Saturday, November 17, 2012

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE: Blu-ray (MGM 1946) Warner Home Video

Lana Turner reinvented her on screen image as that of deliciously devious femme fatale in Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); a malignant melodrama. Turner, who had spent most of her young life as a blonde bombshell – more the star than the actress - and whose private life was faster and more loose than any of the fresh-faced debutante she had played on the big screen, became the sexually charged vixen of James M. Cain’s novel under Garnett’s skilled direction. It was a pivotal moment in Turner’s career; one that would continue to increasingly draw on a parallel between her ‘on screen’ and private lives.  
The film also starred John Garfield, a formidable talent whom Turner decidedly did not take a shine to on the set. Despite her penchant for falling in love with most – if not all of – her leading men, the rapport between Turner and Garfield remained decidedly frosty behind the scenes; a complete disconnect from the smoldering sexuality they managed to communicate together on the big screen. For Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice was something of a penultimate achievement. For although he would round out the decade in some very high profile movies, his roles became increasingly smaller by comparison; his status as a leading man all but dismantled by the communist ‘red scare’ that labeled him a sympathizer; the stress of which directly contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack in 1952 at the age of 39.  
The Postman Always Rings Twice is really much more of a fatalist melodrama than it is a legitimate film noir; Sidney Wagner’s plush cinematography remaining true to MGM’s bright and breezy, well lit and meticulously detailed set design. The tale is one of shadowy characters with spurious ambitions set against the backdrop of ‘Twin Oaks’ - a sunny Californian eatery. Turner plays Cora Smith, a young woman who married a much older man, Nick (Cecil Kellaway) for whose security she initially hoped would bring her all the good fortune and riches she believed she deserves. Only Nick is a realist, contented to be just what he is – the slightly bumbling proprietor of a roadside diner that caters to the passing trade along an isolated stretch of the Santa Monica highway. That doesn’t sit well with Cora however. It never has. Her ambition knows no limit.
Thus, when grifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) happens upon Twin Oaks, having hitched a ride with District Attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames), Cora is drawn to him. You see, Frank is from the wrong side of the tracks too. Cora and Frank immediately eye one another as a couple of bad eggs from the hard knock school of life. But Cora initially resists this attraction to Frank; determined not to slip back into the mire of struggle and strife from whence she pulled herself out of by marrying Nick. Frank, however, knows a bad girl when he sees one and elects to hold Cora to that low standard at every chance he gets. Her frosty reception doesn’t fool him for a minute, although she does threaten to wreck his chances of keeping the job Nick has offered him – that of a hapless hash slinger and gas pump jockey at Twin Oaks.
Frank toys with the couple like a feral cat, titillating Cora’s undeniable but suppressed sexual desire for him while illustrating for her that he can get Nick to comply with just about any suggestion he makes. Cora has been after a new neon sign for the eatery, but it’s Frank who convinces Nick to invest the money after an unexpected storm damages the old wooden plaque that used to hang by the side of the highway. Cora is amused, though hardly impressed with Frank’s manipulation of her husband. She chides Nick for being so damn complacent and congenial, but quickly apologizes – realizing that he will never change.
A few moonlight swims later and Cora is Frank’s girl; thriving off the illicit passion she has been starving from in her marriage to Nick. Although Nick probably suspects something is afoot, he refuses to concede that his wife has become involved with the man he sincerely took under his wing as the son he never had. Cora confides to Frank that she is tired of living this way and that her greatest ambition is to be her own boss and run things her way. Frank suggests that they run away together – a move attempted while Nick is out on business. But each quickly realizes that without Nick’s money to sustain them they are merely two shiftless drifters worse off than they are now. Returning to Twin Oaks, Cora and Frank plot to murder Nick and make it all look like an accident. Their first attempt is a feeble one at best, rigging the bathtub for electrocution. Nick is shocked in the incident, but survives and is taken to hospital; his injuries hardly life threatening.
D.A. Sackett smells a rat and investigates, casually interrogating Frank and Cora while keeping a watchful eye on both. But the pair are clever indeed, and without Nick’s corroboration – he really doesn’t believe that his wife and her lover are out to do him harm – Sackett has no choice but to back off and let the inevitable play itself out. For once tested, Frank and Cora will likely make another attempt on Nick’s life. But how? The deed cannot take place at home. It would be too obvious.  
Upon Nick’s release from the hospital, life at Twin Oaks returns to normal. Cora is doting and Frank begrudgingly skulks about the backdrop, all the while plotting. Eventually, Frank devises a plan to go for a drive after Nick has had a bit too much to drink. The threesome gets into Nick’s car and drive to a remote location along a narrow pass near Malibu Lake. Frank knocks Nick unconscious with a bottle of scotch, spilling alcohol across the front seat and leaving the bottle at Nick’s feet before pushing the car off the side of a steep ravine. But the gearshift sticks and Frank is injured in the crash too.
Sackett knows he doesn’t have enough evidence to convict, or even arrest either Cora or Frank for Nick’s murder but decides to play a hunch. He threatens Frank to swear out a complaint against Cora – deeming her the mastermind of the plot to murder her husband. Fear of incrimination forces Frank’s hand, driving a wedge between him and Cora who is in fact indicted for Nick’s murder. But Cora’s defense attorney, Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn) is a wily sort. His last minute finagling averts Cora’s confession being heard by the jury and as a result Cora receives a suspended sentence with probation, much to Sackett’s chagrin.  
Disturbed by Frank’s betrayal, Cora nevertheless cannot help herself. She and Frank reconcile and take up residence as the new proprietors of Twin Oaks, enduring repeated visits from Sackett who is still attempting to coerce a confession from Frank. With no reason to admit his complicity in the crime, Frank affords Sackett his feeble attempts, in some ways actually enjoying their verbal sparring.
By moonlight the devious pair decides to share in a swim – their last. For on the road back to the eatery Frank accidentally loses control of the car. Cora dies in the wreck and Frank – having at last used up all of his nine lives – is indicted and convicted of killing Cora; a murder for which he is decidedly not guilty. His appeals denied, Frank confides to Sackett on death row that he and Cora did indeed plot together to murder Nick and that he now realizes that ‘the postman’ has rung twice for retribution for their crime. Although he is innocent of Cora’s murder, Frank is being punished by fate for this previous indiscretion.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is an exhilarating melodrama. Yet it lacks the ‘tougher than nails’ potency to be considered a true film noir. Turner’s Cora is as evil and manipulative a femme fatale as any ever conceived for the screen. But MGM’s glossy in house style, as well as Turner’s own on screen reputation as one of the studio’s most luscious mannequins from the 40s seems to deprive, or at the very least, blunt the more harrowing and hard edged aspects of Cain’s sinister novel. Don’t get me wrong. Postman is one of the seminal masterworks of the 40s – a genuine classic with guts and an enduring reputation that will likely remain intact for centuries. But it isn’t film noir – at least not in the traditional accoutrements by which other noir movies are usually judged.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray improves on its DVD transfer from some years ago. Although contrast remains relatively the same, and occasionally seems just a tad bumped up, with a minimal loss of mid-range tonality, the B&W image tightens up sharpness and overall clarity with a solid smattering of grain accurately reproduced. 

The print master used in this remastering effort isn't perfect and shows its age, but not in ways that are detrimental to one's overall enjoyment of the film. Warner has also gone back to the drawing board to clean up dirt and scratches that were inherent, and occasionally rather obvious on the DVD. These have been removed for a crisp and very smooth transfer that will surely not disappoint.
The DTS audio remains in mono as originally recorded but adequately represented. In addition to a documentary on John Garfield – that was included on Warner’s DVD – the studio has also given us ‘Lana Turner: A Daughter Remembers’ – Cheryl Crane’s semi-affectionate ode to her mother that used to be part of The Bad and The Beautiful DVD’s extra features. None of these extras are in HD but don’t look all that bad in standard def anyway. Bottom line: highly recommended!      
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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