RSS

Tag Archives: Adultery

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – A Romantic Noir Melodrama

PostmanAlwaysPosterWhen 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.

Lana Turner as Cora

Lana Turner as Cora – Frank’s first sight of her

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.

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

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, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner - Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner – Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

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.

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

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.

 
8 Comments

Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Film Noir

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Red Dust (1932) – Like David and Basthsheba in the Jungle

thI have wanted to see Red Dust for a long time. It is one of the quintessential pre-code films, and I had a very definite idea what the movie would be about before I saw it. It was going to be all about the wise-cracking chemistry between Jean Harlow and Clark Gable (with one steamy kiss between Gable and Mary Astor) and about the difference between Harlow’s Vantine – the hooker with a heart of gold – and Astor’s Barbara – the lady who acts more like a prostitute than the prostitute. And there was going to be a definite class element to the story, the difference between the purposelessness of Astor’s and her husband’s New York life and the vibrancy of the Indochina rubber plantation that Gable runs.

So I was a little taken aback when I finished the movie with a different impression. It struck me as a retelling of David and Bathsheba and a story about four remarkably immature and emotionally stunted people, trying to play at love and ruining each other’s lives in the charged and closed atmosphere of the steamy, hot, and rainy rubber plantation. And at the center of the story was Clark Gable’s Dennis Carson, a modern King David.

Harlow and Gable

Harlow and Gable

Clark Gable is Denny, a manager (or owner; not sure which) of a rubber plantation. He says he hates it, but his overseer, Mac (Tully Marshall) says it’s in his blood. His father did it and he’ll always do it. Soon the prostitute, Vantine (Jean Harlow), arrives on the boat and although his men nudge him and wink, Denny says that he’s known her type of woman before. However, she soon cajoles him and kids him into a better humor and the two of them enjoy her stay very much. She resumes her journey, however, and when he tries to pay her, she is hurt and says she had hoped it wasn’t like that.

Soon, an engineer, Gary Willis, (Gene Raymond) and his wife, Barbara (Mary Astor), arrive at the plantation and Denny is instantly struck by the wife (literally; she slaps him), who he regards as a lady. When Gary falls ill, he helps nurse him through and Barbara is almost uncontrollably attracted to him as well. Meanwhile, the boat Vantine was suppose to take has broken down, so now she is back at the plantation and watching with jealous eyes as Denny arranges so that the husband is away on difficult work so he can seduce Barbara.

It’s all a very entertaining, wise-crack exchanging, super-charged, compact, gritty, steamy little film. However, as I mentioned, I wound up with an unexpected impression. In fact, despite how the movie was advertised as being about Gable and Harlow (understandable, since she and he were the stars at MGM), I was a little surprised at how little Harlow’s character really further’s the central plot. The center is Gable, and the triangle between Astor and Raymond. Without that, there is no story.

Mary-Astor-and-Clark-Gable-in-Red-Dust1932

Astor and Gable

What I am curious about is what the writers of the screenplay intended. Did they mean to draw parallels to King David or was that merely coincidental? In the remake of Red DustMogambo, it is clear from the start that Clark Gable and the Jean Harlow character (played by Ava Gardiner), are meant to be together. The romance between him and the society lady is poignant, but you know it’s never going to work. Red Dust is intriguingly ambiguous. No character particularly seems to belong with anyone.

Denny’s character is an interesting one, which has shades of King David. He is the king of his manor. He treats his Asian workers (the ‘coolies’) little better than slaves, he treats his white workers only a step or two up. He even treats Vantine like just somebody for him to use. He’s never had a normal relationship of equals in his whole life and there appears to be nobody he respects or who he can have empathy for. When he’s with Vantine, all they do is wisecrack and wrestle like kids. Then Barbara and Gary arrive.

At first, he treats her and her husband brusquely, believing they are just society people who will not be tough enough to take the life. However, when a frustrated and overwhelmed Barbara slaps him, that is when he really looks at her and begins his pursuit. I was a little puzzled by this, but I think it makes sense. Denny clearly has a thing about women who are supposedly ladies. He mentions it several times, dismissing women like Vantine. He makes sure everyone treats Barbara like a lady, and he treats her like one by trying to make sure she is comfortable. At one point, he tells Barbara that his mother died on the plantation, which is why he doesn’t usually allow women on the plantation (Vantine doesn’t seem to count in his mind). One wonders if his mother was also a lady, not tough like his father, and that this idea of being a lady came from her. The reason the slap got his attention is because, whether she meant to or not, Barbara was signaling that she expected to be treated differently than his coolies, workers and prostitutes. He is turned on by that, but also respects her for it.

tumblr_me616dcsa11rxeqpao1_500And interestingly enough, it is only to Barbara that he actually talks as if she were an equal and not somebody below him, mentioning personal things like the death of his mother. And like King David, he sends her husband off on an awful and nearly impossible work site so that he can be alone with her, although Vantine is still around and has to watch what is going on.

But because he’s so emotionally stunted, he doesn’t realize the consequences. He sees Barbara, he wants Barbara and even believes that he’s fallen in love. And it is only when he spends a little time with Gary and realizes that he’s a decent young man, eager to work hard and never complaining about the working conditions (it’s pouring rain most of the time), who loves his wife, it’s only then that Denny really considers that his actions affect others.

And this is where the tragedy comes in, because it’s really too late to fix anything, but he doesn’t realize that, either. He decides that he cannot run away with Barbara and that she will be better off with her husband. So he does his best to make her hate him by telling her he never loved her and implying that she’s just a tramp. She responds by becoming hysterical and, happening to have a gun in her hand that he had given her earlier for protection, she shoots him in the side. Gary comes in and Denny and Vantine tell him that Denny had tried to assault Barbara and she had fired in self-defense. Gary and Barbara leave and Denny is left with Vantine, who nurses him back to health. And the movie ends.

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

Vantine and Barbara, just after Denny has kissed Barbara

But the damage has already been done. He may think he’s fixed it simply by taking himself out of the running, but the marriage is broken now. It’s hard to imagine that Barbara – who struggled with guilt about Gary, who she regards as a trusting child – won’t confess what happened when she is no longer hysterical or if she doesn’t, there will always be that barrier between them and Gary may never be sure what happened. It is also hard to imagine that she will simply get over what she felt for Denny or how he tossed her aside (he’s trying to be noble, but no woman wants to be told they were used like a tramp; they would rather hear that their love mattered, even if the affair must end). Near the end of the movie, when Vantine and Denny are both playing their parts to convince Gary and Barbara that everything was Denny’s fault, they have the slightly pleased expressions of children who think they have put a toy back together and don’t realize just how broken it is.

Barbara’s character actually reminded me a lot of the character Anna Karenina. Like Anna, Barbara is in an unequal marriage, only her husband seems much younger than her rather than older. And like Anna, she flings herself headlong into the affair – knowing it’s wrong, feeling guilty, but not stopping to really think about it. I still can’t figure out how she and Gary were married in the first place. My theory is that they knew each other all their lives and married because it was expected of them by their parents (I imagine them as having mothers who are also bridge partners).

Astor and Raymond

Astor and Raymond

Gary speaks wistfully to Denny of his dream to go to South America, which he gave up when he got married. He’s also like a kid, enjoying playing at shooting tigers, completely oblivious to what is going on between his wife and Denny, and it is Barbara, not Gary, who makes the decisions and who mothers him when he doesn’t feel well. Gary speaks about wanting a home in New York and a family, but neither Barbara or Gary act as if they do. It is not clear what Barbara wants, but she seems to want to travel, since she came with Gary on the trip in the first place, and because she is willing to run away with Denny and see the world.There is no evidence that she wants that home and children that Gary talks about. It sounds more like parroting an idea somebody put in his head about what he and Barbara really feel, even if they don’t. Denny seems to be Barbara’s first real passion and she abandons herself to it completely.Denny thinks he’s found his ideal of a lady, not realizing the emotional vulnerability beneath the red hot passion.

Vantine is another interesting character who, unlike Barbara, does not expect to be treated well, since she probably never has been before. She doesn’t really mind that Denny doesn’t love her, if she even knows it, because she too is emotionally stunted. All she really knows or cares about is that she has him. She is delighted when Denny decides to be “noble” and never even thinks about whether or not his heart was really engaged (or Barbara’s). In some respects, it is like her character is in the movie to provide titilation for the audience…like her notorious bath in the water barrel scene.

MV5BNzE2ODQ0Mzk4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDkzNTI2__V1_SY317_CR13,0,214,317_But I do not believe that Denny loves Vantine. If she had really left the first time, I don’t think he would even have missed her. The only time he pays attention to her is when he is upset by something. At the beginning of the movie, he is upset generally about working on the plantation, later he kisses her when he is trying to get drunk and is sulking about how he is now not going to run away with Barbara, and at the end they kiss when he is upset after having been reminded of Barbara and Gary, who have sailed back to New York. When Vantine reads him the article, he has a brief expression of regret on his face, then he kisses her. It’s actually kind of sad, because, however fun the scene is with Vantine reading him a children’s bedtime story (because she’s read everything else in the paper multiple times) and their grins and playfulness, it is the playfulness of children (underscored by the children’s story she is reading) and not of adults engaging in an adult relationship and he seems to be trying to console himself, using her rather than really seeing her as a person or respecting her.

I have to say, the movie is far more entertaining that I just made it sound, but Red Dust somehow managed to inspire my interest. It’s a very taut film and there’s no moral to the story, nor is the ending really the end of the story for these characters. Perhaps that’s why I liked it; there was so much room to imagine these people’s past lives, their motivations, and their future.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on September 24, 2014 in Drama

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: