As such, it’s good that Warner Bros. chose to remaster on Blu-ray the original, 1946 “Postman Always Rings Twice” from MGM with John Garfield and Lana Turner simultaneously with their own 1981 remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Of the two, it’s still the Garfield-Turner film that reigns supreme.
As you probably know, the French coined the term “film noir” (or “dark film”) back in the Fifties to describe movies of the previous decade and beyond that derived from the cynicism of World War II, movies popularized in the United States, movies depicting a dark and despairing atmosphere where paranoia abounded. The settings for these dark films were usually urban worlds of shadow, smoke, and fog, and the subject matter usually concerned some sort of crime or detection. A film like “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) is among the first good examples of the genre, which reached its peak in things like “Double Indemnity” (1944) and “The Third Man” (1949).
“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946) exhibits all the characteristics of the noir film, including the femme fatale, a deadly female who lures the hero into a web of mystery and intrigue. The screenwriters based their movie on the best-selling novel by James M. Cain, whose admirers weren’t at all pleased with the changes the filmmakers made to the author’s rather racy book; but there was the Production Code to think about at the time, and the studio had to impose a good deal of censorship. Which means the film had to suggest a lot of sensuality rather than show it.
The movie features the enigmatic tough guy John Garfield as a penniless drifter who picks up a job at a lunch room and gas station located on a side road outside Los Angeles. Garfield’s character, Frank Chambers, is a decent sort of guy, but he’s not above the occasional con game, and it’s obvious he has led a rough-and-tumble life, never settling down. He’s also something of a ladies’ man, and the boss’s wife, Cora, is a knockout. It takes Chambers less than two minutes of meeting her before he plants a big one on her kisser, and she doesn’t resist.
Movie siren Lana Turner plays Cora Smith, the young woman who has married a much older man, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), for security rather than love, and who is quick to see the prospects of the hired hand. The first time Frank sees Cora, she’s in shorts, all legs, and looking helplessly, teasingly sexy. It makes for a terrific introduction to Cora’s character, actually, shown from the feet and ankles up.
From there, the movie develops two stories. The first is the romance between Frank and Cora, carried on under the nose of the naively trusting husband; the second is the mystery and its consequences when Cora and Frank decide the old man’s got to go. Cora persuades Frank to arrange an “accident” for the unsuspecting sap.
But the local DA (Leon Ames) is on to them and their schemes, and before the movie’s out, you’ll find further infidelity, suspense, blackmail, double crosses, triple crosses, and surprises galore. In fact, if there is any serious problem with the story, it’s that it tacks on too many twists, especially at the end. It never knows when to quit.
Still, in addition to Garfield and Turner, you’ll relish a standout performance by Hume Cronyn as the couple’s clever but unscrupulous lawyer, a performance that almost upstages Garfield and Turner themselves. And along the way there is some smoldering passion, at least in appearance if not in deed, and some terrific noir cinematography in the use of light and shadow.
Finally, the movie treats the viewer to a few delicious double entendres as well. If the censors wouldn’t allow the film to show too much, at least the filmmakers were going to imply what was going on, and the film projects an undercurrent of barely disguised passions and sexuality. The looks between Garfield and Turner are a joy to behold. Then there are lines like Garfield’s “I could sell anything to anybody” and Turner’s “You won’t find anything cheap around here.” Even the “Man Wanted” sign at the beginning of the picture suggests more than it says.
“The Postman Always Rings Twice” exemplifies the noir movement in Hollywood, as I’ve said, even if Hollywood didn’t call it that at the time. Part sultry romance, part mystery thriller, the movie continues to keep audiences involved with its edgy character relationships and unforeseen tensions.
Warner Brothers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the 1.33:1 ratio, black-and-white picture to Blu-ray, the image clean and free of most age marks: no specks, flecks, scratches, or apparent fades do we notice. The overall appearance of the picture is slightly grainy as we might expect, and some scenes are a bit on the soft side, particularly nighttime shots. Definition looks, as I say, a tad softer on some occasions than others, but otherwise it’s fine. There are fairly good black-and-white contrasts, too, with often deep blacks and glistening whites. The resulting PQ is probably about as good as the improved source material allows.
The sound here is neither good nor bad but typical of a 1940s’ monaural soundtrack, reproduced as well as possible in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. What seemed to me a bit forward and hard in the earlier DVD’s Dolby Digital now sounds smooth and easy on the ear. Anyway, don’t expect too much in the way of frequency range, although dynamic response is surprisingly wide. For an old movie, the audio comes off well, and dialogue is quite clear.
The Blu-ray disc carries over the same extras found on the DVD release and adds a few more. The first item is a five-minute introduction to the movie by USC film professor, historian, and author Richard Jewell. Next is an eighty-six minute biography, “Lana Turner: A Daughter’s Memoir,” followed by the fifty-seven minute biography, “The John Garfield Story.” After these documentaries are the featurettes “Phantoms, Inc.,” a seventeen-minute entry in the “Crime Does Not Pay” series; “Red Hot Riding Hood,” an MGM cartoon directed by Tex Avery; and a twenty-nine minute Screen Guild Theater radio broadcast of the story starring Turner and Garfield.
The extras wrap with a theatrical trailer; thirty-two scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
Warner Bros. remade “The Postman Always Rings Twice” in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, mainly to capitalize on the new freedom the cinema provided by then to include some of the steamier scenes they had to tame for the original. Unfortunately, the newer, sexier version was less effective than the first, despite its greater frankness. I suppose it goes to show that the imagination is still a filmmaker’s most potent ally.
In any case, viewers will enjoy the strong, smoldering relationship between John Garfield and Lana Turner in the original “Postman,” and they’ll get the benefit of some fine stylistic photography, a slew of surprises, and the whole noir atmosphere. It’s not a great movie, perhaps, and maybe not the absolute best movie in the noir genre, either, but it’s a good, absorbing movie, nevertheless, made all the better by high definition.