Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Director: Tay Garnett                                       Writers: Harry Ruskin & Niven Busch
Film Score: George Bassman                           Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Starring: John Garfield, Lana Turner, Cecil Kellaway and Hume Cronyn

There are two ways to go when filming a classic novel. The first of James M. Cain’s most famous novels, Double Indemnity, was made at Universal and had the distinction of none other than Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler writing the screenplay. In the end it’s arguably better than the original, especially the ending. Then there is MGM’s version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. This is a studio that hadn’t made a film noir in its existence, and rarely made crime dramas or thrillers. As a result, the film is much less than the powerhouse the novel was, leading to a much-needed remake in 1981 by Bob Rafelson. MGM’s version tries hard and is an interesting adaptation as far as it goes but, as good as it is, the script doesn’t quite have the tension that the Universal film does and really suffers in the ending when the screenwriters felt compelled to have Garfield spout the meaning of the title. Still, the casting, with the exception of Kellaway, is very good and that more than anything has led to its place as one of the great films noir.

The film begins promisingly enough, with a voiceover by John Garfield and a sign that reads Man Wanted on a roadside diner, a tag that will come to have a very different meaning later on. As soon as he meets Lana Turner the sparks fly, and not in a good way. These early scenes are where the reputation of the film lies. Turner alternately lures Garfield and pushes him away, playing both parts so that whatever way her plan goes she has covered her bases. They have the kind of intense hatred for each other--he thinks she’s a snob and she thinks he’s a poormouth--that can only turn to desire in Cain’s novels. They make the decision to run away together, but the reality of their destitution causes her to go back. Life would be great, she tells him, if only her husband, Cecil Kellaway, would die. And so the wheels begin turning. She’s impatient, and so they begin a plan right away, but when circumstances foil their plot Garfield takes off. A few weeks later, however, he’s pulled back out to the diner by Kellaway and circumstances force their hand a second time.

To me this feels like a case of the original author, James M. Cain, being the most dominant force in the film. Unlike Double Indemnity, where it is the three main characters who drive the film, here it’s the plot. The doubling of the title happens in a number of ways, primarily the two attempts on Kellaway’s life, the two deaths, and the two arrests. The downside for me is really about a lot of little things. For one, the costume designer Irene Lentz made the decision to dress Turner all in white. Okay, so she was going for a bit of reverse symbolism, but it makes Turner look so incongruous, especially working at a roadside diner, that it feels forced. And the leads, while good in terms of moving the plot forward, are a little too stylized as well. There’s a franticness to Garfield that doesn’t play well in the film and the wild swings in his character from flippant to frightened is unsettling. Turner, by the same token, swings from icy to needy and with the same negative effect.

Where the film really gets going is in the second half, when Hume Cronyn as the defense attorney and Leon Ames as the district attorney tangle in the courtroom. The trickery and gamesmanship, almost in spite of the people’s lives that are hanging in the balance, is as chilling as anything that the principals are arrested for. The direction by Tay Garnett is sufficient, but nothing more and this was his best-known film by far. Film score by George Bassman suffers from the same lack of artistry. It’s a serviceable score but pales in comparison to Miklós Rózsa or even Roy Webb in terms of noir sensibilities. The thing is, even with all of the quibbles, it is still an entertaining film. The story is so good, and though it had to be softened considerably in order to meet the standards of the production code Cain’s underlying story still rears its nasty head. The Postman Always Rings Twice has been a noir classic since its release. And while it suffers as a result of the polish and gloss of MGM’s style of production, it remains a powerful adaptation of a literary masterpiece.

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