Friday, June 5, 2020

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Lana Turner and John Garfield on the set with director Tay Garnett (right)

The director (left) with Turner and Garfield

Turner and Garfield on the set

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE                      A-                   
USA  (113 mi)  1946  d:  Tay Garnett

With my brains and your looks, we could go places.
—Frank Chambers (John Garfield)

Rarely has an author hit the Hollywood trifecta like the success mystery writer James M. Cain had in successive years with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Michael Curtiz’ Mildred Pierce (1945), and this lurid adaptation of his first 1934 novel in 1946, largely inspired by the infamous Ruth Snyder murder case in 1927 (Ruth Snyder | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers).  These films were vehicles for major movie star heroines like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, who won an Oscar after she was unceremoniously dropped by MGM, the studio known for producing lavish musical spectacles, now putting their weight behind blonde bombshell Lana Turner in one of her most memorable roles.  Turner had a highly publicized yet disastrous personal life marred by tragedy, married 8 times, yet none of her marriages lasted more than four years, so the salaciousness of the material only whetted the public’s appetite both for her and the film.  Due to censorship fears from the overwhelming influence of the Hays Code, (Hays Code: Rules, Censorhip and Hollywood Movies ***), it took more than a decade for MGM to bring this film into light in the United States, no doubt influenced by the success of the earlier Cain depictions, this one adapted by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, with versions released elsewhere first, including Chenal’s hard-to-find LE DERNIER TOURNANT (1939) in France and Visconti’s celebrated neorealist OSSESSIONE (1942) in Italy, with MGM blocking all prints from American release, where Visconti’s film wasn’t seen in the United States until 1977, and then in an abbreviated version.  Excellent modern era versions exist as well, including Berlin-school director Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008), but this American version is the most accurate rendition to the literary source, one of the more important crime novels of the 20th century, often viewed as the definitive postwar noir, showcasing the distinctive features of the genre, where a femme fatale along with an alienated and tragic antihero conspire to murder her husband, driven by lustful desires and animalistic instincts, creating a murky aesthetic of amoral confusion, revealed in a narrated voiceover recalling past events.  One aspect of the book that was never translated into the film release was its connection to the Great Depression, as it was written during nationwide bank failures, where it was commonplace for people to be out of work.  The effect this has on Lana Turner’s character is profound, yet it’s easier for viewers to get wrapped up in her own fall from grace.  What distinguishes this fatal attraction from typical noir films is their lack of sophistication and complete unfamiliarity with criminal mentality, making them just ordinary people doomed by poverty, lack of opportunity, and self-delusion, emblematic of the lower-middle class misery and the urgent desire to get out of it by taking an easy path, suggesting how easy it is to lose one’s bearings to modern day temptations.  John Garfield’s drifter, Frank Chambers, was a Depression era survivor, using a combination if street smarts and charm along with a handful of useful skills, as he was used to adapting to circumstances to fit in wherever he went.  Having grown up in the slums of New York, Garfield was familiar with hard times, going on to make films like Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), both reflecting the fallout from the downward spiral of capitalism, with Garfield playing cocky, self-assured loners who are outside the mainstream of society, the kind of guys that break the rules in order to get ahead, often disregarding the interests of others, where Garfield was viewed as a working class hero, a kid literally from the streets who became a success in Hollywood bringing a rough-edged authenticity to his characters.  But he was also a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare that created a Hollywood blacklist on November 25, 1947, where his real crime was growing up poor, with socialist organizations part of ordinary life, offering a form of social protest against the disillusionment caused by the social and economic hardships of the Depression in the 30’s.  The Committee, however, hounded Garfield to his premature death, as after his original testimony, he learned they were reviewing the transcripts for possible perjury charges, where he died in 1952 at the age of 39 of a heart attack, allegedly aggravated by the stress of the blacklisting.  Garfield is the prototype for the young, rebellious characters of the 50’s like James Dean, Marlon Brando, or Montgomery Clift, young men trying to make sense out of the uncertainties of the atomic age when the world around them made little sense, often feeling mixed-up with no moral footing.  Garfield was doing the same during the Depression era, where survival was always the first order of business.   

With Cain’s novel serving as a source of inspiration for the 1942 Albert Camus philosophical masterpiece on existentialism, The Stranger (L’Etranger), Garfield narrates his own story as drifter Frank Chambers, where we immediately sense the existential rootlessness of his transience, moving from place to place with ease, having no place to really call home, “It was on a side road outside of Los Angeles.  I was hitchhiking from San Francisco down to San Diego, I guess.  A half hour earlier, I’d thumbed a ride.”  Stopping at a roadside diner and gas station with a giant Help Wanted sign out front, both the film and the novel bookend the story with district attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames), who has offered Frank a ride into the town of Twin Oaks in the foothills just outside Los Angeles, where he is greeted by the kindly middle-aged proprietor Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) who instantly takes a liking to him, showing him around the place and offering him the job.  But the intrigue begins when Frank is left alone while Nick serves a customer, allowing Lana Turner as Cora Smith to make her intensely erotic entrance, a voluptuous platinum blonde dressed all in white, wearing snugly fitting white shorts and a halter top, with a turban on her head, where she has the kind of raw beauty pulp fiction writers clamor for, probably inventing the term male gaze to describe the way the camera leers at her, following the outlines of her body, immersing viewers in Frank’s voyeuristic point of view, becoming the most sexually charged moment of the film.  Frank’s voiceover narration is bluntly revealing, describing her as the kind of sultry woman a man immediately craves, hooked just by the sight of her, hypnotized by her smoldering sensuality with the face and figure to drive a man into doing anything to have her, leaving him helpless without her, where he’s willing to stop at nothing, even killing a man just to possess her.  Frank can do little else but stare, certain he has found the woman of his dreams as she slinks away, but his jaw drops in bewilderment when he discovers she is Nick’s wife.  What he quickly discovers is the predicament she’s in, as Frank owns the restaurant, the car, and all other assets, while he also expects his wife to work for no compensation, which she does, feeling powerless and exploited, tired of forever being treated as insignificantly small, forever smothering her larger ambitions to be something more.  Dressed in her white cook’s uniform, with the restaurant name prominently appearing on the sleeve, she resembles hired help, doing what the boss tells her to do, incapable of establishing her own identity.  It’s a loveless marriage, as she never loved him from the outset, but felt economically safe and secure, which she felt at the time was the best option, where Nick always felt she’d come around, but not in the current circumstances where she’s humiliated and devalued on a daily basis.  With Frank entering the picture, his virile masculinity unleashes her pent-up sexuality and offers her a choice she previously didn’t have, feeling confined, even imprisoned, rarely ever leaving the premises, quickly establishing a sizzling romance, somehow avoiding the book’s graphic depictions of violence, sexuality, and sadism, instead relying upon late night drives to the beach in Nick’s car.  Nick is the odd man out in this three-way affair, older, with a tendency to get tipsy, missing the obvious signs taking place right in front of him, even encouraging the young couple to dance together, to laugh and have fun, with each one devising ways to remove him from the picture.  While saturated in a pervading mood of hopeless fatalism, accentuated by movie posters that screamed “Their Love was a Flame that Destroyed!,” what stands out is the sympathetic portrayal of their criminal acts, as the respective viewpoints of Frank and Cora remain the centerpiece of the film, both before and after crimes are committed.  This takes us into Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment territory, lending itself to cause and effect psychoanalytic interpretation even as the perpetrators themselves refuse self-reflection and are in absolute denial of the psychology, with viewers fully aware of their guilt, yet still somehow pulling for them.

What’s apparent in the landscape is the restricted universe, the ever-retreating space of the American West, with an expanding urban sprawl in an oppressively sunny Southern California that constricts all open space, where the setting could be anywhere, as the two have simply reached the end of the road, leaving no other way out, where nothing else matters except the two of them, obsessed by overcoming their circumstances, becoming all that matters to each other, as everything else is blocked out and of little consequence.  Frank’s mobility in moving from place to place has led him nowhere, where his freedom has been a mirage, as it’s all been an escape from the harsh realities that envelop him.  Cora is driven by an ambitious desire to be somebody, to make something of her life, to come out from under Nick’s shadow and no longer be saddled by wearing a cheap uniform, the same dreams and desires that drive Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, both exhibiting a fierce individuality.  While Crawford is motivated by economic freedom and success, Cora’s views are shaped by being deprived that opportunity, always feeling imprisoned, even by her good looks, fighting off men since she was fourteen, as she’s always had to escape the unwanted attention of men.  Freeing herself from the suffocating social restrictions leads her to turn in desperation to Frank, who offers the illusion of freedom, where it’s the two of them against the world, yet they’re both in the same predicament, where all they have is the drudgery of work, which brings no happiness at all and no chance whatsoever in obtaining anything more.  Smoldering in frustration, they devise multiple plots to remove Nick from the picture, first escaping together on the road, quickly realizing they have no money to build a better life, then devising crude murder plots.  The first is unsuccessful, but lands Nick in the hospital in a close call, drawing the attention of Sackett.  Their second bite of the apple is disastrously ill-advised, surely there’s a better way, with hundreds of movies offering better murder options, but this film is not about the perfect murder, instead it’s about the willingness to venture into the depths of a moral abyss to obtain what you desire, crossing the line, knowing it’s wrong, but doing it anyway, irrespective of the consequences.  The courtroom sequences with an always suspicious Sackett and the deviously underhanded methods of defense attorney Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn) are less than impressive, generating little interest, despite the weird legal maneuvers involved, bringing their whirlwind romance to a dead stop, only to be resurrected again in short order, with Nick now out of the picture, but the two can’t help themselves, as they’re too devious, losing all faith in one another to make it work.  Their jealous and stiflingly distrustful instincts bring out the worst in each other, both feeling bitter and pessimistic, engaging in spiteful retribution that borders on emotional paralysis, spending all their efforts stymying the other, going nowhere fast, becoming an unsentimental and unglamorized portrayal of lust, murder, betrayal, and justice, guided by the allure of unbridled sex, yet drowning in disillusionment, adhering to the novel’s central themes of good and evil or sex and power, discovering how easy it is to confuse the issue.  Striving for freedom from protracted social and economic constraints, hoping to eradicate the suffocating noose around their necks, their questionable decisions all but insure the noose is only pulled even tighter.  While thoroughly entertaining, Garnett has never been a first rate director, and the overall melodramatic cinematic style is fairly conventional, filled with a smattering of contrivances, including an excessive amount of moralizing at the end, lacking the stylistic edge, dark shadows, and sharp camera angles of film noir, yet the novel’s bleak cynicism and lurid subject matter takes us into the dangerous realms of film noir territory, with powerfully impactful performances from the two leads who literally bare their souls, especially Garfield, who exhibits such a carefree style, but the staggering beauty of the film is in the power of suggestion, where there is a strong, palpable atmosphere of sexual tension, created almost entirely through dialogue and performance, yet the bold sensuality onscreen is by implication, nearly entirely non-verbal, inviting viewers to fill in the salacious details. 

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