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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

A rudimentary summary of the film noir genre requires a description of the femme fatale, i.e., a woman with fiendish plans who ensnares a hapless, well-meaning schlub into her web of deceit, normally via a combination of blackmail and sexual appeal. It sounds good, but it also smells a bit sexist — after all, isn't this the sort of description men would come up with after watching a classic, scrotum-tightening noir? Actually, every male protagonist in our films noir has some sort of flaw — no matter how insignificant it may appear, greed, lust, and avarice lurk in the hearts of these apparent chumps. And in fact, the femme fatale does not define her counterpart's character; she merely reveals it. Apply the template anywhere, but start first with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Tay Garnett's genre masterpiece. Based on the torrid novel by James M. Cain, John Garfield stars as Frank Chambers, a California drifter who winds up one day at the Twin Oaks roadside cafe, where he discovers a "Man Wanted" sign posted on a tree. In a matter of moments, he meets the cafe's proprietor, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), who offers him a room and a wage in exchange for cooking and odd jobs. Frank's glad for the opportunity, but the drifter in him is itching to get back on the road — that is, until he meets Frank's wife Cora (Lana Turner), a bombshell blonde who turns her nose up at the hired help. Nick, however, is a persistent fellow, and soon he convinces Cora to run off with him. When that plan fails (due to impending poverty), the two come up with a far more nefarious scheme — kill Nick and keep the Twin Oaks for themselves. It's a plan that will work, but just halfway before going terribly awry.

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While The Postman Always Rings Twice ranks among the essential films noir, in some ways it doesn't match its contemporaries. It doesn't have the witty banter and slick panache of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), the star appeal of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), or the modernist verve of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). But what it does have is Lana Turner, and this one pouty femme fatale turn would be more than enough to secure her legend in film history, had she not already been known for tight sweaters and the soda fountain at Schwab's drugstore. Watch as she begs Frank to help her kill Nick, her voice full of earnest desperation until he asks her if she loves him — "It's because I do love you," she says, her fluttering eyelids suddenly lowering into a feline gaze, the sincerity of her heartache transforming into the lie that will set her free. Turner never was given much credit as a serious actress, but her performance here is bolstered by having John Garfield as her accomplice. Among the most highly regarded talents of the '40s and '50s, Garfield found himself playing the heavy in a lot of Warner productions (as Humphrey Bogart did years earlier), thanks to his combustible screen presence and quasi-ethnic appeal. He often chafed under the typecasting (his film contract allowed him to appear in one stage production per year), but even in bad films he was good. Regrettably, he died at a far-too-young age while under the cloud of the blacklist (Garfield was an outspoken opponent of the HUAC). In Postman, he strikes the right note as the drifter who gets in over his head, capable of being flirtatious, chatty, frantic, reckless, and murderous from scene to scene. And with a cast of very few principal characters, Cecil Kellaway makes for an avuncular, boozy Nick, while Leon Ames, as D.A. Kyle Sackett, keeps on the lovers' trail. Best of all, a young Hume Cronyn plays against type as oily defense attorney Arthur Keats, who capably takes on the D.A., albeit with the vain sort of interest one normally would afford a golfing bet. Warner's DVD release of The Postman Always Rings Twice features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from an excellent black-and-white source print — collateral damage is negligible, while low-contrast details are pleasant. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 via the center channel. Supplements include an introduction by film historian Richard Jewell (5 min.), the documentary "The John Garfield Story" (57 min. with 18 chapters), a stills gallery, and trailers for this title and the 1981 remake. Snap-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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