Their love was a flame that destroyed!
In 2003, AOL Time-Warner got together with Turner Classic Movies and created a poll that asked classic movie fans to pick five movies they would most like to see released on DVD. One of the final five choices was The Postman Always Rings Twice, a delicious 1946 romantic potboiler that ranks as a hallmark of the film noir style, as well as the crown jewel in its director's long and mostly forgotten career. Now that the winners of the TCM/Warner poll have finally been committed to disc, noir fans can witness this fiendishly entertaining film in all its black-and-white digital glory, with extras to boot, making it one of the first must-own titles for classic film buffs in 2004.
Facts of the Case
John Garfield plays Frank Chambers, a drifter with feet that keep "itchin' for me to go places," the latest of which is the Twin Oaks, a highway hamburger dive run by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) and his much younger, lascivious wife Cora (smoldering Lana Turner). An immediate attraction develops between Frank and Cora, an attraction that blossoms into a full-blown affair, which inevitably leads to a scheme: they'll bump off Nick and take over the Twin Oaks, hopefully turning it into something more than just a run-of-the-mill burger joint. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and complications arise in the form of a nagging district attorney (Leon Ames) who catches onto their plot. Soon Frank and Cora are pitted against each other in a game of blackmail and deceit in which trust dissolves into hatred and tragedy becomes unavoidable.
Perhaps no American author experienced a greater period of film adaptation than James M. Cain, who from 1944 to 1946 saw no fewer than three of his pulp novels turned into genuine screen classics in as many years. The first was Billy Wilder's punchy Double Indemnity, the film often credited with creating the film noir style (and which ranks as one of this reviewer's all-time favorite movies). Next came Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce in 1945, a woman's weepie-cum-crime thriller that gave Joan Crawford the role of her career. Finally, in 1946, MGM released this, the third and best screen version of Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice that, although criticized for significantly taming the novel's more lurid subject matter, nevertheless succeeded in giving star John Garfield one of his career-best roles and reinforcing Lana Turner as one of the most voluptuous of the '40s screen starlets.
The story at first seems almost like a retread of the Double Indemnity setup, in which the young lovers scheme to kill the woman's older husband, whom she married for financial security but quickly became bored with. And although the two stories follow similar trajectories for their first act, Postman soon becomes quite a different bird than the Wilder picture, as the story evolves from a murder story to a courtroom thriller in which Cora is held up as the sacrificial lamb in the trial due to a loophole discovered by her snarky lawyer (Hume Cronyn). I won't go into too much detail here, as a great deal of the movie's fun derives from plot twists, as well as the breaking and forming of alliances between characters, but needless to say that the trial is where Frank and Cora's love affair evolves into mistrust and, eventually, a vitriolic hatred that sends both of them spiraling towards the film's inevitable (and somewhat hammy) conclusion. It's a terrific yarn that does plenty to distinguish itself from the earlier Cain adaptations and set itself apart from the other versions of the source novel.
John Garfield, as Frank, finds just the right balance of intelligence and gullibility, and while we question the ease at which he's seduced into taking part in Nick's murder, we also can see clearly why he does it (come on, who wouldn't be seduced by Lana Turner?). Garfield's ability to exhibit equal amounts of toughness and vulnerability has long been considered his greatest asset as an actor, and it's on display here in his very first scene with Turner's Cora. She shows up in the doorway of the Twin Oaks wearing a bathing suit, and from the minute he sees her, we can see a change in his demeanor, and even as he tries to act cool and detached, we can see that there's something else there. Garfield plays the rest of the film in mostly the same way, as Frank is never as tough as he really wants to be but always trying nonetheless.
Cora isn't the typical femme fatale, mostly because she's not nearly as evil as earlier incarnations of the type had been portrayed (Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, for instance). As played by Turner, she too is vulnerable and a bit weak, lacking the brains it takes to pull off a complicated murder plot but not the determination. She clearly loves Frank, or at the very least thinks she does, and it's her ambition to make a better life for the two of them that drives them to kill her husband, an otherwise decent man. Like Garfield, Turner is forced to walk a tightrope between vulnerability and voluptuousness, which she pulls off with bona fide movie-star effortlessness.
The supporting cast is first-rate, especially Hume Cronyn as Cora's conniving lawyer, who almost steals the movie right out from under the leads. Cronyn, who died just last year, is best remembered for his marriage to Jessica Tandy and his late-career roles, but it's easy to forget that back in the '40s in films like this and Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt he was one of the best character actors around. Cecil Kellaway also makes the most of his role as Nick, a stubborn but generally nice guy, and Leon Ames is note-perfect as the frustratingly persistent D.A.
The film was directed by Tay Garnett, an A-lister rarely mentioned in the pantheon of great directors but who nevertheless enjoyed a long and fruitful career in Hollywood, with many citing The Postman Always Rings Twice as the pinnacle of his output. If this is the case, then it's a movie any of the old masters would be proud to call their best film. It's a certified classic that can go toe-to-toe with any of the great film noirs of the '40s, a decade considered to be the heyday of the noir style. That's high praise indeed, but the movie earns it.
Warner's DVD of Postman presents the film in a crisp full-frame transfer that exhibits minimal wear despite the film's considerable age of almost 60 years. Though the occasional dirt speck or vertical scratch does show up (mostly in the earlier parts of the film and nighttime scenes), the rest of the picture is dirt-free and sharp as a tack. The audio track is mono and is free of distortion or noise. There's a French language track included as well, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Though only a single disc release from Warner Bros., the studio has seen fit to include a number of great extras, the most prominent being an hour-length documentary produced for TCM entitled The John Garfield Story, narrated by Garfield's daughter Julie and featuring interviews with Richard Dreyfuss, Joanne Woodward, and the late Hume Cronyn. Though a bit too politically inclined (get this: the HUAC killed Garfield!), the doc manages to do a solid job of chronicling a career that, because of Garfield's premature death at the age of 39, was cut much too short. There's also an introduction to Postman by film historian Richard Jewell that places the film in its proper historical context, as well as a behind-the-scenes stills gallery. Theatrical trailers are included for both the 1946 version of the film and its 1981 remake (starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in the Garfield and Turner roles).
And on a side note, I know I've done some bitching in the past at Warner's continuing insistence on using snapper cases for packaging their library titles, but one thing I rarely see mentioned is the studio's use of original poster art for the box covers of these discs. In the case of Postman, the cover even includes the tag of "MGM presents," which might make one think that this is actually an MGM title, when in fact the rights have obviously changed hands in the years since its release. I've always thought the use of the original poster art a really classy move, and even though in this case it might cause the credit for the title to be placed elsewhere, it shows that no one has more respect for their classic library than Warner Bros. Now, if we could only get them to ditch those snappers…
I could use this space to complain about how voters in the TCM/Warner DVD poll chose Where The Boys Are over The Asphalt Jungle (come on: Where the Boys Are over The Asphalt Jungle!?!?), but instead I'll just use it to once again reiterate how pleased I am to finally have The Postman Always Rings Twice on disc looking so great and sounding so good. It's a marvelous picture that holds up perfectly well today, and for a list price of $19.99 (meaning a street price of around $15), it should be a no-brainer for anyone calling themselves classic movie fans.
Duh. Not guilty on all counts. Warner is once again commended on giving its classic library the respect it deserves, but they are urged to get another poll going so we can finally get The Asphalt Jungle out on DVD. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Documentary -- The John Garfield Story Narrated by Julie Garfield
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