Wednesday 13 June 2012

Movie Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The first English language screen adaptation of James M. Cain's steamy tale of sex and betrayal, The Postman Always Rings Twice benefits from Lana Turner on fire. She ignites the initial noir plot of passion and murder, but once the story takes a turn for the manic, the plot spirals out of control, loses its taut focus and not even Turner can save it.

It's the depression, and drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) finds casual employment at the rural roadside diner operated by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) and his much younger and clearly dissatisfied wife Cora (Turner). Frank and Cora are immediately attracted to each other, and their mutual desire invariably leads to thoughts of getting rid of Nick. An initial attempt to bump him off in the shower fails. A subsequent staged car crash succeeds, but it only signals the beginning of trouble with the law for Frank and Cora, and their headaches multiply when first Frank strays and then they are both blackmailed.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is two thirds of a good film. The immensely watchable first hour is filled with longing, attraction, lust, and the delectable scheming of a desperate couple. Frank and Cora cannot help but imagine a better life, and all they need to do is stage a murder. But after Nick is killed, the zing is lost. The narrative requires everything to go sideways because that's what the murderers deserve, but the execution is simply frantic. Once Cora and Frank turn on each other, the court proceedings race past in a muddle, and the sub-plots related to Cora's mother, Frank's infidelity, and the half-baked blackmail scheme are all rushed and soulless.

Ironically the movie becomes more plodding as events spiral out of control, in a case of too much drama yielding diminishing returns. Towards the end there is little director Tay Garnett can do except perform traffic control duties, the characters not given time to properly digest and react to the flurry of calamities thrown their way.

Like the film, Lana Turner and John Garfield are better when they are lusting after each other and plotting different ways to get rid of Nick.Tuner sizzles as she openly invites first adultery and then murder, Cora far too ambitious for the boring and penny-pinching life that Nick provides. Cora never gives the impression of actually genuinely caring for Frank beyond him being the most convenient tool to help her get rid of Nick, and conveniently help scratch a physical itch while he happens to be around.

Garfield is less memorable, Jack Nicholson's performance in the 1981 version defining the role of Frank and leaving Garfield's turn in the shadow. While functional, there is a disconnect between Garfield's non-intimidating screen presence and the character's fundamental shady scrappiness and depression-era resourcefulness.

Hume Cronyn is notable as the sharp lawyer with unconventional methods who petrifies Cora before representing her in court.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Frank and Cora always make all the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons. When they are propelled by lust and botching their lives, they are fun to watch, but when they are miserable and misguided, the ringing is just hollow.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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