Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
I have to admit, I was really stunned by Lana Turner’s performance in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Her Cora Smith came across to me as the most natural character in the cast, which says quite a bit when she’s sharing most of her scenes with John Garfield and also has Cecil Kellaway, Leon Ames, and especially Hume Cronyn to contend with.
Actually, if Lana had buckled just a little bit I’d be writing that Hume Cronyn stole this picture as her defense attorney Keats, but owing to his not appearing until about halfway in, we’ll let Lana keep the crown.
The part of Cora ran from coquette, to adulteress, woman in love, and woman scorned and did it so effortlessly that Lana Turner, Lana Turner this is, could appear on screen as just a regular girl. Oh sure, the boys started hitting on her when she was 14 and never really stopped, that’s how she wound up accepting Nick’s (Cecil Kellaway) proposal, but Lana Turner is playing a hash slinger in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
In the scene where Garfield’s Frank Chambers brutalizes Keats’ stooge Kennedy (Alan Reed – if he sounds familiar in spots it’s because he later voiced Fred Flintstone) Cora displays a mix of anticipation and worry, but there’s a moment during the fray, after Chambers lays a particularly good shot into Kennedy, that her teeth are bared and she commits this sort of silent snarl which is one of the most vicious expressions I’ve ever spotted on film.
“The Postman Always Rings Twice” is the story of drifter Frank Chambers, dropped outside of Nick’s burger joint by a friendly fellow soon revealed as the District Attorney (Leon Ames). It’s rather obvious that we’ll see him again later. Nick immediately tries to convince Frank to work for him and while not committing right away Frank is more than happy to toss back a burger and listen to the old man talk about how wonderful it is to stay put.
Frank decides to stay after he meets Cora, clad in a white form fitting uniform and doing her best to tease, though he nearly relents when Nick mentions Cora is his wife. It’s one of a few opportunities Frank would have to get out, but this is based on a James M. Cain novel (“Double Indemnity,” “Mildred Pierce”) so you know he’s doomed from the start.
In “Double Indemnity” Stanwcyk’s Phyllis plots to use MacMurray’s Walter Neff as a tool to murder from the moment she meets him, but Cora is far more innocent in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The plan had to develop along with Cora and Frank’s relationship and when the idea of murder is first mentioned it is not immediately embraced. While Neff’s the poor dope we feel for in “Double Indemnity” after being used to murder a character we really didn’t care about, “Postman” actually stands out as better storytelling because both the male and female leads are the poor dopes this time around and we do actually care what happens to their victim.
Garfield and Turner meet the challenge of portraying sympathetic characters whose target is a sweet older man who has charmed us by his hospitality and guitar playing. Yes, Nick is a drunk, he’s cheap, and a product of his times in terms of relations between the sexes—as shown in the scene which finally sends Cora over the top—but he’s still a harmless enough gentle soul.
Both Ames as the D.A. and Cronyn as the Defense Attorney are excellent, but Cronyn distinguishes himself through the more interesting character. Rather than your typical sympathetic defender so often portrayed on film as fighting for the rights of the little (often innocent) guy, he knows full well that his client is guilty and he doesn’t care. Arthur Keats is a shark and he’s a winner.
The always enjoyable Audrey Totter (still with us at age 90) gives a good showing of herself in little more than two minutes of film time. Totter’s being celebrated as a Noir queen all over again for her larger roles in classics now on DVD such as “Lady in the Lake” (1947), “The Set-Up” (1949), and “Tension” (1949). With barely enough camera time to justify her 4th billing after the title she is a perfect combination of sin and beauty and believable as the other woman when the alternative is Lana Turner.
While I do believe “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is a better overall story than “Double Indemnity,” it in no way challenges the earlier picture is the stronger film noir. Directed by Tay Garnett (“China Seas,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”) “Postman” plays as more of a conventional crime drama, albeit one with fine all around performances, several twists, and a strong story. All that and I didn’t particularly care for the ending. “Postman” is deserving of its label as classic and is the pinnacle of Lana Turner’s career.
Featured collectibles: The first image of Lana Turner is a 1954 Star Pictures premium photo. Measuring 7.5” X 11.5” this premium has a blank back and is printed on heavier than normal paper stock; John Garfield is shown on a circa 1940 Made in U.S.A. Arcade Card; Just above the trading card featuring Lana Turner is #19 in the 1955 Barber’s Tea “Cinema and Television Stars” set issued in Britain.
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