To say that The Postman Always Rings Twice was a disappointment would be an understatement. Instead of a transgressive film noir, it turns out to be a flat, predictable Hollywood film that tries too hard and fails. The music tells you what to feel, while the visuals and the acting are bland. I was expecting something more dangerous, and certainly didn’t get it.
The Postman Always Rings Twice has a classic film noir plot, aimless hero Frank Chambers (John Garfield) teams up with married femme fatale Cora Smith (Lana Turner) to kill her clueless husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) for his restaurant. The film is all about how, once having conspired together, Frank and Cora are stuck with each other and their guilt.
The film’s failure is best understood when compared to another adaptation of the same author’s work, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. That’s not even my favorite Billy Wilder film and several things about it annoy me, but you got to admit it’s pretty entrancing, even today. The Postman Always Rings Twice fails to transcend its time period like Double Indemnity does; the whole film just feels too safe. While we are certainly used to seeing more sex, violence, and depravity in today’s films than either of these movies offer, Double Indemnity lets you forget that fact, while The Postman Always Rings Twice never does. Double Indemnity set the bar high two years earlier, and with essentially the same plot, I can’t imagine why they didn’t go for it with The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Though I did tag this film as a film noir, I hesitated to at first. The plot is classic film noir, but the filming style isn’t. The film tries to be clever and dramatic with its shadows, but ultimately fails. You can see the shadows’ shapes alright, but the contrast between light and dark isn’t high enough so they don’t command your attention. You have to look for them. This is really disappointing, because even though something doesn’t have to be filmed like a noir to be good, we’re used to seeing that style with this plot and it would have helped spice up the film considerably.
Even with a complete lack of style, the film fails because it takes such great pains to explain itself to the audience. Most of the dialogue in this film is superfluous, telling us things we already know. There are two lengthy conversations that do nothing else but establish a cat’s death. That’s it. We already have seen the cat die, and then no less than three different characters have to pop by the restaurant and remind us of that fact. Repeatedly. Furthermore, the score for the film is awful. It’s overwrought and used in the most cliched way possible. It ends up detracting from the drama because instead of simply underlining the action, it underlines it, highlights it, circles it, and draws arrows to it. Frank and Cora kiss, and in case we weren’t already aware, the sweeping music will tell us it’s supposed to be a romantic moment.
The acting most of the time is serviceable, but also occasionally laughable. It doesn’t help that the characters are never really fleshed out, it just seems like everyone does what they are doing because the plot demands them to. Turner and Garfield have little chemistry, and whenever Garfield tries to sound devil-may-care he just sounds strangely cheerful. I suppose Cecil Kellaway does a good job, but it’s a rather thankless role that doesn’t add much to the picture.
I’m going a bit hard on this movie, I realize that. It was just so disappointing though. The film wasn’t in the least bit daring, and while the book featured sadomasochistic relationships and callous manipulation, the film barely even hints at it. Howard Hawks famously said that a good movie consists of “three great scenes and no bad ones.” The Postman Always Rings Twice has one good scene, the murder, and the rest are bad. Such a disappointment.
“You know, there’s something about this that’s like, well it’s like you’re expecting a letter that you’re just crazy to get, and you’re hanging around the front door for fear you might not hear him ring. You never realize that he always rings twice…”
Long story short: 2.5/4 stars