Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Postman Always Rings Twice [1946]

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is an American film noir that was directed by Tay Garnett and originally released by MGM in May 1946.  It stars Lana Turner, John Garfield and Cecil Kellaway with support from Leon Ames and Hume Cronyn.  Based on the novel by James M. Cain it tells of the doomed love affair between a drifter and the seductive wife of his boss, who runs a filling station-cum-hamburger joint.

Strictly speaking this movie is outside the remit of Cinema Delirium in that it’s well known, highly regarded and has attained classic status.  It is neither obscure, unjustly neglected nor weird.  The sole reason I am writing about the film is that it stars John Garfield, an actor who was very popular in his day but who latterly suffered at the hands of HUAC and died at the age of just 39.  I am interested in Garfield because he is almost totally forgotten today, outside of movie buffs.  Show his picture to 100 people in the street and I’d be astounded if five knew his name. 

This process by which famous stars pass into obscurity is fascinating to me and I’m drawn to those who have suffered that fate (if suffered is the correct word).  I often wonder whether this phenomenon will happen to stars of more recent vintage.  Back in the 30s and 40s there were far more films being made and consequently far more actors and actresses about; only the most successful would emerge from that mass so it follows that a lot of talent would fade from the memory.  Of course it was much longer ago too and there will always be this tendency to forget.  So perhaps I’m not talking so much about stars being remembered, in a physiological sense, but stars whose fame endures over several generations.  For instance, James Dean was a handsome, talented and hugely popular actor who died young; exactly the same is true of Garfield and yet he is almost completely forgotten.  The same comparison can be made with Marilyn Monroe and Gail Russell. The question of why one and not the other is what interests me.

These days there are far fewer films in production so there are fewer stars to remember but fame seems to be more fleeting.  Josh Hartnett, Chris Klein and Chris O’Donnell are examples of those whose fame has declined almost as quickly as it arose.  Female stars have it even worse because the point at which the phone stops ringing comes a lot earlier than it does for men.  Consider Oscar winner Faye Dunaway: she was arguably the foremost female star in the mid-70s but she’s more or less unheard of these days.  This intrigues me too: stars whose fame disappears while they are still alive.  How must that feel?

When he appeared before HUAC in April 1951and was asked to name friends who were or had been Communists Garfield refused and his film career was over at a stroke.  Unlike Elia Kazan, Garfield was unwilling to sacrifice the careers of others in order to advance his own.  As it happens Garfield had never been a Communist but he certainly identified with leftist and liberal ideals and concerns about those on the margins of society, no doubt due to his own tough working-class upbringing.
These qualities are why I think he is so effective as Frank Chambers in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE.  

Frank lives a rootless, hand to mouth existence; he is charming but emotionally inarticulate; he is a man tired of not being able to dine at the top table; he is feckless but believes life owes him something.  When he meets Cora he sees someone who can satisfy all his cravings but from the moment he lays eyes on her he is embarked on a path that only leads one way.  Although Frank has streetwise cunning he is basically a sap who thinks he is one step ahead only to find that when yanked out of his natural milieu into the world of judges and lawyers he is miles behind.  The sap who isn’t as bright as he thinks is the archetypal male protagonist of the film noir.  And indeed of the neo-noir: as Kathleen Turner says to William Hurt in BODY HEAT [1981], "You're not very bright are you? I like that in a man."

What I liked about the film is the way the idea to kill Cora’s husband Nick develops organically, in synch with the growing passion of Frank and Cora’s relationship.  There’s no moment at which you can say either one is responsible for it: Frank mentions it first but as a joke; the idea comes to Cora later but she is more serious.  Did Frank plant a seed?  Was Cora thinking of it already?  Or did it spark into life when they were both thinking it at the same time?  The film doesn’t make this clear; what we do know is that once the plan is hatched they are both in it together.

Nick is played by Cecil Kellaway as basically a nice bloke but who isn’t handsome enough or young enough or vital enough for Cora.  His affability makes the plot to kill him more unforgiveable but indicates the irresistible passion Frank and Cora have for one another.  In Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake Nick is played by John Colicos who by looks and behaviour is a much less sympathetic character; when the plot is hatched in that version you’re practically rooting for them.

Lana Turner is an actress I have obviously heard of but up to this point had never seen in a movie.  I’d read that she wasn’t a great actress but I have to say she’s good in this.  The female role is crucial in a film noir because you have to believe she is someone for whom the man will do anything, even be drawn into crime and murder.  Turner does this very well in this picture; it helps of course that she is drop dead gorgeous.

The supporting cast are also good: Leon Ames as the dogged prosecutor determined to bring Frank and / or Cora to justice.  Hume Cronyn plays Cora’s crafty, cynical lawyer; I like Cronyn: he was particularly memorable as Warren Beatty’s editor boss in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid thriller THE PARALLAX VIEW [1974] but appeared in many good films.  He was also half of one of Hollywood’s most enduring marriages, to Jessica Tandy.  Audrey Totter has a small role too; she’s not very well known but late in the 40s she made three terrific films in three years: this one, THE LADY IN THE LAKE [1947] and THE SET-UP [1947] which is possibly the best sports film ever made and stars my hero Robert Ryan.  You’ll also spot Morris Ankrum as the judge: he was also in THE LADY IN THE LAKE but is more familiar to me as grizzled authority figures in a number of good and very bad sci-fi movies in the 50s.

Tay Garnett is not a name you hear or read much about these days, possibly because his best work was done a very long time ago and the latter part of his career was mainly in TV episodes.  But in the 40s he directed some very accomplished pictures including this and BATAAN [1943] an excellent WW2 movie coincidentally (or perhaps not) also shot by Sidney Wagner.

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