Director: Tay Garnett
Stars: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway
When people are done naming historical figures, corporations or celebrities, the diner is one of the quintessential fixtures of American iconography. Broadly the diner connects to the vast country’s optimism and self-perceived innocence.
Particularly the imagery strikes a chord with the first half of the twentieth century, be it as a lay away for dust bowl stragglers or as a rosy-cheeked expression of post-war affluence.
International audiences discovered the diner through screens. On TV screens we saw that it was a place of community, in shows like Happy Days. Robert Zemeckis knew its value, placing it at the heart of Back To The Future. In latter days the cinema mocked or subverted its wholesomeness. In Natural Born Killers the diner is the site of a bloody massacre setting the tone for the ride ahead, while Ghost World mocked the reputation of the diner or, rather, corporate America’s misunderstanding of it.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of the more iconic depictions of the diner from Hollywood’s ‘golden age’; one that finds it twixt between wholesome ideal and the potential of violence. John Garfield portrays Frank Chambers, a drifter who arrives outside the Southern Californian diner-cum-filling station the Twin Oaks. Chancing for work inside, he meets friendly owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) and then – in a classic noir introduction – Nick’s wife Cora, played by Lana Turner.
Said character introduction (expounded upon on a UK DVD extra by film historian Richard Jewell) sees Turner revealed to the audience in a scene that is more pointedly about her co-star and his visible intake of breath. He is affected by her beauty; how attracted he is to her, and Garrett invites his audience (assumed to be predominantly male) to share in the attraction. Turner is presented beautifully – all long legs and eternal youth – but it is this decidedly male gaze that typifies the femme fatale in film noir. The obscure object of desire, to steal a phrase from Luis Bunuel.
But, of course, one of the other staples of the genre is how the anti-hero’s downfall is precipitated by the woman in the film. One might argue that this makes Turner, in this case, a villainous presence, and that film noir demonises women. To some extend this is true when speaking broadly. But The Postman Always Rings Twice is balanced by pathos. Throughout, we are invited to acknowledge that Frank is his own worst enemy; that he imprints upon Cora and the Twin Oaks an idyllic vision of the future, one that can’t possibly be achieved or sustained. One sees that Frank’s vision has the painfulness of the American dream. His is the outstretched arm, reaching for more. Cora, it is worth stating, is no mere object. Her character has wit and autonomy. Turner is fantastic in the part.
While we’re on performances, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is Cecil Kellaway’s turn as Nick. There’s precious little celebration or credit in playing the nice man, but Kellaway’s Nick is one big open heart, making the decisions of Cora and Frank feel all the more wretched. When Nick comes home drunk, his sozzled smile and slurred speech are kind of adorable.
The story, re-purposed from James M Cain’s novel (Cain also wrote Mildred Pierce – another noir that centralises the great American diner), is steeped in irony. Cora and Frank plot to murder Nick in order to gain ownership of the diner, feigning a car accident. Their plot is only partially successful; Nick is killed, but Frank is injured. The law snoops as it will, and though new-found renown makes a success of the Twin Oaks, paranoia and mistrust comes between Frank and Cora. When Cora is ultimately killed in another, genuine automobile accident, Frank takes the fall for her murder. There’s justice of a kind in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but nobody wins.
The design of the Twin Oaks reflects the cynical worldview of the tale. It is small but uncluttered. Sure, there are framed pictures here and there, but the overall feeling is barren, bereft. Granted, this feeds into the plot machinations; into Frank’s dreams of overhauling the business, but it also speaks to the paucity of the times (Cain’s novel was written in ’34, peak Depression era) and the sparseness of moral rectitude in the tale. It is not the vision of the American diner we recall most fondly, predating the comely 50’s aesthetic that still reigns today. It is bare, meager. The Southern California setting feeds into this arid nature; a desolate outpost perched in the midst of a desert. The great Pacific Ocean is in sight, but its Frank’s outstretched arm again; vast, unattainable, a dream on the edge of the world. Its no coincidence that, at their happiest, Frank and Cora take a swim.
The Twin Oaks’ emptiness is reflected elsewhere, too. Interiors belonging to the DA along with hospital wards are blank slates. Director Tay Garnett presents the film in a functional manner, but the set design, the space in the frame, these things recall the minimalism of Carl Theodor Dreyer. There’s precious little around to comfort these characters. They are lost with each other
.Many of classic noir’s most recognised and rewatched titles are city films, reflecting the anonymous corruptibility of urban sprawl; how proximity breeds vice. The denser the populous, the harder it becomes to see the individual lost in the menagerie.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, though not alone in bucking this trend, takes another position, exchanging the sprawl for the fringes of America’s wide-open frontier. When set beside it’s peers, this gives Postman an even more desolate feel. The Big Sleep and company told you the city was dangerous. Postman suggests there’s no escape from man’s corruptible heart, not even when visiting that beacon of Americana; the diner.