The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Movie Review

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Lana Turner - or, more precisely, her legs - are the star of the first film adaptation of James M. Cain's classic novel, released in 1946. Frank Chambers, a restless drifter, arrives in a roadside restaurant run by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). A tube of lipstick drops from the counter and rolls slowly to the feet of Nick's wife Cora (Turner). So begins one of the most lascivious upward pans of '30s and '40s film, climbing up Turner's legs and torso to her lit-from-the-inside golden-tressed face. There's more eroticism in that moment than in most of Bob Rafelson's ill-advised 1981 remake, which pretended to be a sexier, lustier adaptation.

The plot of Postman is, indeed, sexier than usual - the perceived naughtiness of Cain's original, excellent novel got it a "Banned in Boston" stamp. But toned down for the screen, Postman is mainly an excellent noir that's fueled by one of John Garfield's best performances. As Frank and Cora fall deeper into their romance, they begin to plan doing away with Nick. The first attempt sadly and (thanks to a clumsy shot of an electrocuted cat) hilariously fails to take, but the second works out ghoulishly. From there, the story becomes a noir classic of shifting loyalties, betrayal, and paranoia. Few actors of the time were as good as portraying the decent man in a conundrum, but there's something about the combination of Garfield's mannish broad shoulders and childish eyes that make him perfect for noirs. Body and Soul is his finest hour, but Postman is worth Garfield as well.

He's helped by two actors in smaller roles. As Sackett, the D.A. who's wise to Nick and Cora's plot, Leon Ames uses one of the best knowing smirks in the business. And Alan Reed, playing the heavy trying to muscle in on Nick and Cora's newfound blood money, drives one of noir's better nose-bloodyings. And he arrives at the precise point where we as viewers start distrusting both of our young lovers. Money changes everything, they say, and the genius of Cain's novel and Garnett's adapation is in capturing the small things - Turner's eyes getting a littler harder, Garfield's a little more anxious. They never catch much fire as a couple, but they're a joy to watch separately.

Cain's original novel never explained its title - there are no postmen around to ring anything. But Garnett's version gives it a whirl, in a final monologue from Garfield that is one of the more poignant speeches about love, death, and second chances. People who know Postman only from the Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange version might find this a bit more wooden. But what it lacks in sex it gains in passions of other sorts. It smolders.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1946

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