Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Double Indemnity really set the ball rolling for hardboiled thriller adaptations of
pulp detective stories and murder mysteries. A second James M. Cain classic,
Mildred Pierce came out in less than a
year and proved a smart picture that deftly recontoured Cain's scorching novel into something that
Hollywood could get past the censors. A year after that came Cain's most famous sexed-up page turner,
a tale of murder and corruption at the low end of the social scale.
MGM produced the The Postman Always Rings Twice and gave it the same kind of production
gloss that de-boned Tortilla Flat of any period flavor or atmosphere. With woo-bait Lana
Turner and new proletarian hero John Garfield plotting a half-baked
murder scheme, the picture was a big hit. Now it comes off as rather spotty, with some good acting
and a number of refreshingly cynical plot turns.
Drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) takes a job slinging hash at the roadside
beanery of Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), an elderly Canadian with a hot number for a wife, Cora (Lana
Turner). Frank and Cora try their best to avoid the obvious, but succumb to the temptation to
knock off her husband. Little do they know what pitfalls await them when the D.A. Kyle Sackett
(Leon Ames) and defense counsel Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn) enter the picture.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Supplements: TCM Docu The John Garfield Story, intro by Richard Jewell, trailers,
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 6, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson