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The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice(1946)

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Though MGM secured the rights to pulp novelist James M. Cain's hard-bitten murder romance, The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1934, it wasn't until 12 years later that the film finally made it to the screen. A notoriously nasty story, rife with sexual intrigue, Postman (now on DVD from Warners Video) involves drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield), who conspires with luscious blond Cora Smith (Lana Turner) to murder her husband. In 1945, writer-producer Carey Wilson managed to adapt a script that would pass by the censorious Hays Administration. But director Tay Garnett's film still bristles with an electric undercurrent of sexual tension thanks to the steamy performances and palpable chemistry between Garfield and Turner, who some said enjoyed a brief romance on the set.

Setting the stakes of Cain's lust-stoked film, and offering one of the most memorable images in film history, Cora is introduced in the film through Frank's eyes as he scans from a memorable pair of gams wrapped in a pair of white shorts (the scene significantly upped the popularity of that revealing garment) up to her face. That first glimpse of the married Mrs. Smith convinces Frank, a drifter who has stumbled upon the Smiths' Twin Oaks restaurant along the highway, to stay on as a handyman. Frank immediately sees there is no love, and certainly no passion left in the marriage of convenience between Cora and bumbling restaurant owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Before too long, the pair are conspiring to murder Nick, but as in most murder-oriented films noir, the best laid plans tend to unravel even before they get started.

Director Garnett managed to tone down some of the sex in Cain's novel with tricks like dressing Turner all in virginal white. But even that timid color scheme only seemed to enhance Turner's platinum beauty and siren charms in a role she later called her favorite and film history has remembered as one of her best. Turner was a Hollywood sensation at the time of Postman's release - the subject of songs, comic book stories and comedy routines, one of WWII's favorite pin-ups and a certifiable bombshell who helped make Postman both a critical success and a popular hit. And Garfield, who'd often played a cynical, defiant rebel, brought newfound subtlety to his role as the love-drunk Frank who finds even his drifter's yearning for the open road diminished under the influence of the powerful aphrodisiac of Cora Smith.

In typical noir fashion, it's not just the lovers scheming murder who display a hazy morality in Postman. The world itself is thoroughly corrupt in this sordid thriller, as seen in the double-crosses and trickery used against the lovers by a sleazy defense attorney (played with reptilian finesse by Hume Cronyn), a conniving district attorney (Leon Ames) and a corrupt former cop (Alan Reed, who would later provide the voice of Fred Flintstone in the popular cartoon) who tries to blackmail the guilty pair.

Though the time period of its making and its gloss of amorality mark Postman as a film noir, it lacks some of the shadowy ambiance characteristic of the genre. Instead, it is in the twisting, torturous path that Cora and Frank take on their march to murder and their often brutal interactions with the law and each other as their botched homicide unfolds that gives the film its nasty, noir component.

The Warner Video DVD of The Postman Always Rings Twice is a fine-looking transfer of the glossy black and white film and includes a few worthwhile extras. The best of the lot is The John Garfield Story, a documentary that originally aired on TCM and features a rich array of clips and interviews with former co-stars of Garfield like Lee Grant, Hume Cronyn and others. Also included are the original theatrical trailer and one for the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

For more information about The Postman Always Rings Twice, visit Warner Video. To order The Postman Always Rings Twice, go to TCM Shopping.

by Felicia Feaster