When I learned that The Postman Always Rings Twice was made at MGM, it explained a lot. MGM is known for gloss, musicals, glamour, lavishness and star-wattage. It is not known for film noirs and The Postman Always Rings Twice is an unusual film noir. It occurred to me while I was watching it this weekend that it was just as much a melodrama as a noir: heightened emotions, coincidences, rapid reversals of fortunes (and The Postman Always Rings Twice has more reversals of fortune than several Bette Davis films put together) and complicated and agonized inter-relational dynamics. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; a good melodrama is an art form.
And for a film about murder, adultery, betrayal, lust and blackmail, it lacks the edge, shadows and sharp camera angles and bleak cynicism one would expect. By the last third, the film has left noir behind and lodges itself in romance territory, though a romance gone awry.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s short novel from 1934, one of three of his books to be turned into film noirs: Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. The movie follows the plot of the book quite closely, though the violent sexual charge is considerably toned down for the movie.
Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a vagrant by choice, hitchhiking from odd job to odd job and staying until he gets the well-known itching in his feet and moves on. He stops at a gas station and diner by a rural highway in California and is hired by the owner, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) to help out. Nick is a genial fellow, unless there is any money at stake and then Nick’s paranoia that people are trying to cheat him comes out. Nick has a wife, much younger than him, named Cora (Lana Turner). There is instant electricity when they meet and through a series of plot turns, they decide to run away together. But Cora ultimately can’t do it. She doesn’t want to be a tramp or have to go back to working at a hash house. She wants to make something of herself and she and Frank decide instead to kill her husband, which would allow her to take over his business and employ some of her ideas to make it more profitable.
The plot is a bit mind-bending. Most noirs plots follow the three part formula of seduction, crime and reckoning. This film goes from initial seduction, failed murder attempt, abandonment of murder attempt, renewed attempt and success, a trial, betrayal, getting off at the trial, hating each other after the trial, dealing with a blackmailer, paranoia, jealousy and thoughts of killing each other, genuine reconciliation and the final reckoning. It doesn’t feel convoluted when you watch it, though. It all seems like a natural development of the characters.
I was especially impressed by Lana Turner, an actress famous for being beautiful rather than talented. Admittedly, she does not have an expressive voice (Barbara Stanwyck can seduce partially with her voice and can convey so much with a word), but her performance as Cora was surprisingly subtle. Cora Smith is not a usual femme fatale. When we first meet her, she is in the role of siren. However, later she reveals ambivalence. She seems to be almost afraid of Frank and the feelings he will bring out in her, like she knows she has a dark side and is afraid to unleash it.
Several times when Frank is making advances, she tries to get her husband to pay attention to her as if she wants to remind herself that he loves her and she must remain loyal (Nick seems to suffer from a common noir and melodrama problem of remaining so blind to what is going on in his house that he even inadvertently encourages the affair).
There are moments when you can tell that she is manipulating Frank, but other times when she seems genuinely to want him. She gets to be the vulnerable and unhappy wife, the seductress, the manipulator, a vengeful woman (when Frank gets tricked into betraying her at her trial for her husband’s murder), unflinching, quick and surprisingly unfazed by Frank’s brutality in dealing with the blackmailer, ambitious, perpetually trying to start afresh and wipe the slate clean. She married Nick because it meant a new beginning; she tells Frank they must kill Nick so they can have a new beginning and she later believes that when she is pregnant the baby will provide yet another fresh beginning. But there is an imbalance in the force, so to speak, and she never can start afresh, but must pay for her actions and it is ironic that she finally does pay through a freak accident rather than human agency.
John Garfield is a natural fit for Frank Chambers as the drifter who knows better, but can’t help himself. Like most noirs, his motivations are simple: he wants her and that overwhelms everything else he knows and feels. His voice-over narration of the story is also unique. Most voice-overs are stoic or ironic, but not Garfield’s. His is desperate to be understood and to explain what happened and it is almost breathless.
The DA prosecuting Cora and her defense attorney are real highlights in the film. Leon Ames is the DA who is not above a few tricks to make his case, though he does want to see justice done. Hume Cronyn is the slimy, but brilliant, defense attorney, a man with no interest in justice who seems to be a lawyer for the sheer kicks of it, testing his ability. He won’t even take a fee from Cora when he could have demanded a large one. Instead, he wins a bet with the DA and an improbable case.
The ending, oddly enough, is positively upbeat, all things considered. Frank is indicted for murdering Cora – though it really was an accident – but when he realizes that it was only justice for the murder of Nick he embraces his end. He and Cora pay for their crimes with their death, balance to the force is restored and he even seems in hopes of being reunited with Cora after his execution. This is a romantic spin on what has come before. It is not entirely out of the blue, since the film increasingly seems to take on a romantic hue. Murder didn’t bring them what they wanted and actually brought them fear and paranoia, but unlike Double Indemnity, where lack of trust is the lovers’ downfall, they really do seem to love each other and perhaps do genuinely overcome their fear. Their ultimate demise has nothing to do with self-destruction but cosmic justice.
I can’t end without discussing Lana Turner’s costumes, designed by Irene. In almost the entire movie she wears white – usually associated purity – and some sort of heard covering: turbans, swimming cap, hat, even a towel at one point. My theory is that Cora is a relatively self-aware femme fatale. She’s not entirely evil, she wants to be good, but knows what she is capable of and fears it. In self-defense from herself, she constantly wears white to reinforce who she wants to be. It’s the adage about dressing like the person you want to be…though there is a distinctly sexy edge to her wardrobe. The head coverings I find more puzzling. At one point, just before she dies and believing she finally has that fresh start, she has a towel draped over her head and it looks like a wimple like nuns wear. Head coverings have traditionally been associated with modesty, so perhaps it is all part of the general attempt at modest dressing, even if the affect is seldom modest.
She does wear black twice and it stands out when she does. The first time she is in a black dressing gown and is contemplating suicide (she says; not sure how far we can believe her) and then she and Frank plot the final murder of Nick that actually succeeds. The second time is when she returns from her mother’s funeral and is ready to tell Frank that she is pregnant and ready for another fresh start, though the fresh start is deferred by the appearance of a blackmailer, who through quick thinking on her part and violence on Frank’s, they manage to foil. But in that scene she reveals a tellingly ruthless streak in how she handles the situation and watches Frank beat the blackmailer. It is possible that the moments when she is in black are the moments when she is most herself…fundamentally despairing and cold inside, but grasping for a better future, to be a better person, and capable of doing anything to achieve it.