The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Directed by Tay Garnett. Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway (113 min).
Drifter Frank is a goner the moment he spots sexpot Cora, shimmering in white, the terribly bored young wife of a roadside café owner. Can murder solve her restless cravings? “The best version of James M. Cain’s torrid, hard-hitting romance…The studio threw in the towel on Turner’s sweet persona and let her turn on the blowtorch” (TV Guide).
A tramp means a different thing depending if you are a man or a woman. The man is a tramp/bum, somebody with “itchy feet” who can never stay in one place, or with one woman, too long. Cora is another kind of tramp. She married her husband for security, perhaps, and regrets it pretty quickly. In the film, Cora’s husband is elderly, but in the book, he’s Greek. Some post war films featured women who married an ethnic other (like in Ace in the Hole) perhaps, because he looked good in a uniform, and then thought again. MGM bought the rights to James M. Cain’s torrid novel in 1934, but censorship problems kept it off the screen. This is not too surprising, since the rather explicit sex, and the sexual charge of violence is still rather shocking. This is hinted at right at the very beginning:
“Then, I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her” (Cain 4).
The stranglehold that the Hays Code held on American films loosened somewhat after WW II, and two European versions of the film, although surely not much seen in this country, plus, the successful filming of two other Cain novels, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, made an American version feasible. Brightly lit, and with Lana Turner clothed in blinding white as if with a futile protest for her virtue, the fever of repressed sexuality makes it much sexier than the eighties version of the film which co-starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.
Postman unites two noir archetypes, a basically moral man, who slips when confronted with the criminal aspirations of a passionately amoral woman, as well as two divergent acting styles. Lana Turner, groomed in the Hollywood Dream Factory, popular “sweater girl” and like Betty Grable in I Wake Up Screaming, a popular WW II pin up, and John Garfield, a naturalistic actor from the stage, who drew on his rough and tumble youth. “…Turner on her slightly cheap, manufactured, highly stylized ‘sexy’ image (when Cora talks about fighting off men since she was fourteen, Turner must surely be talking about herself)” (Rough Guide 215).
Lana Turner was the epitome of the Tinseltown star making machinery. Born to a teenaged mother, and a gambler father who was murdered when she was still a girl, she had the hardscrabble life of many early film stars. Discovered at 15, by the publisher of the Hollywood reporter, after cutting typing class for a Coke, the camera loved her innocent sensuality. In her first film, They Won’t Forget, she wore a tight skirt and sweater, “I was just a 15 year old kid with a bosom and a backside strolling across the screen” she said later (Updike 70). MGM groomed her to be one of their top money making actresses, bypassing the acting and elocution lessons—and she did not disappoint them. “Critics didn’t like her, but for a considerable time, two groups did: the people who made movies, and the people who went to them” (ibid). Known as much for her tempestuous romances as for her acting, she was seemingly unable to differentiate between her real and reel lives. She loved to have fun and she loved men, although her taste in them was pretty rotten (she was married 8 times to 7 different men).
Her daughter wrote, “From the stunning opening shot of her in white, framed in the doorway, Mother set the screen on fire in Postman, and Cora was her favorite role. What made the film so good was a combination of separate parts in front of and behind the camera: Mother at the peak of her appeal; John Garfield’s earthy attractiveness; their chemistry together; and the wonderful Cecil Kellaway as the husband” (Crane 291).
John Garfield, was born Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East Side of New York, “born to be a mug of a gangster, if ever a guy was” (Hannsberry 261). His mother died when he was seven, and he was left pretty much on his own on the streets. He was enrolled in P.S. 45, a school for tough street kids, but one of his teachers directed him both towards Golden Gloves boxing and an acting career. After high school he studied acting and made his Broadway debut in 1932, afterwards joining the Group Theater, which inspired him. He had a small part in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, and was spotted and signed to a Warner Brothers contract. In his screen debut, Four Daughters, his performance was riveting (catch it on TCM sometime, he’s amazing in a formula picture) and after being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he continued his WB career sometimes in programmers, but sometimes in strong, distinctive parts, like Pride of the Marines, in which he played a real life veteran blinded during WW II. He received rave reviews for Postman, the New York Times wrote he “reflects to the life the crude and confused young hobo who stumbles aimlessly into a fatal trap” (Hannsberry 264). Garfield was blacklisted during the HUAC era, as were many members of the Group Theater, even though there was no specific accusation. One of his friends said, “He was a street boy with a street boy’s sense of honor, and when they asked him to give the names of friends at parties, he refused…The blacklist killed him” (Shipman 229). He died at the age of 39 from a heart attack due to a childhood bout with scarlet fever. At his memorial service he was eulogized, “He came like a meteor, and like a meteor, he departed” (Hannsberry 270).
Janine Basinger, in discussing the star making machinery of Hollywood writes, her “entrance in Postman is one of the iconic showstoppers in motion picture history…When Lana Turner preened in front of John Garfield, an entire nation drooled. Postman is loaded with as much hot sex as the studio felt it could get away with in the 1940s, and the on-screen chemistry between Turner and Garfield generated real heat. When the play Latin music on the jukebox and dance close on a steamy summer night, the shadowed room lit only by an outside neon sign makes anything—including murder—seem not only possible but downright necessary” (Basinger 202).
Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, 100 Film Noirs: A BFI Screen Guide by Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips, The Rough Guide to Film Noir by Alexander Ballinger & Danny Graydon, “Legendary Lana” by John Updike February 12, 1996 New Yorker, Lana: The Memories, The Myths, The Movies by Cheryl Crane and Cindy de la Hoz, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years by David Shipman, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.