Kellaway (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) plays Nick Smith without sentiment, an old dog who needs to be gotten out of the way. Leon Ames is just okay, never seeming as corrupt as he should be, but Hume Cronyn is remarkable as the predatory defense counsel Keats. Keats sneers at his clients and plays everyone for a patsy - Cora, Frank, and the law itself.
The cynical attitude toward the law must have made the schmaltzy Louis B. Mayer physically ill. Besides Garfield, the best thing here is the portrait of the legal apparatus as a cheap toy to be twisted by the merciless Sackett and the sardonic Keats. Both schemers use their intelligence to bulldoze the gullible couple. Cora and Frank have what it takes to turn the tables on a couple of second-tier blackmailers, but never have a chance against Keats' manipulative tricks.
Once again, MGM throws in eleventh-hour sermonizing to offset the 'immoral' content. (spoiler) Frank does a big An American Tragedy- type flipflop while awaiting execution, while Leon Ames' hardboiled D.A. morphs into a sympathetic figure. The last accident is treated as a moral retribution, and the irony of being convicted for the wrong murder becomes holy justice.
Again, the story just isn't suited to MGM's style of production. Turner's spotless white outfits never have a pleat out of position, and the production department utilizes so much rear-projection (quality work, admittedly) that the picture never seems to be taking place anywhere where people don't throw four shadows. Location work uses doubles in longshots almost exclusively. The roadside cafe is so stagebound that Cora and Frank watching Nick return through the front window is edited like a bad scene from Highway Patrol.
The film does have a certain bleakness, but doesn't get as excited as it should, as in the scene where Frank finds an available blonde, Audrey Totter, in a car that won't start. This classic of film noir is more of a curiosity than a good movie.
Warner's DVD of The Postman Always Rings Twice looks fine, although some hairline scratches mar a few scenes. The glossy, flat photography looks clean; the overemphatic score (dat - da - DAH!) has the appropriate punch.
The extras include trailers for both this and Bob Rafaelson's 1981 remake, a faithful but drawn-out adaptation that nobody seems to like much either. The really good version of this story is the un-official (i.e., bootlegged) Italian version from 1943, Luchino Visconti's Ossessione.
Film Historian Richard Jewell introduces The John Garfield Story, a TCM docu that tells the actor's story through film clips and actors old and young. The only surviving cast member at the time was Hume Cronyn, but we also hear from Lee Grant and others. Garfield comes off as a dynamic actor victimized by his left-leaning associations.
Compared to typical uninspired MGM poster art, the original graphics for Postman were beautiful, and Warners uses them well on its packaging.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Postman Always Rings Twice rates: