I’d meant to review this film in time for Lana Turner’s birthday on February 8. But other things kept me busy, and what with trying to meet a deadline for my novel and write a short story before I lose the thread of it and watch an irresistible film (The Black Rose) which I’d just gotten hold of… well, better late than never. Belated happy birthday, Ms Turner! And RIP.
The Postman Always Rings Twice was based on a novel of the same name by James M Cain, published in 1934. James Cain was also the writer of Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, both highly regarded in the world of noir. The Postman Always Rings Twice was supposedly (I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment) quite sexual and violent in its content—so much so that it took ten years to create a screenplay tame enough to pass the censors. It ended up, however, being a very good example of film noir. And the role that Lana Turner thought her best.
Her first appearance onscreen in the film is definitely very dramatic, and very in your face. Cora Smith (Lana) is the young and—need one mention it—gorgeous wife of the much older and definitely unattractive Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). Nick and Cora run a roadside diner called Twin Oaks off the Los Angeles-San Diego highway, and Cora spends her days washing dishes, serving up hamburgers and regretting her marriage to this man.
They’ve put out a sign outside Twin Oaks, asking for help: Man Wanted. [An interesting choice of words; Nick might want a man to help clean up and do the heavy work, but it’s not hard to guess why Cora might want a man]. And a man does turn up: the drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield), who decides to stop by and earn some dollars before his itchy feet take him further down the road.
One look at Cora and her very obvious come-hither look, and Frank is ensnared. He doesn’t realise immediately that this vision in white [Observation: Cora Smith, a femme fatale in every sense of the word, wears virginal white throughout the film except in two scenes]—is Nick Smith’s wife. Eventually, though, that doesn’t matter to Frank. He takes the job, and as his first task, puts the Man Wanted sign in the fire.
Things progress swiftly, and before we know it, Frank and Cora are in the middle of a steamy affair, going down to the beach for night-time swims, dancing, kissing when Nick isn’t around. [Nick, for someone who’s obviously been put in the shadow by his beautiful wife, seems to be completely devoid of what might be considered normal jealousy. He doesn’t seem to notice the attraction between Cora and Frank, and in fact even sings for them while they’re dancing].
…until one day, Cora and Frank run away together. Or at least try to; they walk a long way without being able to hitch a ride. Cora falls and dirties her dress; her feet hurt and she finally decides she won’t’ go through with it. She loves Frank, but this isn’t the way to fulfil that love. And, more importantly, she’s worked very hard to make Twin Oaks what it is; if she leaves now, all that work goes down the drain. No. Cora wants to go back and make something of her life.
So they go back and Nick, who’s been out all day, is none the wiser. Life settles back into its old groove. But Cora’s resentment keeps growing, of Nick and all that he stops her from doing—revamping Twin Oaks, making Frank her own, living life to its fullest. So one day, getting an idea from a magazine article, she asks Frank if he will help her murder Nick.
The plan’s a simple one. When Nick’s in his bath, Cora will go into the bathroom on the pretext of getting a towel, and while his back is turned, she’ll hit him on the head. Goodbye, Nick. The police will think this is another old man who slipped in his bathtub and hit his head on the edge. Unfortunately for Cora and Nick, their plan runs into an unexpected snag. A cat climbs up the step ladder that Frank had set up outside the house, leading up to the bathroom. The cat runs into some exposed wiring, trips it up, dies in the process—and plunges the house into darkness just as Cora hits Nick. She doesn’t hit hard enough. Nick collapses, and Cora screams until Frank comes running.
Cora and Frank realise that if Nick is still alive, their only hope to avoid suspicion is to get him to the hospital themselves. They do, but someone’s already suspicious: Sackett (Leon Ames), the district attorney, smells a rat and comes to see Nick in hospital.
Cora’s guardian angel is working hard; Nick, when he regains consciousness, does not remember what happened. All he recalls is that it all went dark.
So, a reprieve. Frank, shaken by this near brush with what could have been murder, leaves. Cora goes back to her old mundane life at Twin Oaks.
And one day, Nick runs into Frank in Los Angeles and insists on bringing him home to Twin Oaks to share a piece of news.
News which is, according to Nick, very good. He’s selling off Twin Oaks. And why? So that he and Cora can move to Santa Barbara. And why Santa Barbara? Because Nick has a sister there (whom Cora has never heard of before) who’s now partly paralysed and needs care—the care only a woman [read: Cora] can provide.
This is the first Cora has heard of this plan. She tries to remonstrate with Nick, but his mind’s made up. They’re moving.
That night, Frank finds Cora contemplating suicide. She cannot move to Santa Barbara, giving up all her dreams for Twin Oaks, just so that she can take care of Nick’s sister. There is only one way around this mess: kill Nick. Finally, irrevocably.
Which they do succeed in doing. But will that bring Cora and Frank the happiness and success they’d dreamed of? How far will they be able to go with Nick’s murder on their consciences? And it’s not just a case of conscience; there’s also the very real fact that Sackett is suspicious. Where will his suspicion take him?
What I liked about this film:
The pace of the film, the way it builds, the inevitability of it all. This is a gripping story of two people whose unbridled lust for each other and whose ambition (especially Cora’s) leads them down paths they may not have trodden if they hadn’t come into each other’s lives. There are some excellent twists and turns in the plot, particularly in the second half (watch out for Hume Cronyn as Cora’s lawyer, Keats). There is suspense: will they get away with it, or will the law catch up with them? How?
One thought about this film: I didn’t think I’d find myself sympathising with a pair of lust-crazed murderers. But oddly enough, The Postman Always Rings Twice is sort of cyclical in its sympathy (and lack of it) for Cora and Frank. The cold-blooded way in which they plan to murder Nick made me sick; but later, when Nick callously tells Cora that they’ll be moving, selling off Twin Oaks (without consulting Cora, mind you) just so that Cora can look after his sister… I had to sympathise with Cora. I’d have helped kill Nick at that point. And so on, sympathy, horror, sympathy, horror. There were moments I wanted these two to find happiness, no matter what they’d done. There were moments I wanted Sackett to catch them and slap them in prison. And there were moments I couldn’t care less.
Then, there’s the characterisation. The three main characters are so brilliantly etched, so alive. There’s Cora, ambitious, frustrated, feisty (in her own way), yet not exactly intelligent or mature in the decisions she takes in her life. Frank, governed more by his passions than anything else; perhaps with more scruples than Cora, but eventually somewhat of a wimp. And Nick, all hail-fellow-well-met, but selfish and insensitive too. And a foolish man, who can’t see what’s happening right in front of his very eyes.
Oh, and I like the fact that the cast is so manageably small, so uncluttered.
Last but not the least, Lana Turner. Just about everybody seems to say how gorgeous Lana Turner looked in The Postman Always Rings Twice. She does, but that’s not why I loved her in this film. I loved her because of her acting; she brings the frustrated, repressed, seductive Cora perfectly to life. A great character, and superbly portrayed.
What I didn’t like:
The legal twists and turns of the case are interesting, but they aren’t very believable. For instance, Sackett’s quick assent to Keats’s request for co-operation seems not just too sudden, but also a little illogical; why would Sackett agree to something like that, when in all other respects he seems to want to bring Cora and Frank to justice? And there’s the point of law on which Keats manages to get Cora out—while letting Frank get his neck in the noose on the same charges. Would any judge really agree to that? I guess it is possible in the US (or was, back in 1946), but to me it seemed odd.
But that isn’t really the crux of the film; what holds this film apart from the rest is the darkly grim insight it offers into the black hole of lust and ambition, sending lives whirling out of control and eventually swallowing them up… watch. It’s good, very good.