Summer Under the Stars: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

TCM’s star of the day is Lana Turner, and my film pick for the actress is The Postman Always Rings Twice, which airs today at 1:00 A.M. (EST).

This film noir follows a drifter named Frank Chambers (John Garfield), who arrives at a quiet roadside restaurant just outside Los Angeles. Soon after he’s hired to work there, he meets the beautiful young wife of the restaurant’s owner, Cora Smith (Lana Turner). The two then begin a passionate affair and plot to kill her husband and seize his assets so they can start a new life together.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was adapted from the 1934 debut novel of the same name by James M. Cain, who also wrote a few other crime stories that went on to become film noir classics as well, including Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. A few studios expressed interest in bringing the novel to the screen, but MGM eventually bought the rights shortly after it was published, a full twelve years before the film’s eventual release in 1946. Unfortunately, the Production Code had just gone into effect the same year the novel came out, and the story was deemed “definitely unsuitable for motion picture production” because of the story’s themes of adultery and murder. MGM finally went through with putting the film in production following the successful adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity in 1944, which explored the same moral taboos. Several actors were considered for the male lead, including Joel McCrea and Gregory Peck, but the role ultimately went to John Garfield, who was borrowed from Warner Bros. For the femme fatale, MGM cast one of its biggest stars, Lana Turner, and the role became a major turning point in her career.

Lana Turner’s discovery is the stuff of Hollywood legend, with conflicting versions on how she was spotted. One famous version of the story claims she was discovered at Schwab’s Pharmacy, but by Turner’s own account, she was spotted at the Top Hat Malt Shop as she was skipping class at Hollywood High School. She was soon referred to actor-comedian turned talent agent Zeppo Marx and was then introduced to director Mervyn LeRoy, who took her under his wing and made her feature film debut in his 1937 crime drama They Won’t Forget. The film’s title proved prophetic, as just a few short years later, Turner became a leading lady at MGM, first playing ingénue parts then moving into more glamourous roles. But with the box office success of The Postman Always Rings Twice, she was able to establish herself as a dramatic actress, and she was given more opportunities to take on serious roles, especially in the 1950s with 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful and 1959’s Imitation of Life. The 1957 melodrama Peyton Place earned turner her first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance.

In a career that spanned four decades and more than fifty films, Lana Turner’s role as Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice remained her favorite. It’s considered by many critics as her career-defining performance, and James M. Cain felt she was the perfect choice to portray the character he created. He was reportedly so impressed with her work, he gave her a leather-bound copy of his novel with an inscription that read: “For my dear Lana, thank you for giving a performance that was even finer than I expected.”

Having read the novel myself sometime after seeing the 1946 film (which I do recommend reading), Lana Turner is really the perfect embodiment of the story’s femme fatale. Though the film was released in the midst of the Production Code and couldn’t fully incorporate the novel’s racier elements, Turner’s performance (including that unforgettable entrance!) and her chemistry with John Garfield really capture the story’s imagination, elevating the material to great heights despite the era’s restrictions.

I wrote this as a part of the 2020 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

2 thoughts on “Summer Under the Stars: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

  1. Funny, your short description of the plot makes it sound very similar to Double Indemnity, both of which were of course written by the same person. I never saw Postman, so in your opinion would you say the movie overall shares too many parallels with Indemnity?

    • They definitely have a lot in common, but I think there are some significant distinctions between them so it doesn’t feel like a retread. The plots play out a little differently, and as far as the femme fatales, Phyllis Dietrichson is much more villainous than Cora Smith.

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