Saturday, October 12, 2013

Stubs – The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Starring: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Leon Ames, Audrey Totter, Alan Reed. Directed by Tay Garnett. Screenplay by Harry Ruskin, Niven Busch. Based on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. Produced by Carey Wilson. Run Time: 113 minutes, Black and White. U.S., Drama, Film Noir

For those of you who regularly read Trophy Unlocked, and hopefully there is someone (comments always welcomed), you know that Double Indemnity (1944) is one of my top ten films. As a would-be novelist, I am always jealous of any writer who has had four books made into movies. James M. Cain, the author of the novella this film is based on, also wrote Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Butterfly. And with the exception of the latter, the notorious Pia Zadora Golden Globe Award winning Butterfly (1982), the first American films based on his novels are considered classics.

The book the movie is based on.
I know from having read what I’ll call his big three, the films based on his work have been re-written significantly and the films were the better for it. (If you need proof, watch the Mildred Pierce mini-series (2011) which is very faithful to the novel and as a result is plodding, slow and dull. The Joan Crawford starrer from 1945 is a tight film noir about murder.)

Of the three, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice seem to have the most in common with each other. Both deal with murder for love and financial gain, both feature blonde-haired femme fatales, Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Lana Turner as Cora Smith in Postman. The male leads are easily led astray by the women in their lives, who are both married to older and more successful men. Even the murder scenes are very similar in execution.

But while Postman didn’t make my top ten, it is by no means a bad picture. The novel was originally published in 1934 and the film rights were purchased by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer soon afterward. But based on the themes of the film, adultery and murder, which ran counter to the Motion Picture Production Code, the studio held off putting the film into production. It took the success of Paramount’s Double Indemnity, which dealt with the same moral issues, to finally convince MGM to move forward. While the story would be told more than once, and this movie would be remade in 1981 starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, this is considered the definitive film treatment.

It is interesting to note that the MGM movie is not the first film based on the story. Pierre Chenal directed the first version, Le Dermier Toumant (1939), a French-made film. Filmmaker Luchiono Visconti directed an Italian version, Ossessione in 1943. Ossessione was Visconti’s first film and made working under censorship of the Fascist Italian Government.

The American The Postman Always Rings Twice opens with drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield), who, hitchhiking on his way to San Diego, gets a ride from a man who turns out to be the District Attorney, Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames). They stop at Twin Oaks, a rural diner outside Los Angeles, because they have a help wanted sign up. Nick (Cecil Kellaway) is anxious to hire Frank, who for his part has itchy feet. That is until he gets a look at Cora Smith (Lana Turner). Suddenly, Frank wants to stick around, even after he finds out that Cora is married to the much older Nick.

Frank sees this help wanted sign at the very beginning of the film.
There is an attraction between Cora and Frank that they both fight against and in turn fight against each other. Frank crosses a line and kisses Cora, which both thrills and repels her. Cora pulls away from Frank until he proves that he can help her with Nick, convincing the owner to get a new neon sign for the restaurant after the old wooden one was destroyed in the wind.  She is still uncomfortable with Frank around, knowing her attraction to him. Then he joins her, with Nick’s approval, on one of her night time swims in the ocean. They kiss again, but this time the feeling is mutual.

Nick (Cecil Kellaway) doesn't see that he's in between two lovers,
his wife, Cora (Lana Turner) and Frank (John Garfield).
The next day, while Nick is in Los Angeles on business, Frank and Cora sneak off together. But they don’t get far before Cora gives up. She knows leaving Nick would mean they’d both have to start over at the bottom and she doesn’t want that for either of them. She wants to go back and try to find another way. They hurriedly return to Twin Oaks before Nick can find her farewell note she left in the cash register.

Cora and Frank run away together, but ended up going back to the Twin Oaks.
But soon after they return, they watch as a drunk Nick nearly drives head on into a semi-truck. Frank speaks out loud that he wishes Nick was dead. They plot to kill Nick and almost do. While Frank stands guard outside the diner, pretending to clean the car, Cora prepares to kill Nick by knocking him unconscious and pretending his death was a bathtub accident. She plans to lock the bathroom door and then sneak out the bathroom window and down a stepladder Frank’s left by the side of the building. Frank is a little unnerved when Blair (Jeff York), a motorcycle cop, stops by the diner as the plan is unfolding, but everything goes awry when a cat’s electrocution trips the power lines just as Cora strikes Nick.

With nothing better to do, L.A. District Attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames)
and motorcycle cop, Blair (Jeff York), investigate Nick's apparent bathtub accident.
Fearing the motorcycle cop will become suspicious since he’s seen the stepladder, Cora and Frank call an ambulance and rush Nick to a hospital. Sackett, along with the motorcycle cop, come to the hospital. Sackett is suspicious and both Frank and Cora are questioned by the police. When they return to the Twin Oaks, Sackett follows them there, too, but there is not enough evidence to prove there was a crime.  Nick does regain consciousness, which is a great relief to both Cora and Frank. But Nick will remain in the hospital for a week, which Cora and Frank take full advantage of.
Nick is touch and go for a few hours, but pulls through after the first murder attempt.
While she is off picking up Nick at the hospital, Frank decides the time is right to leave. But after a couple of weeks in Los Angeles, he misses Cora. Hanging out a farmer’s market he knows Nick and Cora frequent, he does finally run into Nick, who drags him back to the Twin Oaks, telling him there’s some big news he needs to tell him. Cora is not that happy to see Frank back. Things get worse for her, when Nick announces that he plans to sell the Twin Oaks and move back to Northern Canada to live in his family homestead and take care of his sister, who is paralyzed and needs a woman’s care. Cora is so depressed she considers suicide. The two lovers plot once more to kill Nick.

On the night they’re supposed to drive to Santa Barbara so that Nick can complete the sale the next morning, Frank and Cora get Nick drunk. With Sackett as an unexpected witness, they act out their part that Nick is too drunk to drive. Frank and Cora take Nick for a drive, on which Frank knocks him out and the two lovers stage an automobile accident at Malibu Lake, unaware that Sackett has been following them since they’d left the Twin Oaks. Though Sackett arrives on the scene too late to save Nick, he is certain that Cora and Frank are the killers. Without any concrete evidence to convict them, Sackett tries to pit Frank and Cora against each other. He visits Frank in the hospital and tricks Frank into signing an official complaint against Cora. Sackett knows, but neither Frank nor Cora do, that Nick had taken out an insurance policy only a couple of days before running into Frank in L.A. that would pay Cora $10,000.

Nick is about to get knocked out by Frank in a scene reminiscent of one from Double Indemnity.
Frustrated by what she sees as Frank’s betrayal and her own attorney Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn) railroading her to prison, Cora wants to make a full confession. Keats tries to talk her out of it, but she is adamant that she wants to tell her and Frank’s story. After her preliminary hearing and with Frank in the room, she confesses to everything. Unbeknownst to her, the confession is typed up by Ezra Liam Kennedy (Alan Reed) who is actually working for Keats.  But Kennedy is not an official from Sackett’s office, but rather a private detective in Keats’ employ. This lets her get the story off her chest, but allows Keats to persuade Cora to settle for a manslaughter charge, and she is later released on probation.

Frank looks on while Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn) advises his client, Cora.
Would a defendant and an alleged victim ever be in the same room like this?
Keats and Kennedy take Frank and Cora back to the Twin Oaks. Once there, Keats gives Cora the insurance money. He’s not looking for payment, though. He is happy with the check Sackett had to write him for $100 after losing a bet that Keats could get Cora off. The couple runs the Twin Oaks together and with her notoriety and the addition of a beer garden, the place is a success. Even Sackett and Keats come by for a beer. Keats tells the couple that Sackett is still watching them and the fact that they are living together as an unmarried couple could be trouble. (Back in the day unmarried co-habitation was frowned on by society and by the Production Code).

Cora’s solution is a quickie marriage to Frank, who isn’t really thrilled with the idea, but goes along. But as soon as the knot is tied, Keats gives Cora a letter that arrived for her. Her mother has taken ill and Cora must go to her. She asks Keats to give her a lift to the train station. Frank goes, too. But no sooner is Cora on the train than Frank starts a week-long affair with Madge Gorland (Audrey Totter), a woman he meets at the station.

The just married Frank takes off with Madge Gorland (Audrey Totter) as soon as Cora is on the train.
But Frank is waiting for Cora at the train station and brings her back to the Twin Oaks. No sooner do they park than Kennedy is there. He is no longer employed by Keats and took with him Cora’s signed confession on the way out. He’s willing to part with it for $15,000 (the insurance money plus profits from the diner). They jaw him down to $12,000, but they don’t want to give him the money. Cora pretends that she could have seduced him, giving Frank the opportunity to catch Kennedy off guard and beat him up.

Frank and Cora turn the tables on Kennedy, who tried to blackmail the couple.
They force Kennedy to call his pal, Willie (Cameron Grant), to bring the letter out to him at the Twin Oaks. No sooner does he arrive than Frank knocks him out and they find not only the letter but Photostats (copies) and the negative on his partner. They had planned to continue blackmailing the couple. The two would-be blackmailers are chased off and Frank thinks everything is behind them. But it’s not.

While Frank was watching over Kennedy, Madge dropped by the Twin Oaks to return the tie Frank had been wearing when they met. The tie happened to be a wedding present from Cora. Even though her confession has been destroyed, she threatens Frank that she can still make another one to Sackett which would send Frank to the death house; she has already been charged and convicted in the crime.

They spend the day playing cat and mouse, each following and watching the other, until late at night Frank hears Cora on the phone calling for a cab. Frank tries to convince Cora that the other woman meant nothing to him. He knows he and Cora are chained together by love. Cora has something to tell Frank. She was going to run away rather than go to Sackett. She confesses to Frank that she’s pregnant. They think in a weird way having a life might square them for taking one.

Cora then asks him to take her to the beach for a swim in the moonlight. She plans to swim far out into the ocean with Frank, and then tell him that he can turn back without her. When Cora is finally too exhausted to continue swimming, she tells Frank what she is doing and his reaction makes them both realize that they love and trust each other once again. After Frank helps Cora back to shore, the now happy couple drive toward the diner, but Frank loses control of the car while they’re kissing and the vehicle careens off the road and smashes into a post. Although Frank escapes unhurt, Cora is killed.

Frank has his eyes on Cora and not on the road, seconds before the crash that kills her.
Sackett prosecutes Frank for Cora’s murder and is successful; Frank is sentenced to death. (Makes you wonder about the state of justice in the 30’s and 40’s, when evidence doesn’t seem all that important.) Sackett comes to prison to tell Frank, who has been telling his story to Father McConnell (Tom Dillon). Sackett has just talked to the governor; his last chance at a reprieve has been denied, and thus his execution is now at hand.

Towards the end of the movie, we learn Frank is telling his story to Father McConnell (Tom Dillon).
Frank tells Sackett he didn't kill Cora and hopes that at the last second she did not think that he did. Sackett reveals that a note left by Cora the night she died, a note of farewell, which was recently found in the back of the diner's cash register, not only revealed her love for Frank. The note contained just enough details of Nick's murder that Sackett could get a conviction for that, so it’s either die for Cora’s murder or be back to die for Nick’s. Frank decides that his impending death is actually his overdue punishment for Nick’s murder and realizes that his situation is like that of someone who only receives the mail after the postman rings the doorbell twice (a show of hands from anyone who’s heard the postman ring your doorbell once, let alone twice, because you had a letter), Frank contently heads toward his execution asking the father to pray so that Frank and Cora can be together wherever that might be.

Legend has it that Lana Turner was discovered at the lunch counter at Schwab’s Pharmacy. In fact, the sixteen year-old Hollywood High School student was in the Top Hat Malt Shop buying a Coke instead of attending her typing class. She was spotted there by William R. Wilkerson, the publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, who was attracted to the teenage girl’s beauty and physique (there is a reason she would be known as The Sweater Girl). He referred her to Zeppo Marx, former comedian turned agent, who signed her and introduced her to MGM’s Mervyn LeRoy, who cast her in They Won’t Forget (1937).

Lana Turner in her film debut and how she was discovered.
MGM head Louis B. Mayer saw Turner as a replacement for blonde bombshell and sex symbol, Jean Harlow, who had died only six months earlier. At the age of 19, Turner married bandleader Artie Shaw, the first of her eight marriages to seven husbands. She had one daughter, Cheryl with husband two, and three, Joseph Stephen Crane. Despite her marriages, Turner remained a popular pin-up girl during World War II. She appeared in such films as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Johnny Eager (1941) and Slightly Dangerous (1943).

After Postman, Turner would replace Katherine Hepburn in the historical-drama Green Dolphin Street (1947). Other notable films Turner starred in include: Cass Timberlaine (1947); The Bad and The Beautiful (1952); Peyton Place (1957), for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award; and Imitation of Life (1959). In 1957, shortly after ending her marriage to fifth husband Lex Barker, she met Johnny Stompanato, an underworld figure with connections to Mickey Cohen. She and Johnny started a very volatile love affair. It got so bad that in 1958, Turner’s then fourteen year-old daughter stabbed and killed Stompanato trying to defend her mother.

Her co-star in Postman, John Garfield, had a much shorter film career. A stage actor, Garfield was contacted by two different studios, Paramount and Warner Bros., but it was the latter that agreed to his contract stipulation that he be given time off to act on stage. His first film appearance was in Four Daughters (1938), for which he received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His first starring role was in They Made Me a Criminal (1939). Before and during World War II, he made the requisite war-themed films: Dangerously We Live (1941); Air Force (1943); Destination Tokyo (1943); Between Two Worlds (1944); and Pride of the Marines (1945).

John Garfield in his film debut in Four Daughters (1938)
Following Postman, Garfield would star in such films as Humoresque (1946); Body and Soul (1947); and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Called to testify, like many in Hollywood, in front of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Garfield, a political liberal, denied any Communist affiliation and refused to name names. This led to him being blacklisted in Hollywood and some say the stress surrounding it contributed to his death at 39 in 1952.

There are some other very good performances from the supporting cast. Leon Ames, who played a lawyer in several films, gives a good performance as Los Angeles D.A. Kyle Sackett. While his part is mixed up with some of the film’s legal liberties, that’s the responsibility of the script and not the actor. Hume Cronyn plays a devious attorney, which seems to be a little out of character for the actor based on the work I’m familiar with. Also worth mentioning is Cecil Kellaway, the South African born character actor who appeared in dozens of films and on television in a career that spanned from 1933 to 1972. He portrays the likable, but alcoholic owner of the Twin Oaks, who’s only real crime in life is that he’s in the way of two starry-eyed lovers.

Alan Reed, who plays P.I. Ezra Liam Kennedy, is known by Baby Boomers as the voice of Fred Flintstone, patriarch of that “modern stone age family” that headlined one of TV’s first prime time cartoons. Previously, Reed was best known as a radio actor and appeared in such classic series as Duffy’s Tavern, The Shadow (Shrevey, the taxi cab driver), Life with Luigi, The Life of Riley and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. He also appeared in several films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Viva Zapata! (1952).

Alan Reed as he is best remembered.
Audrey Totter, who plays Madge Gorland, was a relative unknown in Hollywood in 1946. While she had appeared in eight films in 1945, she had only received screen credit in three. The Postman Always Rings Twice was her first film noir, a genre she would become queen of, appearing in Lady in the Lake (1947), The Unsuspected (1947), High Wall (1947), The Set Up (1949) and Tension (1949). She would move to working in television in the mid-1950’s and while she would make the occasional feature, she did most of her acting on the small screen, appearing in Westerns, Anthology shows and Dramas.

Tay Garnett is not a name that quickly comes to mind when you think of great Hollywood directors or even directors at all. Garnett began his career in Hollywood as a writer for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and began directing films in 1928. I wouldn’t say that outside a few films he had a stellar career.

Tay Garnett, the director of the film.
That is not to say that he wasn’t involved in some interesting projects. One that caught my eye was S.O.S. Iceberg, which was a U.S.-German co-production for Universal Studios. Garnett directed the English-language version while Arnold Franck directed the German. This was what is referred to as a mountain film, a popular genre in German cinema at the time. The star of S.O.S. Eisberg was none other than Leni Riefenstahl, who would go on to become Hitler’s favorite propagandist filmmaker with Triumph of the Will (1934) and Olympiad (1938) to her credit.

Garnett’s own credits included Bataan (1943), Mrs. Parkington (1944), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) as well as work on some popular television shows of their day, including The Loretta Young Show, The Untouchables, Rawhide and the long running Bonanza.

The Postman Always Rings Twice doesn’t reach the same heights as Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce mostly due to the screenplay. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but I know Cain’s books need rewriting to work as movies. Some of the awkwardness may have to do with trying to write around the Production Code, the dialogue is kind of sappy, especially when it’s the two lovers, and the legal procedures are squishy at best. Sackett, the omnipresent DA for Los Angeles County, seems very unconcerned about things like evidence and truth and more about convictions. And things must be pretty slow at the courthouse to allow him to spend so much time worried about two people at a remote café.

I know that there is a belief, which used to be stronger, that the police don’t arrest innocent people, but it is hard to imagine how the accident that killed Cora could be turned into a premeditated murder case and conviction. Not that Frank was an innocent man by any stretch, but the odds of crashing the car just the right way to only kill her and also walk away seem slim at best. And Sackett’s promise to prosecute Frank based on Cora’s farewell note seems sort of hollow, too. You would think a good defense lawyer, like Keats, could rip that to shreds. And where was Keats when Frank was getting tried? If he could have gotten Cora off for killing her husband, you’d think a car crash would be a piece of cake.

The problems go on and on: The Twin Oaks is either overflowing with customers, too many for two people to serve, as when the beer garden opens or else it can be left for hours and days closed. Even when it was just Nick and Cora running the place, I can’t imagine two people would be enough to run a gas station and a restaurant. Do you really want the guy pumping your gas to fry your eggs right after filling your tank?

One last thing against the film is the title and the meaning it has for the film. I’ve seen this movie several times and it is only when I was doing some research for this article that the title finally gelled for me. Part of it may be how the post office worked in the 1930’s and how it works now. I know they used to deliver the mail twice a day, so maybe the post man would ring the bell twice if you got a letter? But there is no reference in my life that sets me up to understand the double meaning of the title. Not that that was anyone’s concern at the time the film was made and I’m sure everyone got the reference at the time, but it does give modern viewers pause and makes you wonder if in sixty more years any audience will get it at all.

This film is good, but not great. While I would definitely recommend you watch The Postman Always Rings Twice, I can’t recommend it as highly as either Mildred Pierce or Double Indemnity. You should definitely watch both of those before you watch this one. To use racing terminology, you’ll want to watch The Postman Always Rings Twice to complete the trifecta of James M. Cain films, but this one ends up in Show rather than Win.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is available at the WB Shop:

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