James M. Cain may be rightly considered the literary backbone of film noir, with his novels The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941) providing the source material for three of the most iconic noir movies of the 1940s. While Tay Garnett's 1946 film of The Postman Always Rings Twice lacks the distinctive qualities of other Cain adaptations, it is in some ways the most essential, with its story of adultery and murder forming the most simple and oft-repeated trope of the genre.
John Garfield stars as Frank, a spirited drifter who doesn't plan to stay long at the isolated seaside inn owned by genial Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), but then he gets a look at Nick's mismatched younger wife, Cora (Lana Turner). After some hostile flirting, Frank and Cora get cozy and hatch a plan to kill Nick, and... as usual in noir, plans rarely work out as expected, and in The Postman Always Rings Twice, little mishaps and twists of fortune have a way of reverberating in the most inconvenient and ironic ways.
Although Postman was Cain's first novel, its first Hollywood adaptation came rather later in the noir cycle (due to studio fears of its subject matter drawing the ire of Hays Code censors), making its vanilla noir plot feel like an unexceptional retread rather than a pioneering template. However, the spirited cast lifts the sometimes saggy content as much as possible. Garfield has a scrappy edge that sets him apart from the slick, deep-voiced Hollywood archetype and Turner is startlingly modern, keeping her cold but raging desires coiled inside a tight veneer of control. As long as Frank and Cora are falling in lust and plotting murders, Postman is a sharp low-key noir; but whenever they are dealing adversarially with each other and the legal system, the hackneyed nature of the script overwhelms them, from its absurd courtroom surprises to the use of the dull-edged title metaphor.
Director Garnett, who emerged from the silent era as a prolific screenwriter-turned-director, doesn't seem to have control over his material. Even though Sidney Wagner's black-and-white photography is vivid, Garnett can't seem to settle on tension or whimsy for the overall tone, undercutting what should be a suffocating sultry gloom, and Garnett errantly prioritizes whimsy over the story's darker humor potential. I mean, what kind of hard noir movie has straight-faced dialog like, "Cats don't know anything about electricity" without some sense of irony to it? Meanwhile, a burning hamburger is treated as the height of mapcap comedy. Where Turner is bracingly modern, Garnett seems stuck in an earlier, more innocent era, which is maybe why his film is unable to exploit her most essential quality. Turner plays Cora with deadly cool, but Garnett makes her too silly to embrace as a formidable femme fatale.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is just barely decent, on the strength of its cast, rather than exemplary, which feels like a massive underachievement given its pedigree and the longevity of its eventual cliches. I'm curious, however, to re-watch not only the 1981 Hollywood remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, but a few of the foreign adaptations, including Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943).