Tay Garnett, 1946
Starring: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn
A young wanderer, Frank, stops at a diner in the middle of nowhere and becomes entranced by Cora Smith, the owner’s young wife. The voluptuous Cora quickly begins an affair with Frank, because she is bored by Nick, her older husband. Cora is ambitious and wants to be able to support herself financially; she wants to take the diner from Nick. Soon Cora and Frank plot Nick’s murder. Though their first attempt is botched, they try again, eventually succeeding. Cora’s lawyer suspects the truth, though he has no concrete evidence, and leads the two through a long trial involving betrayal and backstabbing.
Based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, this is the third adaptation after Le Dernier Tournant (1939) from France and Ossessione (1943) from Italy. Though the studio had the rights for more than decade, they were afraid to make the film because of the Production Code, which frowned up things like adultery and murder. Fortunately an earlier film based on another of Cain’s novels – Double Indemnity – paved the way for explosive combinations of sex and violence.
The Postman Always Rings Twice actually has much in common with Cain’s other two famous novels adapted for the screen, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) is married to an older, wealthy man. She begins an affair with an insurance salesman and the two plot to murder her husband and collect the insurance money. Cora is also married to an older man and though not wealthy, he owns his own home and a diner. She too plots with a lover to murder her husband, hoping to inherit his business. In Mildred Pierce, the titular woman appears to be well-off in suburban California, but strives for more in order to support her two spoiled daughters. She takes a side job as a waitress and soon earns enough to open a restaurant, which turns into a successful chain.
Cora is a cross between these two women, but possesses an odd sort of innocence that both Mildred and Phyllis lack. There are two notable changes from Cain’s novel – both related to Cora’s character. The first is the lack of sadomasochistic sex, where Cora and Frank are passionately drawn together, but also hate each other and want to cause one another physical harm. While Cora is certainly a sexual being in the film, she is less bitter, violent, or hateful than the Cora of the novel, as can be seen in the wildly different ending (Cora and Nick resolve to live happily ever after, but – SPOILER – Cora is killed in an accidental car crash, which Nick is prosecuted for).
The second and more detrimental change is that Lana Turner is an entirely different Cora than Cain’s. The Cora of the book is not beautiful or glamorous; she’s a trashy roadside waitress. This element of cheap sex is something Barbara Stanwyck was able to nail (see what I did there?) in Double Indemnity, but Turner is far too clean, appealing, and glamorous. Turner’s beauty, fashionable clothes, and obvious sex appeal make it difficult to believe that her ambition in life is to become a successful restaurant owner. Frankly, it’s difficult to picture her in the situation at all. Where Mildred Pierce tackles a similar theme – an ambitious woman works her way from waitress to wealthy restaurateur – the only reason it’s believable that this is Joan Crawford’s dream is because she is trying to provide the best for her children (and peripherally, herself) in the quickest way she knows how. Cora’s diner, on the other hand, is out in the middle of nowhere and seems an unlikely source for a sudden profit.
Regardless of these issues, this is Turner’s best role by far (though that isn’t really saying much) and she is pushed to her limits as an actress her. She is the focus of one of the greatest opening sequences in all of cinema. Frank is alone in the diner and a lipstick tube rolls across the ground towards him. Looking towards it, he glimpses Cora’s long, naked legs, white short shorts, a white top exposing her midriff, and a white turban-like wrap around her head. I’m not sure which is more eye-catching – her bare legs, exposed skin, and obvious sex appeal, or the fact that she is clearly a femme fatale and wears blindingly white costumes for much of the film.
John Garfield (Force of Evil) is excellent as Frank Chambers, a likable but frustrating drifter. As Frank does to Cora, Garfield plays somewhat of a supporting role to Turner, serving to constantly remind us of her desirability. Cecil Kellaway (Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) is pleasant as Nick, so happy go lucky that it’s difficult to watch Cora and Frank’s murderous plot unfold. Hume Cronyn (Shadow of a Doubt) basically steals the film as a fast talking, double-crossing, constantly plotting lawyer who complicates the situation between Cora and Frank.
Unfortunately, while The Postman Always Rings Twice is unable to complete with Double Indemnity or Mildred Pierce, it is a worthwhile film and comes recommended. Thanks to the ending, it feels less like a film noir and more of a precursor to the erotic thriller – taken on this count, it is a solid film. Postman is available on DVD, though Lana and her whites have fortunately also made it to Blu-ray.