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Warner Home Video presents
Cora: I've made a big mistake in my life, and I've got to be this way just once to fix it.
DVD ReviewGotta 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 film, yet the story's power and texture endures. 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. In other words, it's a damn good movie.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio, The Postman Always Rings Twice possesses both dazzling and mediocre stretches. At times, Sidney Wagner's black-and-white photography looks exceptionally smooth and crisp, with Turner's monochromatic white outfits producing stark contrasts when pitted against the film's basic noir elements. (On the two occasions where Turner wears black, the effect is equally striking, thanks to Cora's bleached hair.) However, some sequences flaunt more grain than others, and for one annoying 12-minute stretch early in the movie, a chorus of faint vertical black lines mar the image and draw attention away from the story. The grain does lend the film a gritty quality, but at times overwhelms certain scenes and detracts from several of Turner's spectacular close-ups.
The transfer enjoys good gray level variance and deep, potent blacks, but director Garnett doesn't take full advantage of the noir style, often skimping on the use of shadows and filtered light. As a result, The Postman Always Rings Twice possesses a softer look and feel than other film noirs. While Warner has rendered a fine transfer, it's a pity the film didn't receive the full-fledged restoration it deserves.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Warner has once again done wonders with the original soundtrack of an older film. The mono audio remains free of annoying pops and crackles, with only the faintest bit of hiss occasionally creeping into the track. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, and some nice atmospheric effects add to the suspenseful mood. Both Garfield and Turner possess mellifluous speaking voices, and the track accurately captures their cadences and timbres. George Bassman's bombastic score provokes a titter or two from time to time, but lacks distortion and enjoys solid presence.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981 remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange)
Layers Switch: 40m:10s
Much more involving is the disc's main supplement, The John Garfield Story, a fascinating and impeccably produced one-hour profile that originally aired on Turner Classic Movies. Narrated by the actor's daughter, Julie Garfield, the portrait begins at Garfield's funeral, which was apparently the largest for a Hollywood personality since Rudolph Valentino's, and featured 10,000 mourners. (The actor died of heart failure in 1952 at age 39.) From there, we go back in time, and follow the progression of Jacob Julius Garfinkle (affectionately known as Julie) from his involvement with the left-leaning Group Theatre in New York to his instant Hollywood success. The documentary details Garfield's war contributions (and how one such visit to Yugoslavia came back to haunt him), his dedication to casting minority actors in his films, and his devastating investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which friends and colleagues claim indirectly caused his early death. Rare color footage of the actor, substantive film clips, and reminiscences by an enviable gallery of fellow actors (including Harvey Keitel, Joanne Woodward, Lee Grant, Richard Dreyfuss, Danny Glover, and Hume Cronyn) all contribute to the success of this absorbing and enlightening film.
Forty-three rare stills comprise the Behind-the-Scenes Image Gallery, which provides an interesting glimpse of the production's various phases. Publicity portraits, on-set photos (including one of Garfield fencing during a break), poster art, and lobby cards are featured. The original 1946 trailer and a preview for the steamy, more graphic, and much less interesting 1981 remake, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, complete the extras package.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsFilm noir doesn't get much better than this. Thanks to Tay Garnett's solid 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 transfer and worthwhile extras make this DVD as irresistible as Turner herself. Highly recommended.
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