Long before the American Cinema was blessed with the talents of the tentative Montgomery Clift, the semi-articulate Brando, or the feral James Dean, there was the street-wise John Garfield—the first method actor-turned-movie star. Garfield got his start as an actor with the Group Theater, a NY based collective led by legendary method luminaries Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman. Throughout the ‘30s, Garfield played working class characters in the social problem plays of Clifford Odets, often acting alongside future director Elia Kazan and future movie star Lee J. Cobb. By the end of the ‘30s, Garfield had landed his first Hollywood role in the film The Four Daughters. The only thing really memorable about the picture is the intense sexual energy Garfield brings to his character Mickey Borden; otherwise it’s a competent but dull studio picture (though it is truly worth watching for his performance alone). The doomed romantic he played in that film also seemed to set the fate for many of the characters he would embody throughout the ‘40s. In some ways, he was America’s equivalent to Jean Gabin in France. The fates and destinies were always hounding those two.
The Heights Theater, February 5
Director: Tay Garnett
Producers: Denis Chateau, Alain Dahan, Philippe Diaz
Writers: Harry Ruskin, Niven Busch, James M. Cain (novel)
Cinematographer: Sidney Wagner
Editor: George White
Music: George Bassman
Cast: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Croyn, Leon Ames
US Theatrical Release: May 2, 1946
US Distributor: MGM
One of Garfield’s greatest performances is in The Postman Always Rings Twice, which has been translated to the big screen more than once, but it’s Tay Garnett’s 1946 version starring Garfield that remains the best and most faithful to James M. Cain’s book of the same name. Like the novella, the picture burns at an incredible pace. Everything happens so fast it’s almost startling. At the heart of the film is a grim triangle of a melodrama, and somebody who has to be cut out—permanently. While the film is generally regarded as a noir, it would be far more appropriate to call it a “sex thriller,” as those two words encapsulate everything that unfolds in the film’s running time.
This is, more importantly, James Cain’s world as envisioned by MGM, a studio best known for its stylized musicals and glossy melodramas. The soft visual style of The Postman is more MGM than it is anything else. Still, over the hundreds of pictures the studio produced in its golden years, a few directors managed to undermine the MGM style with such remarkable noirs as Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (a neglected gem in the noir canon), John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (featuring Marilyn Monroe’s first substantial performance), and Abraham Polonsky’s controversial Force of Evil, the first and last picture he would direct for over twenty years. To be fair to The Postman, despite its slickness, the sex thriller should definitely be considered among the many subgenres of noir. Ultimately, it’s part melodrama, part hardboiled crime.
The picture stars Garfield as fast-footed drifter Frank Chambers. Trouble seems to follow Frank wherever he goes. So he’s not the type to stick around one place for very long, that is, until something catches his eye at The Twin Oaks diner. Having thumbed his way down the coast to a stretch of highway near L.A., he ditches his ride for a bite at the roadside diner where a sign reads “Man Wanted.” Take that sign any way you want to. He’s offered a job right off the bat by the owner Nick Smith (in the book, it’s Nick Papadakis, a Greek immigrant). The differences here are marginal, as both Nicks are affable, past middle-age, and gullible to their own detriment. When Frank meets Cora, Nick’s young wife, (played by bombshell Lana Turner), it’s lust at first sight. They look each other up and down in a wild, animalistic way. Their first kiss in the picture is heated up, almost violently so, especially considering the time period, but in the book it’s far more savage as Frank bites into her mouth until it gushes blood. “We haven’t wasted any time on talk,” says Frank. You can say that again, as both the book and film pulsate with innuendo. The two eventually try to skip town, but it’s no go. Cora wants to make something of herself and drifting with Frank ain’t gonna cut it. This is where the plot takes a murderous turn. It’s not revealing much to say that Frank and Cora plot to murder Nick and take over the diner. Dramatically, though, this is where the plot starts to build a lot of tension. In this middle section of the picture, there are two incredible sequences of suspense, which take some unexpected twists and turns, even with our foreknowledge of Frank and Cora’s murder plot. I don’t want to say too much more at the risk of spoiling the darkness and excitement of these set pieces, the results of which carry us through the film until its bleak but necessary denouement.
In the end, it’s the fates and destinies that make sure both Frank and Cora get their comeuppance, albeit in different ways. The characters never become unhinged by a guilt-induced breakdown from what they’ve done, which is so often the case in crime pictures, allowing for formal experimentation in the visualization of distressed psychological states. There’s none of that in this picture. Quite simply, fate takes care of business. The Postman Always Rings Twice is ultimately a fine piece of studio era filmmaking and is indeed a fine translation of the book. And while Garfield and Turner sizzle on the screen, there is unfortunately little psychological complexity to their characters. They’re cheap lowlifes trying to make good on a murder. Maybe the picture’s main fault is in fact its very faithfulness to the book. Or maybe James Cain’s characterization isn't all that compelling, even if it’s sharp. Turner and Garfield certainly bring their characters to life with dynamic performances, though it’s Garfield who really commands our attention when he’s on screen. No one else towers quite like Johnny boy.