The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Garnett


The first time John Garfield, and we the audience, see Lana Turner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” she is exquisite looking, dressed all in white wearing a turban, a tight blouse with her bare mid-drift exposed, and a tight fitting pair of shorts containing the shapeliest pair of legs ever to stand in high heels. Garfield, kneeing down to pick up her lipstick case that rolled across the floor, is hooked from the moment he sees her. His eyes working their way up from her incredible legs to her full breasts to her superlative face. It remains today, more than fifty years later, one of the greatest screen entrances in film. For half the film, director Tay Garnett had Turner wear white, her turban, those fantastic short shorts, her jacket, her waitress outfit, even her hair is platinum blonde. Only after plans are set in motion to kill her husband do the outfits all turn to black, visually symbolizing the good and evil of her character. This visual imagery would be used almost fifteen years later by Alfred Hitchcock with Janet Leigh’s white and black bras and half-slips in “Psycho.”

postman-3 In James M. Cain’s novel, Cora is not blonde nor is she beautiful. Frank Chambers narrates, “She had a sulky look to her and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.”

A few pages later, when they have their first chance to make love , Frank says, “I took her in my arms and mashed her mouth up against hers”

“….Bite me! Bite me!”

“I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.”

postman_always_title  In Cain’s prose, passion and pain merge into an uncontrolled obsessive wild fire. In Garnett’s 1946 film the sadomasochistic passion runs at a lower flame, understandably since the production code would not allow such unbridled fervor. Still, Cain’s rough love comes through, the illicit lovers fight and love, trust and mistrust passionately, with Cora always the dominant partner and Frank the submissive male. The kind of traits so typical in film noir. Lana Turner, an actress of limited talent, does give us one of her finest performances, though she looks to have arrived from another world. The problem is she is too glamorous, too much the movie star, for a roadside diner wife making you wonder what is a gorgeous ruthless woman, with not one hair out of place, doing married to an old man in the middle of nowhere. She never convinces you that she ever waited on a table anywhere, not even at Schwab’s Drugstore. You never forget she is Lana Turner, movie star, subsequently this reduces the impact her character makes on the story, though visually she is stunning and knocks you out. Her movie star glamour becomes a distraction to the plot, a beautiful distraction but one nonetheless.

postman-insestb Garfield on the other hand is Frank Chambers, a drifter, a wanderer, going nowhere, seduced by a beautiful ambitious woman hell bent on going somewhere. From the beginning, you know Frank is doomed, signals are given as soon as you see the “Man Wanted” sign he tosses into the fire when he takes the job at the diner. He is hooked and together they plan their pathetic scheme to get rid of Nick, Cora’s husband (Cecil Kellaway), leads to their doomed destination. Unlike Turner, you believe Garfield as Frank, a role in some ways similar to so many he has played in the past. Additionally, Garfield came from a working class background, a troubled youth from the Lower East Side of New York. He had the credentials.

Despite the sexuality and violence, the film is a fairly faithful rendition of Cain’s steamy lust driven work. This was Cain’s first novel, published in 1934, after being rejected over ten times by various publishers. Originally titled “Bar-B-Q” publishers Alfred Knopf purchased the rights and changed the name to “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The book was a hit and various movie studios were interested in acquiring the property for the screen. However, this was 1934 and the newly enforced Production Code turned thumbs down on Cain’s lurid work. In spite of a promise made by censor Joe Breen that the novel would never make it to the screen, MGM purchased the screen rights sitting on the property for twelve years.

By 1946, the novel had been filmed twice in Europe. In 1939, a French version “Le Demier Tournant” directed by Pierre Chenal and as “Ossessione” in 1942 by Italy’s Luchino Visconti, an unauthorized adaptation. The victory of World War II was still fresh in everyone’s minds still, there seemed to be a dark void in the American psyche and post war films began to reflect this in works like “The Maltese Falcon and “Stranger on the Third Floor.”

post   Two more Cain novels, “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce”, reached the screen in 1944 and 1945, respectively. Billy Wilder, along with Raymond Chandler figured out how to translate Cain’s sadistic sex and murder into sly allusions and insinuations to get passed the censors.  In 1946, MGM felt they could now dust off Cain’s first big hit and put it on the screen. Of course, much of the novel’s, sado-sex and violence would still have to be toned down; censorship had relaxed somewhat but not too much. L.B. Mayer wanted Lana Turner for the role who at first did not want to do it fearing it would be bad for her image. Mayer convinced her that this would be a stretch to show off her talent. Warner Brothers loaned John Garfield to MGM in what would turn out to a good move for all concerned.  Garfield gave one of his most subtle and moving performances, which soon led to a more mature style in films like “Body and Soul” and “Force of Evil.”

One of the major criticisms of the film is the ending with it’s, strangely enough, religious overtones including Frank asking the Priest about him and Cora being reunited in the afterlife. It is an odd ending, considering one of film noir’s traits is its anti-heroes existential viewpoint, which the film’s ending is at odds with, unlike say, Siodmak’s “The Killers”, made the same year where Ole “The Swede” Anderson takes responsibility for his situation by accepting the consequences of his past actions remaining in his room and refusing to run anymore. It is like the filmmakers, after all that came before, the murder, the duplicity still wanted a happy ending and Frank while not ecstatic seems to accept his doom with a contented look on his face. This is partially why the film has met with widely diversified responses, some considering it a classic film noir, others saying Cain’s classic pulp fiction was ruined by Hollywood. The truth may rest somewhere in the middle.

postmana     Directed by Tay Garnett with a screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, the film opened in May 1946 to critical applause and large audiences. Cain however, was not happy with the changes made though he was impressed with Lana Turner’s performance, so impressed that he gave her a signed leather bound copy of the book. Off screen, Garfield was also “impressed” with Turner, as was she with him, enough so they had a short lived romantic liaison. Apparently, the sparks that flew on screen did not translate off-screen and the affair was over quickly though they remained friends long after the filming ended. That said, Jane Ellen Wayne in her gossip filled thin biography of Lana Turner states that Tay Garnett said while Garfield and Turner were attracted to each other they did not have an affair. So what is the truth? We may never know, though it is well known that both Garfield and Turner had large sexual appetites and they were attracted to each other.

postman_always_r1_10157    In addition to Garfield and Turner, there are some nice performances by Hume Cronyn as the deceitful slimy lawyer, Leon Ames as the D.A. and Cecil Kellaway as Cora’s husband Nick Smith. The changing of Cora and Nick’s last name to Smith from Papadikis was certainly another attempt to sanitize the novel. In the book Nick was sometime even called “The Greek.” Audrey Totter, as Madge, who Frank has an affair with is wasted in an early role.

The final verdict? Well, the film is not the extraordinary classic some folks say it is. It is not up there with the two previously made films based on Cain novels, “Mildred Pierce” and Billy Wilder’s masterpiece “Double Indemnity.”  Of course, few films are on the same playing field as Wilder’s film.  That said, if you put aside the fact Lana Turner is just too stunning, and too well lit, to be believable as a waitress at a pit stop diner, and ignore the unsatisfying un-noir like ending, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” remains a flawed yet significant portrayal of ill-fated passion, and a ground breaking work in adult film entertainment.

Sources:  The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain

TCM Website Articles

Lana: The Life and Loves of Lana Turner – Jane Ellen Wayne

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir – Eddie Muller


10 comments on “The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Garnett

  1. Mike Donovan says:

    Good stuff. It made me think of all the controversy over Cain’s novel, ‘Mildred Pierce’ and his anger at the changes for the film. By the way, as good as the filmed version of ‘Mildred Pierce’ is – I have to side with those who think Cain’s novel is a far superior story.


    • John Greco says:

      If I were an author I would be upset about some of the changes Hollywood has made in transferring material to the screen. I know Cain was not happy with what they did with “Postman” also.

      I have not read Mildred Pierce” in many years but after just rereading “Postman” I am going back to that one too.


  2. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I sure do agree with everything you said about “Postman.” It’s a very good movie but just not the noir classic some claim it is. I think you identified everything that keeps it from being so. The incongruous ending and the whole atmosphere just dilute the noir possibilities of the concept. There’s a classic film noir waiting to get out, but this movie is just a bit mild to succeed at bringing out the full potential. It needed a tougher director and darker approach. I think you were justified in pointing out Lana’s limitations as an actress. I’ve always felt she was just not right for the role, too young and kittenish, and too soft to be believable as a shrewd manipulator. There’s no danger in her, yet she’s clearly intended as a destructive force. I’ve also wondered about the wisdom of casting Kellaway as her husband; he just seems too nice. But Garfield is sensational, making the sexuality in the situation palpable, and his sexual obsession’s overcoming his judgment believable. Besides concurring with your overall assessment of the movie, I should mention how good I thought your writing was in this post.


  3. John Greco says:

    R.D. Good point on the director. Someone like Robert Siodmak would have produced a much darker noirish vision than Garnett. I always liked Garfield, he was just getting to the phase of his career where he would be doing some of his best work.
    Thanks for the comments on the writing. Being familar with your writing I do not take it lightly.


  4. Great piece. I agree about Lana Turner’s limitations, but I suppose she was just all part of the glossy Hollywood package. It dilutes the power of the novel you’ve described. I’ve not read the book, but your comparisons between the book and the film are intriguing. I hope to read the novel sometime.


  5. Judy says:

    John, this is a great review. I saw the movie a few months ago and remember being impressed by the chemistry between Turner and Garfield, and also by Hume Cronyn as the lawyer. I must agree that Turner looks impossibly glamorous to be a waitress at that restaurant. It’s interesting to see just how similar the plot is to the second half of ‘They Drive By Night’, with the difference that there the man isn’t tempted to join in the wife’s plot.


  6. John Greco says:


    Thanks for your comments. If you get a chance you should read the novel along with “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce “, all excellent.
    Turner was brought up in the MGM world where she was taught to be a “star” and act like one on and off the screen, similar to Joan Crawford, only Crawford was a better actress. I think someone like Gloria Grahame, who would have been more believeable working at a pit stop yet could be sexually enticing enough to steam up Garfield’s passion.


    That is interesting pointing out the similarity between “They Drive By Night” and “Postman.” I have to watch it again, it has been a while.


  7. Pick, pick, pick on Lana Turner. I’m sick of it. The film is a classic because of her not in spite of her. She was always as good if not better than her material. Had anyone else starred in that film it would probably be forgotten by now. There is a reason Turner was a true star for some 30 years – nobody lasts that long without something in her favor.


  8. […] The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 and 1981): Released today are both the 1946 version (Lana Turner & John Garfield) and the 1981 version (Jack Nicholson & Jessica Lange). Both are entertaining movies, but for my money I would go with the 1946. The real crime here is that they didn’t release them together in a two-pack! Here is a great review for the 1946 version from our friend at Twenty Fours Frames. […]


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