Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Lead Criminals-To-Be of The Postman Always Rings Twice Are Fascinatingly Flawed At Actually Being Criminals

The two lead characters of The Postman Always Rings Twice are not very good at being criminals. If the movie had decided to incorporate more doses of dark comedy, they'd probably start to resemble the clueless protagonists of a Coen Brothers movie. But considering that neither of our leads begins this story as world-class murderers, it feels fitting that they wouldn't be very good at the whole criminal game and it ends up being pretty interesting to watch these novices gradually try to pull off a gruesome murder for personal gain. Nothing goes according to the plan these inexperienced souls put together and that element of the story is one of the best parts of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Before anyone gets any ideas of committing gruesome murders though, Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is just a dude with wandering feet who stumbles upon a small roadside eatery owned by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), who happens to be looking for a new employee to help run this establishment. Chambers isn't exactly fully enamored with this employment opportunity until he immediately falls for Nick's wife, Cora (Lana Turner). The two begin to develop a romantic relationship that grows so passionate that they quietly look for a way for Cora to escape her current marriage. This is the Hayes Code era of American cinema, so a divorce is out of the question, that means Frank and Cora begin to entertain the idea of possibly maybe murdering Nick Smith.

As has already been established, Frank and Cora are not masters of murder. The idea of killing off Nick is first introduced through an offhand comment by Frank rather than through some grand epiphany while an initial attempt by our two leads to kill off the character of Nick ends up going horribly awry. The constant uncertainty over whether Frank and Cora can actually pull off their grisly plan is where The Postman Always Rings Twice successfully generates suspense from in its first two acts. While they try and go about their normal lives, these two characters are constantly dancing on the razor's edge of how to do something unforgivable and tension stemming from that under-the-surface conflict is exceptionally executed.

The sense of realism that informs how Frank and Cora are far from experienced in criminal pursuits also impacts the third act in a fascinating way after these two actually pull off their murder and narrowly avoid the clutches of the police mostly by fool luck. Instead of finding everything getting wrapped up in a tidy bow, Frank and Cora now hate each other's guts and unite in a marriage that's done out of necessity rather than romance. No matter where the two main characters of The Postman Always Rings Twice go, they're always going out of the frying pan and into the fire. A life of crime is a road towards endless turmoil rather than luxury for Frank and Cora all the way to the bitter end of the plot.

Though the Hayes Code likely necessitated that the adaptation of the James M. Cain novel of the same name go in this direction to make sure that audiences didn't think criminal behavior could lead to any even incidental benefits, the way the script executes this idea is remarkably clever as it uses ceaseless human errors to make one constantly uncertain of where Frank and Cora's story could go next. The only downside to this approach is that it gets undercut by a clumsy final scene whose neat nature runs completely counter to the rest of the movie. Frank getting a quasi-happy ending by way of a theological epiphany that invokes the title of this movie just doesn't feel like it fits in with the predominately morose movie that's preceded it.

A more gruesome ending would feel more fitting for The Postman Always Rings Twice rather than the clunky ending we actually got, though at least John Garfield gives the scene his all. Garfield's talents as a performer can be seen more readily in the rest of the film where he does a great job depicting Frank's fall from grace as a happy-go-lucky fella who's always on the move to someone whose obsession for a woman takes a dark turn. Lana Turner has less personality to work with with her character but she still delivers stellar work opposite Garfield. Both of them work well with depicting the intentionally less-than-stellar criminals whose depraved actions drive the fascinating plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

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