A smoldering noir classic about murder and lust that oozes with sex
They say opposites attract and in this week’s classic film, they ignite. The smoldering hot “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is a tale of murder and lust featuring two very different movie stars whose chemistry can scald even the iciest humanoid. Their heat is among the most erotic in all of classic cinema, and it made this film one of MGM’s (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio) biggest moneymakers of the year and the highest grossing noir film of the entire era. The American Film Institute ranked it as the 49th Greatest Love Story of All-Time, and today it is considered a quintessential film noir. You never seem to know what’s just around the corner, and its twists and turns and nonstop intrigue make for exciting viewing from the very start until the very end. This film has mesmerized me ever since I was a kid.
It opens with a "MAN WANTED” sign outside a diner/service station near Los Angeles, where “Frank Chambers”, a drifter who keeps itching to go to new places, arrives looking for a job. The establishment is “Twin Oaks”, owned by an older man named “Nick Smith”, who hires “Frank” to work there in exchange for a small salary and free room and board in his home. “Frank” quickly discovers that “Nick” lives with his wife, a young blonde sexpot named “Cora”. Fireworks immediately spark between “Cora” and “Frank”, and as the film progresses, that original “MAN WANTED” sign takes on extra meanings as “Cora” and “Frank” have a torrid affair and plot to kill “Nick”. The story is so enticingly presented that any concerns about plausibility rapidly fall by the wayside.
Equipped with the usual noir femme fatale, betrayal, murder, and even some narration, it's the unrivaled erotic tension between “Cora” and “Frank” that separates this from all other noirs. “Cora” is played by MGM movie star/sex-symbol Lana Turner, known for her special mix of innocence and sex, and “Frank” is portrayed by Warner Brothers tough guy John Garfield, an actor with a straightforward combination of brawn and introspection. Their first scene brilliantly shows their intoxicating dynamic, and "Cora's" entrance alone remains one of the most famous and iconic in cinema history. Preceded by a a tube of lipstick rolling on the floor, she stands in a doorway wearing white shoes, white shorts, white tank top, and white turban, and literally takes "Frank's" breath away (and ours). And through looks and innuendo over a tube of lipstick, the two begin a sexually charged game of cat and mouse. Just watch how they look into one another’s eyes in that scene and the entire film. They possess a carnal fervor the likes of which is rarely seen in any movie, let alone a classic.
This film was based on a 1934 novel by James M. Cain. When he was a journalist, Cain attended the 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey (lovers convicted of killing her husband), which inspired him to write two novels, the first of which was “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. MGM bought the rights, but a newly enforced Motion Picture Production Code deemed that this violent, adulterous, and carnal novel could never be made into an acceptable film, so it was shelved. Then in 1944, came the success of the film adaptation of Cain’s second novel about the Snyder/Grey case, “Double Indemnity”, with a similar plot. So MGM decided to proceed with “The Postman Aways Rings Twice” and found a way to tell this tale about adultery and murder without actually showing any of it. A third novel by Cain was also made into a classic film, “Mildred Piece”, which like “Double Indemnity”, can already be found on this site.
The novel’s rights were initially purchased as a possible vehicle for one of the studio’s biggest stars, blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, but, by the 1940s MGM became recognized for churning out lush, polished productions, particularly musicals and wholesome entertainment. Thus, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” stands out as a rarity in two ways. First, this gritty crime film is not your typical MGM fare, and secondly, because of its MGM touch, it stands as one of the most stylish and polished of all classic noirs. A large part of the film’s allure and style comes from its star, Lana Turner. Turner’s platinum blonde hair (a la Harlow) and porcelain skin radiate off the screen along with her intangible "can’t take your eyes off of her" quality. And she wonderfully fluctuates between coy girlishness, disdain, and unadulterated lust, such as her unexpected and priceless reaction when “Frank” first kisses her. She is perfect in the role, and with this film found new respect as an actress and turned into an A-list movie star. She often said it was the favorite of her films.
Glamour icon and sex goddess Lana Turner was one of Hollywood's biggest stars. She had beauty, evolved into a talented actress, and had an off-screen life that included lurid headlines, many boyfriends, seven husbands, and eight marriages. A star practically her entire life, Turner’s journey offers an insightful peek at what it was to be a top movie star in Hollywood's heyday – particularly being chosen, molded, protected, and ultimately discarded by a studio. Born in Idaho and raised in San Francisco, Turner’s beginnings were anything but glamorous. Her father was murdered when she was nine, and while her mother worked, she grew up in foster homes where she was sometimes abused. When she was fifteen, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles, and within months her destiny began. Lana Turner’s entry into Hollywood is legendary. Skipping a typing class at Hollywood High School, she ventured across the street to the Top Hat Malt Shop (not the soda counter at Schwab's drugstore as many claim), and while sipping a Coca-Cola, she was discovered by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. He asked if she wanted to be in movies. She said she had to ask her mother.
Shortly after, with no acting experience or even thoughts of being an actress, Turner signed a contract with film director Mervyn LeRoy and made her film debut in his 1937 film “They Won’t Forget”. Though she had a small role, her good looks and famous walk down the street in a sweater became a sensation, earning her the nickname “The Sweater Girl" (which she hated). After she appeared in several more films, LeRoy was hired as an executive at MGM Studios and Turner followed, also signing with MGM. Her first film at this mega-studio was as a lead opposite Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in 1938's "Love Finds Andy Hardy”, where she played the girl who loves to kiss boys. At sixteen she already exuded sex and photographed older than her age. MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer took notice and thought she could possibly fill the shoes of Jean Harlow, who had recently unexpectedly died (you can read more about Harlow in my “Red Dust” and “Red-Headed Woman” posts). So MGM cast Turner in roles which relied heavily on her looks. The studio taught her how to act, speak, walk, carry, and present herself, all of which influenced who she became, to the point that her daughter Cheryl Crane says in her wonderful book “Lana: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies”, that her mother was always “camera ready”, even when sitting down to watch television in her living room. Endowed with a great sense of humor, Turner was also strong-willed, outspoken, fun loving, and impetuous, and her private life garnered enough continual publicity to help create a larger-than-life persona.
Turner made headline news throughout her life, usually related to the men she dated or married. Just as one can’t get a full sense of Marilyn Monroe without knowing her childhood and insecurities, it’s hard to get a complete picture of Lana Turner without knowledge of her relationships. As she famously quipped, “I liked the boys and the boys like me”. By 1939, Turner had become a popular actress, often top-billed in minor films, including “Dancing Co-Ed”, which featured famous big bandleader Artie Shaw playing himself. Though he and Turner did not get along during the shoot, six months later they went on one date and immediately eloped, much to the dismay of MGM, who wanted to control every aspect of their stars' lives (including who and when they married). Their highly publicized marriage lasted just four months and eleven days. For a period, Turner was seen partying and dancing with handsome men, earning herself another nickname, “The Nightclub Queen”. Her acting career took a dramatic turn (so to speak) with the 1941 musical "Ziegfeld Girl”, playing an alcoholic actress. It was Turner’s first meaty role and the one she credited with having her take acting seriously. Her fine performance surprised audiences and critics, and turned her into a star, complete with her own dressing room, makeup artist, hairdresser, and wardrobe mistress. Better films and roles followed as she transitioned from teenager to glamour girl.
At the Mocambo nightclub in 1942, Turner met Stephen Crane, and after briefly dating, they eloped. Four months later, while pregnant, she found out Crane's previous divorce was not final and immediately got an annulment. Because of her pregnancy, the two remarried in Mexico once the legal matters were worked out. MGM decided to use all this press to beef her up as a sex symbol, even altering the title of her next film (a highly successful comedy) from “Nothing Ventured” to “Slightly Dangerous”. She was now an established symbol of beauty, even making a cameo appearance as herself in the musical "Du Barry Was a Lady", with Red Skelton who sang, “…if Lana Turner doesn't set your brain a whirl, then you don't love a lovely girl”. Her second marriage to Crane lasted nearly a year and a half, and their child, daughter Cheryl, would be her only. Turner would later say in interviews, "I really had hoped to have one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way around”.
Turner’s first completely dramatic role came in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Intended to ramp up her sex appeal, it worked. MGM had successfully steered her from pretty girl, to glamour girl, to major movie and star sex symbol. To insure Turner’s image stayed audience-friendly, MGM had publicity photos taken of her with her two year old daughter on the set, and dressed "Cora" in all white (except for a handful of scenes dressed in all black) to keep her looking somewhat innocent and angelic while she does her dastardly deeds. A career-changing film, it made Turner one of MGM’s biggest stars and moneymakers, and more hits followed. During this period she famously began dating millionaire Henry J. "Bob" Topping Jr., and the two married in 1948 with an extended honeymoon from which she returned late to the set of “The Three Musketeers”, a film she did not want to make. Tired of having to deal with her off-screen life, MGM wanted to suspend her contract. But because she was such a moneymaker, she negotiated that her part in “The Three Musketeers” be expanded and her salary increased. The film was another hit, but dark times were just around the corner.
Turner had two stillbirths with Topping, his money was running out, they were facing bankruptcy, she made a cluster of the worst movies in her career, and attempted suicide. As Topping took to drinking, their marriage failed and they divorced. She married actor Lex Barker in 1953, had another stillbirth, and realized she could never have another child. Their marriage ended when she found out Barker was raping twelve year old Cheryl. In 1955, Mayer left MGM and was replaced by Dore Schary. Not a fan of Turner’s, he felt she was a spoiled movie star from a different era and put her in subpar films, which she reluctantly did because she needed money. They flopped and at thirty six years old, after 18 years of grossing over $50 million for the studio, MGM did not renew her contract. She packed her things and left MGM without so much as a goodbye from them. Her first job as a free agent was starring as a troubled mother of a teenage daughter in the 1957 blockbuster "Peyton Place", which earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination (her only), and a percentage of the film’s profits, making her a small fortune.
While vulnerable from being dropped by MGM and divorcing Barker, Turner was being courted, wooed, and overwhelmed with expensive gifts and affection by a man who called himself John Steele. Deep into their affair, a friend informed her he was not John Steele, but dangerous mobster Johnny Stompanato. She confronted Stompanato, wanting out of the relationship, but he wouldn’t let her go and turned violent. She was afraid for herself, Cheryl, and her mother's safety. On the fateful night of April 4, 1958, while working on homework, Cheryl overheard screaming and threats coming from her mother's bedroom. Panicked, she took a butcher’s knife from the kitchen and ventured to the bedroom to see if her mom was okay. When the door opened, Stompanato walked into the knife Cheryl was holding and died. No longer protected by a studio, the press had a field day with Turner, and she and Cheryl were headline news around the world. Custody battles, unlawful death lawsuits, leaked love letters between Turner and Stompanato, and a televised coroner’s inquest helped create a media frenzy designed to humiliate Turner. When she broke down in court defending her daughter, reports said it was the best acting triumph of her career. It became the most sensational scandal in Hollywood history. In the end, Cheryl was charged with justifiable homicide, released to the care of her grandmother, and ordered to receive psychiatric care along with her parents. The press now painted Turner as a wanton woman.
With no studio to clean up her image it was tough to find work, but producer Ross Hunter came to her rescue, offering her the starring role as another troubled mother in the 1959 Douglas Sirk film “Imitation of Life”. Turner had a very hard time on the set (apparently crying for three days after filming one key scene), but the film was a giant success. Turner again took a percentage of the film's earnings in lieu of a salary and walked away with over $2 million. She continued to work, though more sporadically, with a standout performance playing yet another troubled mother in Hunter's 1966 production "Madame X". She occasionally appeared on television beginning in 1969, including starring in the short-lived series "The Survivors”, a recurring role on "Falcon Crest" in the 1980s, and her final appearance on a 1985 episode of "The Love Boat". Turner also took to the stage in the 1970s and 1980s. Her other notable films include "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Portrait in Black", "Honky Tonk", "Johnny Eager", "Green Dolphin Street", and the classic "The Bad and the Beautiful”. She published her autobiography, "Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth" in 1982. Turner was linked with many men, including Howard Hughes, Tony Martin, Robert Stack, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Gene Krupa, Robert Taylor, Turhan Bey, Fernando Lamas, and the one man she said she really loved, actor Tyrone Power. Though a sex symbol, Turner said she was a sensual person rather than sexual, and claimed that her sixth husband, Robert P. Eaton (ten years her junior), finally introduced her to good sex for the first time when she was forty four. In 1995, Cheryl, who grew up to be a fine person and successful businesswoman, was my neighbor, and I was supposed to spend Thanksgiving with her and her mother. Sadly I never got to meet Lana Turner. She died in 1995 at the age of 74. She was Hollywood royalty, and her story is the epitome of the making of classic Hollywood Era legend.
The enormous allure Turner adds to “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, is equally matched by the mighty emotional heart of John Garfield, who stars as drifter "Frank Chambers”. Underneath a sturdy exterior, Garfield brings an irresistible sensitivity as seen even in his first moments onscreen, when he thanks the man who drops him at “Twin Oaks” for the ride, the three cigarettes, and for not laughing at his theories on life. While “Frank” talks and listens, it is clear he has a vibrant inner life. That is thanks to Garfield’s enormous acting talent and ability to absorb and react to what’s around him. One can see by his eyes there is always something going on deep inside. His dark brooding manner and conflicting emotions pair exquisitely with Turner’s coquettish simplicity, and he underplays, which makes his performance feel completely natural.
Unlike Tuner, who was learning on the job, John Garfield had been a dedicated actor who came from the theater and was perhaps cinema’s first Method actor, predating pioneers Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Marlon Brando (I wrote a bit about Method acting in my posts on “A Place in the Sun” and “A Face in the Crowd”). Ever since his spellbinding Oscar nominated screen debut in 1938's "Four Daughters”, Garfield shot to stardom at Warner Brothers, becoming one of their top tormented tough guys. By this point, he wanted to branch out as an actor, so when his contract ended, he didn’t renew, opting to go independent. Near the end of his contract, Warner’s loaned him to MGM for this film, and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” was a major hit for Garfield, and the first of some of the most diverse and successful films in his career, including "Humoresque", "Gentleman's Agreement", and "Body and Soul" (which earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination). Sadly, his untimely death came just five years after "The Postman Always Rings Twice". You can read more about the life and career of the great John Garfield in my post on "Gentleman's Agreement". Just click on the film’s title to read more.
Cecil Kellaway is thoroughly enjoyable as “Nick Smith”, “Cora’s” much older husband. Because Kellaway plays “Nick” as immensely jovial, gentle, and kind, his presence makes the film that much more heartbreaking. He also sings songs throughout that seemingly pertain to his wife or life, adding levity into the mix. Though he suspects he’s being cheated by everyone, "Nick" doesn’t seem to realize the cheating going on right under his nose. My personal feeling is that he knows there’s something going on between “Cora” and “Frank”, but because he’s so much older than her and more concerned about money, he ignores it. He even appears to encourage them at times (such as forcing them to dance together), and says things like "I didn't expect you back so soon” when he sees them return from a night swim. But I could be wrong. It may just be one of this film's plot points you shouldn’t overthink. And however you want to look at it, Kellaway is completely believable. And again, this film was made before Hollywood became focused on realism, and is still largely part of the dreamlike entertainment for which the studios are best remembered. You can read more about the life and career of Cecil Kellaway in my post on one of his later classics, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
Hume Cronyn is fantastic as the unscrupulous lawyer “Arthur Keats”. A slimy lawyer who doesn’t care about anything but winning, “Keats" can be friendly one second and manipulative the next, and Cronyn manages to make him deliciously devilish the entire time. It’s a powerhouse performance in a supporting role, indicative of this much honored and talented actor.
Canadian-born Hume Cronyn began his seventy year stage/film/TV career as an understudy on Broadway in 1934's "Hipper's Holiday”. After nearly a decade on stage, his first film role was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller “Shadow of a Doubt”. He began appearing on television in 1949, and also branched out into directing, producing, and writing for the stage and screen. He appeared in another Hitchcock film, “Lifeboat” in 1944, and served as a screenwriter for the Hitchcock films “Rope" and "Under Capricorn” . Cronyn earned a Best Supporting Academy Award nomination (his only) for “The Seventh Cross” in 1944, and other notable titles from his nearly forty films include "Brute Force", "Sunrise at Campobello", "Cleopatra", "Cocoon", "The World According to Garp”, and "Marvin's Room”. His nearly sixty years on TV earned him three Emmy Awards with six nominations (and an additional nomination for writing "The Dollmaker" in 1984). Cronyn’s illustrious theater career earned him seven Tony Award nominations, winning a Best Featured Actor Tony for "Hamlet" in 1964. He was famously married for 51 years to actress Jessica Tandy (whom you can read about in my post on “The Birds”), often starring opposite her. In 1994, the two were both honored with Lifetime Achievement Tony Awards for their Broadway work. His many other honors include induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1979, appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1988, the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal in 1992, and the Canadian version of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002. He was married three times. Hume Cronyn died in 2003 at the age of 91.
A face watchers of the films on this blog should recognize is that of Leon Ames who plays the suspicious “District Attorney”, “Kyle Sackett”. Though manipulative, he is not quite a match for the evilness of “Keats”, and their interplay is enjoyably catty. Wherever “Sackett” might fall short in wickedness, he makes up for with tenacity, and Ames does a great job at keeping this lawyer real. An actor who appeared in many classics mostly playing fathers, his role in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” stands out among his works. Ames previously appeared as Judy Garland’s father in 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis”, and you can read more about his life and career in my post on that musical classic. Please check it out.
At the helm of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is director Tay Garnett. A testament to his talent is how this film percolates with sex without showing even the slightest bit of nudity. Instead, Garnett managed to capture and extract red hot performances through intense close-ups, almost voyeuristic point-of-view shots (such as the first look we get at “Cora”), and tightly framed two-shots (such as when “Frank” and “Cora” are in the kitchen in an embrace as she asks him, “Is the door locked?”). His direction keeps things sizzlingly suspenseful. This Los Angeles born former screenwriter was one of the few independent Hollywood film directors of the 1930s and 1940s. He worked at all the major studios (RKO, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and MGM), and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is considered his greatest film. From his first silent short film in 1924 through his last feature film "Challenge to Be Free" in 1975, Garnett directed 76 films and TV shows, and his other notable movies include "China Seas”, "The Cross of Lorraine", "Bataan", "Mrs. Parkington", and "The Valley of Decision". He was married three times, including to actresses Mari Aldon and silent film leading lady Patsy Ruth Miller. Tay Garnett died in 1977 at the age of 83.
Readers of this blog should also recognize the names of Art Director Cedric Gibbons and Sound Recording Director Douglas Shearer, for both have previously been mentioned many times on this blog (particularly “The Good Earth” and “Mrs. Miniver” respectively).
"The Postman Always Rings Twice" was remade in 1981 starring Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson, which Turner called "pornographic trash" based on watching the preview trailers (she refused to watch the film). It was also turned into an opera in 1982, and was made into half a dozen films around the world, including the 1939 Pierre Chenal French film "Le Dernier Tournant", the 1943 Luchino Visconti Italian classic "Ossessione", and most recently the 2008 Christian Petzold German film "Jerichow".
This week’s hypnotizing classic gives a peek at the extraordinary work of the studios during the classic Hollywood Era. In a time when it was forbidden to show or mention sex, adultery, or extreme violence, they produced one of the most lustfully hot adulterous crime films in all of cinema. Enjoy a true classic, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”!
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