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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

by on 2011/03/26


“When I hurt her feelings, once in a while,

Her only answer is one little smile.
I got a woman, crazy for me.
She’s funny that way.”

* * * *

I almost didn’t review The Postman Always Rings Twice. The package said it was noir. The wiki said it was noir. All kinds of online lists said it was noir. But what’s with the title? And the artwork? It all looked like a tawdry romance. Or a feature-length version of the Monty Python “milkman” skit.

Good thing I don’t always listen to myself. Missing it would have been missing out.

Like an inverse take on Sydney Pollack’s “Casablanca conundrum” (see my review of Kansas City Confidential), Postman appeared less noir than I expected, and yet its characters and premise felt exactly right.

Nearing Twin Oaks, California, a drifter named Frank Chambers (John Garfield) responds to a “man wanted” sign outside a rest stop. Proprietor Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) hires him immediately, but Chambers soon loses interest in work at the sight of Smith’s wife, Cora (Lana Turner).

After a tempestuous period of flirtation, Frank and Cora agree to do away with Nick. They intend to inherit his property, and live happily ever after.

This month’s theme not being “fairy tales” you might imagine their plan has its challenges. For their so-called love, these players do careless, selfish, even outright stupid things. And for all the errors they hope to correct, they only suffer more pain. Will fate forgive their missteps, and give them another chance?

I’m certainly glad I did. My initial hesitation aside, the opening moments of the movie did not incline me kindly. A scene involving Chambers and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames) immediately set off my aversion to theatricality with their painfully earnest overacting.

While John Garfield may be an idealized figure of tragedy in the Method school of acting, his efforts here overwhelm. He seems to be trying too hard. Similarly, Nick’s portrayal of a drunk was cringe-worthy stuff.

By contrast, relative newcomer Turner simply smoulders. Minimalism renders her distant, alluring, and ripe for interpretation. She’s as intense for the mind as she is riveting for the eyes. Now, having complimented her, I should also point out her character was at least as difficult to sympathize with as Garfield’s.

They’re an unpleasant couple, together or apart. Though an audience needn’t agree with the protagonists in order to enjoy their adventures, I was acutely aware of “loving to hate them” rather than finding them a “guilty pleasure”. The latter has been true more often than not in my recent run of noirs.

(Spoiler begins. Highlight to read.)

One of my favourites in this very run has been Double Indemnity, also based on a novel by James M. Cain. In that story, a younger man chances into the domain of another, older man, and takes a liking to his wife. Together they plan to kill the husband, but encounter unexpected difficulties in doing so.

Sound familiar?

The main difference I found between them was the role of accident, and possibly divine intervention. Where Indemnity’s players were threatened by their own shortcomings, Postman’s were influenced by, variously, a stray cat, traffic conditions, and a convenient passer-by. Call it balance, karma, or immanent justice, the ineffable “righting of wrongs” which works in supernatural fare (say Final Destination) does not function as well with an irreligious audience.

(Spoiler ends.)

Final complaint. As the minutes ticked by, I began to feel that dreaded sense of a never-ending ending. As in The Big Sleep and D.O.A., I expected Postman’s finale long before it obliged and wound itself down. I was less taxed by the running time than its perpetual re-extension past a point of comfortable closure.

Still, I have it on good authority I tend to complain the most about those things I enjoy the best. Having nitpicked enough, let me be clear: The Postman Always Rings Twice was easily my greatest recent surprise. It may not outdo Double Indemnity, but it easily outpaced my expectations.

* * * *

Rated 18A

113 minutes

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