The Postman Always Rings Twice has one of the most famous character introductions in the history of film.
John Garfield, playing the drifter Frank, arrives at a roadside diner on a hot summer day and orders a burger. The owner of the diner, Nick, runs out to pump some gas leaving Frank alone in the diner. Suddenly a lipstick roll across the floor towards him. Frank (and the camera) looks back to see where it came from. All you see is a bare set of woman's legs. The camera cuts back to Frank who literally looks like the breath has been knocked out of him. Then there's a full shot of the leg's owner - Lana Turner. She all dressed in white and looks like a million dollars. She teases and flirts with Frank but at the same time pretends like she has no interest in him. Moments later you see Frank outside putting a “Man Wanted” sign into a fire. The sign clearly has a double meaning at this point- it's both an ad for help wanted and "man" wanted. When he finds out that the woman is Nick's wife he quickly retrieves it. But one more glance at Cora (Turner) in the diner changes his mind again and he puts the sign back into the fire.
Those few moments begin the twisted tale of infidelity and murder told in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Although I think it's a great film, the rest of the movie could not live up to the opening. I won't go into the film's plot in detail because I assume most have seen it. If you haven't - stop reading and watch it!
The sexual chemistry and star power of the two actors were undeniable and those first few minutes are unforgettable.
Lana Turner began her film career in 1937 but that one scene almost ten years later made her a huge star. MGM made the film (surprising to me. Up until I started to write this review I assumed it was a Warner Bros. production) and they weren't known for making crime or suspense films. But they were star makers and they had a plan to make Turner the next Jean Harlow. Unfortunately, studios couldn't make the kind of films they made in the early 1930s due to censorship so they had to rely on the suggestion of sex rather than have characters talk about it or even show it. Turner with her platinum blond hair and perfect figure was up to the task. Unfortunately, she was maybe too perfect looking for the part. She comes across too glamorous for most of the film. Jessica Lange, who played the part again years later in the boring 1980s remake, could play sexy but trashy much better.
Garfield – who was borrowed from WB – was already a veteran of these type of films. In fact, his casting is pretty much a no-brainer. Who else but Garfield could play the rebellious Frank better than him? Like Turner, Garfield - who could play scruffy - was here a little too clean cut for the part. An unofficial film version of the story (based on the novel by James M. Cain) from three years earlier, Ossessione, had equally handsome Massimo Girotti play the male lead. But Girotti wore a worn out suit and shoes with holes in them. When Garfield arrives at the diner (driven there but the always-in-the-way district attorney) he's clean shaved, wearing a black suit and a crisp white shirt. He looks like George Clooney when he gets out of prison in Ocean's 11. He doesn't look like a bum who just jumped off the back of a truck like Girotti.
Also, watching it again I found some big problems with the script. The story flaws were no doubt in an attempt to keep the censors happy but they still bothered me.
The district attorney (Leon Ames) was aways around – from driving Frank to the diner all the way to the two deaths at the end. Wasn't he a little too personally involved in the case? Why was he so suspicious of Frank when Nick first goes to the hospital? Why was he called to the hospital in the first place? (When Frank and the D.A. give each other sideways glances at the hospital I had to laugh)
Cara pleads to manslaughter and gets probation? I'm not a lawyer but I would assume she'd get some jail time.
Even if Frank is considered a suspect in Nick's death clearly the death of Cara is an accident and they wouldn't have a case against him.
My re-watch did remind me of some of the things I'd forgotten about and enjoyed. The two lawyers, Ames and Hume Cronyn (who almost steals the whole film), battling it out to a point where they forget about right and wrong is smart and well written regardless of the questionable legal mumbo jumbo. Also, Garfield recites the line “With my brains and your looks we could go places.” The line is even more clever when you realize that Frank Chambers is a dope and Cora has pretty much tricked him in to doing everything. He's so “whipped” at the end he talks to a priest and wonders if Cora still loves him!
The roadside killing of Nick is also fantastic. Seeing poor Nick singing away when Frank raises the bottle to kill him is great. (Ossessine, by the way, doesn't show the killing! What's the old movie rule? “Show it don't tell it.”)
The middle of Postman sags quite a bit after the suspenseful killing. Even the appearance of Audrey Totter doesn't liven it up much. Ossessione handles the middle parts and end much better.
But, even with my nitpicking, I have to say The Postman Always Rings Twice is still one of my favorite films thanks to the famous first few minutes that are burned into my memory.