#183. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Sometimes it’s cuz I’m tired and sometimes I’m just too lazy to crack the Book but at this point I’m seldom reading the plot summaries before I move from one movie to the next — a practice that I’d like to say is founded on virtue, like the guy from Reddit who recently wrote a post about how dramatically he’s improved his moviegoing experience by just not watching the trailers for anything, but it’s mostly just laziness.

I copied a few hundred titles into a Word doc and I mostly just consult that to see what’s next. The Postman Always Rings Twice is the first movie in a while where I had to actually resist the temptation to open the book up and see what the movie was about before sitting down with it, see why it’s so revered, because I’ve been seeing and hearing this title all my life (it’s a great title) and I’ve never known what it was about. I’ve always been curious but, like with the definition of “lugubrious,” I’ve just never taken the time to look it up. So I was curious this time, and I was primed to look into it before I pushed play, but I also wanted to go into the movie fresh, like the guy on Reddit who’s given up on trailers. Felt like a great movie kinda deserves a fresh take from subsequent generations. Like if it earned the respect of my predecessors on this earth, and it’s good enough to’ve been handed down from generation to generation, I shouldn’t question it. Just watch it, no questions asked.

As I mentioned in the post about Ossessione (which i think is an uncredited Italian adaptation of the American novel on which this movie is based), Postman Always Rings Twice is a noir (maybe the novel would just be called “pulp”) about a drifter, played here by John Garfield, who’s wandering in the middle of nowhere when he comes across a burger place owned by a fat little man and his much-younger wife (Lana Turner). The husband and wife live above the restaurant and the husband his happy and hardworking and (willfully?) oblivious to his wife’s misery.

She’d love to leave him but she’s got no place to go, no means for making do. So she’s here in this marriage, in this house and business, as a kind of prisoner. And Garfield’s drifter character, Frank, sees this. Starts making moves on her because she’s Lana Turner (introduced with a closeup of her feet that trails up the length of her legs) and because he can see that quiet desperation on her face — from which he’s maybe looking to rescue her or maybe just wants to exploit her, ahdunno.

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Turner’s character, blessed with such a film noir name as Cora Smith, turns him down, looks legitimately uninterested, and Frank loosens up. One thing leads to another, yadda yadda, they end up having an affair and trying to kill her husband, but they fail, and seem resolved thereafter to give up the scheme, to acknowledge that they couldn’t possibly try another murder attempt and get away with it. They’re lucky nothing came of the first one. They’re looking like they’re about to part ways, actually, when Turner’s odiously self-absorbed husband, subject of that failed murder, announces, outta the blue, that they’re gonna sell the restaurant and move in with his ailing sister in Canada. Talks with such happy resolve about how he and Cora will be the old woman’s servants, basically.

Frank and Cora cannot abide. And so they set a second murder plot in motion. This time they’re gonna get the idiot husband drunk, trap him in a car, and send it over a cliff. Much simpler than the convoluted first attempt — something involving ball bearings in the bathtub, let’s not even get into it. It was ridiculously over-the-top but also seemed exactly like the sort of asinine thing two idiotic lovers would resort to in the grip of desperation.

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Her imbecilic husband, played by Cecil Kellaway, is so odious and dense that, easy as it is to hate him, there’s also something innocent and endearing about him.

A lot is packed into this movie. Ossessione is a story that covers lots of ground, with its drifter character leaving the small town and taking up a romance with another man while the woman with whom he was having an affair goes on living in quiet misery with her husband. Then he re-connects with her at a circus-type affair, goes home with her, engineers the murder of her husband — I guess the novel’s been adapted so often because, unlike many other movies, the narrative doesn’t sit still. It’s more than a scenario, it’s a whole unravelling story, wily and hard to predict. The two people in love make their mistake together and then separate and then come back together and make another mistake and then deal with the consequences — it’s pretty dramatic, and beautifully structured. Not sure if this would be considered melodrama, but maybe.

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So this was in my house apparently?

And it’s a good movie! I think I mighta felt a bit of inevitable disappointment just because I’ve heard this title so often, ever since I was a kid (learned from my dad the other day that he apparently had the 1981 version on VHS and I probably saw it sitting there in our movie collection for years), and now that I’m finally sitting down to it I realize that it’s a movie, something that operates within the parameters of its medium, and not some celestial thing that’s gonna rise slowly from the swamp of the past and say, “Hey, I remember you as a kid, lemme show you something transcendent.” When The Force Awakens came out a few years ago I was surprised by the number of people in my social circle who hadn’t seen Star Wars, and who were then guilted into watching at least the first trilogy and the new release. Suddenly this movie that they’ve always heard about, a piece of media surrounded by a massive, fanatical, worldwide and cross-generational following is just unfolding on a screen in front of them and…I can’t imagine there’s any way it could have possible lived up to their expectations.

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I love this poster so much.

But there are some movies like this one, and like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Forest Gump, whose stories cover a ton of ground, both in terms of time and geography, and on account of that you get a vibe like it’s tailor-made for an Academy Award. I’m not sure why the Academy takes those movies so seriously, but they’re accorded a ridiculous amount of prestige, everybody raves about the costumes and the set design and the evocative re-creation of the 1950s or ’30s or whatever decades are being shown. And sure, they tend to be pretty good movies on the whole. Not much to gripe about.

They’re also kind of exhausting, though. When I consider the movies that I’ve watched again and again and love most dearly, they tend to be fairly small. My favorite movie is Hannah and Her Sisters, which has five central characters and even more storylines, and it takes place over the course of a year, so that’s kind of a big movie but, when you watch it, there’s something that feels small. Maybe it’s the interiors. All those warmly-lit New York apartments where the characters talk about their problems or have their affairs and reminisce, quarrel, think.

Maybe that exhaustion is the sign of a good movie, though. It means you’re getting caught up in the story, the characters. You’re being put through the ringer along with them.

Or it’s a sign of poor filmmaking int hat, rather than moving at such a pace that the viewer is enthralled and excited and eager, they feel they’re being dragged.

But ahdunno: I prize pacing over nearly any other facet of storytelling as I’m starting to appreciate how film, unlike painting or writing, exists within the confines of time, and doesn’t let you move through it faster or slower than its own pace. You can’t just give a quick skim of the page or canvas. if the director decides you’re sitting here for two hours, that’s how long you’re sitting here.

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Yasujiro Ozu — a filmmaker who won’t come up on the List for a long while yet, and whose work is slow and cerebral and hopelessly evasive, but I think I’m close to figuring out what he’s getting at.

I don’t wanna make the text bold for this but I’m tinkering with this essay right up tot he date of posting it, so I’m about a hundred movies farther along through the List, and I’ve just recently encountered the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, with his movie Tokyo Story, and that movie was so disorienting, so quiet and slow, that I did something I’ve never done before: I watched it with the audio commentary my first time trough. I figured, fuck it, the characters’ speech is sparse, and it’s all subtitled, and I could really use an explanation here for what’s going on.

Well, sure enough, the film historian performing on the commentary track talks mostly about Ozu’s use of time as a tool. Drawing the scenes out, savoring a moment. He’s interested in the banal. His camera seems both lifeless and cerebral; it never movies, but it studies the scene closely.

Tokyo Story actually feels like an affront to the viewer. Almost challenging her to stay focused.

The Postman Always Rings Twice isn’t like that at all. It moves quickly from one plot point to the next and is clearly very conscious of its audience. It wants us to be entertained. In fact, I’m pretty enchanted by how the story zigzags all over the place, and the way that new obstacles keep popping up; it’s like the storyteller is working just as hard to keep himself entertained as he is the audience.

But despite all of that kinesis, that constant shifting of focus, the way the movie sits in my memory, for some reason, is as a big lump of a journey that’s too convoluted for me to be all that interested in taking it again anytime soon. Like it’s so propulsive that it’s almost the exact opposite of what Ozu was doing in Tokyo Story — but, being Ozu’s opposite, it’s thereby somewhat similar in that it occupies a polar end.

The ending, incidentally, is pretty solid. That’s where the title comes from. I’m not so sure I understand that final monologue where the anti-hero, Frank, has to face his fate and compares the experience to a postman coming by the house — but that’s OK. When I get around to this movie again in 2028, or thereabouts, I’ll check back.

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