Gotta love those femme fatales. Devious, passionate, manipulative, and oh-so-sexy, they can turn a tough male into a drooling lapdog within seconds, and lead him panting down the road to self-destruction. Barbara Stanwyck in 'Double Indemnity,' Joan Bennett in 'The Woman in the Window,' Jean Simmons in 'Angel Face' — the list goes on. Some are rotten-to-the-core, others just plain rotten, yet all use sex and vulnerability to poison their prey. Guys like Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, and Robert Mitchum think they can handle such icy-hot dames, but they're way, way out of their league. Sure, we feel sorry for these good men gone wrong, but deep down we know, if given a second chance, they'd make the same bad choices all over again. So sweet is the honey of Hollywood's queen bees.
Yet of all the fatalistic femmes, Lana Turner in 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' is perhaps the quintessential specimen. As Cora Smith, the sultry cook at a roadside dive, she's cool, calculating, and devastatingly carnal. Her white-as-snow outfits denote spiritual purity, but her platinum blonde hair betrays the lie. No wonder drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) falls for her. To him, she's an angel. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize she's an angel of death until he's trapped in her deceitful web. Attracted by the "Man Wanted" sign outside the hamburger joint she owns with her much older husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway), Frank inquires about a job. But after meeting Cora, he soon realizes he's "wanted" for other things, too — love, sex, maybe even murder. As far as the order goes, take your pick.
Oh, it all starts innocently enough. It seems Cora married the portly, unkempt Nick to escape all the ravenous wolves nipping at her skirts. Dirt poor, she saw the Twin Oaks Restaurant as a ticket to self-improvement and economic security. Yet when Frank ambles along and ignites her flame, she hungers for all the passion she's been missing. Cora melts in Frank's embrace, but can't bear the thought of sharing his nomadic, impoverished existence. And she knows if Nick ever discovers their clandestine affair, he'll cut her off without a penny.
So what's left for the illicit lovers? In their dead-end lives, all they can see is murder. Bump off Nick, beat the rap, share the restaurant, and live happily ever after. Sounds like quite a plan. It's just the execution — and avoiding execution — that's the problem. Poisoned by suspicion and weakened by panic and fear, the pair soon loses control of their own game, becoming mere pawns in a legal chess match between District Attorney Sackett (Leon Ames) and Cora's smarmy lawyer, Keats (Hume Cronyn). Crosses, double-crosses, blackmail, and other assorted twists ensue — and keep us riveted throughout.
James M. Cain published 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' (his first novel) in 1934, and the racy, sordid yarn incited a firestorm of controversy, culminating with the city of Boston banning the book. Hollywood wouldn't touch it until 12 years later, after two other Cain adaptations ('Double Indemnity' and 'Mildred Pierce') garnered critical and popular acclaim. Amazingly, it wasn't gritty Warner Bros. that snapped up the rights, but wholesome MGM — home to sumptuous musicals, Andy Hardy, and Lassie. Although Hollywood's production code sanitized the novel's lewd, raw tone, MGM provided additional softening by enhancing the romantic angle. In the book, talk of murder begins on page 14, but more than a half-hour of character development transpires in the film before Cora plants her homicidal seeds. During that time (and throughout the rest of the movie), Garfield and Turner add welcome sensitivity to their roles, fooling us into believing that love — not lust or greed — drives them to their doom. Somehow, they gain our sympathy, and we often find ourselves rooting for them, despite their dastardly deeds and our own moral beliefs. (After all, who can resist two crazy, murderous kids in love?) The film never approaches the hard edge of 'Double Indemnity,' but the love affair adds depth and lends 'Postman' a refreshing soulful quality that resonates during its climax and denouement.
Director Tay Garnett tried to tarnish MGM's gloss by shooting chunks of the script on dusty locations, but the studio's patented "look" still peeks through. That's not entirely bad, especially when one reflects on Cora's glamorous (and now classic) cinematic introduction. As a lipstick rolls across the restaurant floor, a slow backward pan reveals a woman's shapely legs, followed by Garfield's stunned and breathless reaction as he digests the heavenly view. Only then does Garnett cut to a full-body shot of Turner, dressed like an angel of sex in white shorts, white halter top, and a white turban swathed around her platinum hair. She holds out her hand like a princess, waiting for Garfield to deliver the lipstick. He makes her come and get it. An iconic sequence? Oh yeah. And typically MGM.
Both Turner and Garfield are pitch-perfect in their parts, creating a steamy chemistry that carries the film and adds dimension to the hard-boiled story. Always an underrated actress whose beauty overshadowed her talent, Turner files perhaps her finest performance, deftly complicating the femme fatale stereotype by layering Cora with just enough sincerity and softness to gain audience affection, and keep her true colors a mystery. Garfield's natural acting style allowed him to believably inhabit any role, and he makes Frank the ultimate everyman — a poor sap in love with his fantasy girl, willing to sell his soul for a kiss or caress. Who can't identify with that?
As the sparring attorneys, Ames and Cronyn nearly steal the show. Their spirited legal wrangling and slick manipulation of Cora and Frank offer a cerebral counterpoint to the lovers' sexual and emotional tension, and provide the film with its most fascinating and colorful moments. Although the British Kellaway is a far cry from the book's oily, grimy depiction of the Greek-born Nick, he's enough of a tubby sad sack to serve his purpose, and even engenders some pity.
The film's only real misstep is its overdramatic score, which often intrudes with such frenzy and fury it ridicules the on-screen action. It badly dates this classic movie, yet the story's power and texture endure. Coupled with assured direction, exceptional performances, and the heady atmosphere of sex, violence, and intrigue, 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' remains richly entertaining and engrossing, a finely cut diamond in the rough world of film noir.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 1946 version of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted in the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer seems to be struck from the same master as the 2004 DVD, but appears a tad brighter and more vibrant. That's almost always a good thing, but some of the exterior shots, all of which are bathed in a dusty white glare, at times look slightly overexposed. Interiors, however, possess excellent contrast and clarity, showcasing Sidney Wagner's naturalistic cinematography. Blacks levels are solid, though not quite as inky as I was anticipating, but it's the whites that steal the show - a rarity in the world of film noir. From Turner's platinum hair to her monochromatic ensembles, whites are on constant display, yet they never bloom and always exude a definite gradation of hue, thanks to a finely constructed gray scale. Even in the murkiest scenes, crush is never an issue, and superior shadow delineation exposes a wide array of detail.
Typical of a film from this vintage, grain is pronounced - in some scenes more than others - but not overwhelming, and is more noticeable during soft-focus close-ups, especially those of Turner. Textures come through well - the lucidity of the weave on the burlap fabric during the opening credits is extraordinary - and background elements are always easy to discern. While the DVD exhibited a fair amount of white specks, the Blu-ray is free of any markings; a few times I thought I saw a stray speck or two, but it was merely wisps of Turner's hair, which gives you an idea of this transfer's degree of clarity.
No digital doctoring disrupts the integrity of the original source and no transfer anomalies intrude. Overall, 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' looks quite good, though it pales when compared to the studio's best black-and-white Blu-rays. And while this effort isn't a huge step up from the previously released DVD, the subtle improvements make a notable enough difference to merit an upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clean, well-modulated sound, despite some interesting challenges. George Bassman's music score can be seductively romantic one minute and bombastically melodramatic the next, but the track handles the severe volume shifts well. A hint of distortion creeps in occasionally, but on the whole, the music enjoys good fidelity and fine tonal depth. All the action is anchored up front, but accents such as screams and the pounding waves of the Pacific surf penetrate the room well.
Dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend, even when seductively whispered by Turner. A smattering of hiss pops up here and there, but it's hardly noticeable, and any pops, crackles, or other instances of surface noise have been meticulously erased. For a 66-year-old track, 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' sounds surprisingly spry, and more robust than its DVD counterpart.
Most of the extras from the 2004 DVD have been ported over to this release, with the exception of the Behind-the-Scenes Image Gallery and trailer for the 1981 remake. A few notable supplements, however, have been added (see below), making this edition more comprehensive and entertaining.
Film noir doesn't get much better than this. Thanks to Tay Garnett's no-nonsense direction and terrific performances by Lana Turner and John Garfield, 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' still sinks its teeth into viewers today. James M. Cain's searing tale of passion, murder, and inescapable retribution grabs us from the opening frames and never lets go. An above-average video transfer and solid lossless audio make this Blu-ray as irresistible as Turner herself, and a great spate of new supplements, along with those from the previous DVD, seal the upgrade deal, as well as an enthusiastic recommendation for this classic film and high-quality disc.