Quintessential film noir.
The term "film noir" (or "dark film") as you probably know was coined by the French back in the fifties to describe movies of the previous decade 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 enduring 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, the deadly female who lures the hero into a web of mystery. The script is based on the best-selling novel by James M. Cain, whose admirers weren't too 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 censorship had to be imposed. Which means that everything in the way of sensuality was suggested rather than shown.
The movie features the enigmatic tough guy John Garfield as a drifter who picks up a job at a lunch room and garage located on a side road outside Los Angeles. Garfield's character, Frank Chambers, is a decent sort, 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 him 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's 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 Cora and Frank being 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 film, it's that it tacks on too many twists, especially at the end.
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 viewer is treated to a few delicious double entendres as well. If the censors wouldn't allow too much to be shown, 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 intrigued with its edgy character relationships and unforeseen tensions.
The 1.33:1 ratio, black-and-white picture is transferred from what appears to have been very good film stock, the image clean and free of most age marks. There are periodic faint, vertical lines that appear, but they are of little concern. No specks, flecks, scratches, or apparent fading is noticeable. The overall aspect of the picture is slightly gritty in the manner of films of that era, and some scenes are a bit on the soft side, especially nighttime shots. There is also in brighter scenes some small fuzziness around the edges of individual objects, indicative of minor edge enhancements. Still, these are not at all objectionable, and the viewer will hardly notice them, if at all.
The sound here is neither good nor bad. It's a Dolby Digital remastering of the film's original monaural soundtrack that appears to my ears somewhat bright and hard, but that's pretty much what soundtracks were like back then. There is a degree of background noise and hiss accompanying the sonics, too, which is exacerbated by a wide dynamic range that renders some sounds quite soft compared to louder sounds. Anyway, for an old movie, the audio comes off well, and dialogue is clear as a bell.
I've always been of the opinion that the quality of the bonus items on a DVD is more important than the quantity of the items. This disc is a good case in point. There's not too much stuff on the disc, but it's quality stuff. The first item is a five-minute introduction to the movie by USC film professor, historian, and author Richard Jewell. Next, and most important, is a newly made, fifty-seven minute biographical documentary, "The John Garfield Story," that is narrated by the actor's daughter, Julie Garfield, and includes commentary by a score of people who knew the man, worked with him, and admired him, plus a recap of his later years when he was dogged by the House Un-American Activities Committee, followed by his early death. After this are thirty-two scene selections; a behind-the-scenes image gallery; and theatrical trailers for the original movie and the 1981 remake. English and French are provided for spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.
"The Postman Always Rings Twice" was remade 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 that had to be tamed for the original. Unfortunately, the new, 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 Garfield and Turner in "Postman," plus they'll get the benefit of some fine stylistic photography, a slew of surprises, and the whole noir atmosphere. Not a great movie, perhaps, and maybe not the absolute best movie in the noir genre, but a good and absorbing movie, nevertheless.