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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #15: MGM Noir (Scene From The Postman Always Rings Twice)

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These four minutes are very important. Those of us who have seen "Postman" several times before, know that the clip is, essentially, a preview of everything that's going to happen. It's all here: the district attorney who says that "maybe I'll see you again"; the "man wanted" sign, with its many meanings; the comment that Frank makes about this maybe being the beginning of his future; his other unfortunate comment that he's got plenty of time; the old owner offering him the job instantly; the cop; and the long shot of the cliffs over the ocean (before seeing the clip today, I never noticed how close the ocean was.)  The burning burger is symbolic, as is the lipstick (phallic symbol) that Lana rolls at him. All of these elements come together to invite Frank into disaster. How can he resist? Much has been said here about Lana's white outfit.  I have always noticed in this movie that she ALWAYS dresses in white, in every scene, up until a certain point in the film. However, one thing that has never rung true for me is that she's just too glamorous in the setting.  What is a beautiful girl like that doing married to an unattractive old man and working in a lunchroom when Hollywood is just a few miles away? (I guess it's due to the MGM "A" picture treatment.) Much more believable was the Jessica Lange character in the remake (older, grittier, more beaten down, but just as sexy--I loved the seduction scene on the kitchen table.)   

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In this film, there is also an immediate "power play" between the protagonist and the femme fatale. Nora drops (or pretends to drop) her lipstick near Frank, then holds out her hand for him to give it to her. He keeps it, making her come to him. He imagines he's in charge, though he isn't.

There is lots of foreshadowing in the scene, also: "Man wanted" for labour and sex will become "wanted man;" Frank no sooner alights from the car than a motorcycle cop roars up with siren wailing; and Frank is so distracted by Nora, he doesn't notice the hamburger burning, a very apt metaphor for his own future.

It's great to be able to look at these scenes closely like this and realize that the filmmakers really knew what they were doing, in terms of building in layers of symbolism, foreshadowing and metaphor. Makes you appreciate "old movies" in a new way.

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Yes,  MGM was the glamor studio but they did release some fine noir films;  Robert Taylor was their primary noir actor with The Bribe, Johnny Eager, The High Wall,  Undercurrent (great cast with Mitchum and Hepburn but only OK),  Party Girl (very late in the cycle in 58), and Rouge Cop.    

 

A few solid noirs by the studio were; Act of Violence with Ryan and Van Heflin, and Mary Actor giving a great performance;    The Asphalt Jungle with Sterling Hayden;  Force of Evil with John Garfield;  The Strip,  with Mickey Rooney (the picture has a 'B' feel but its use of Jazz is great),  and a 1936 film that has many noir themes;  Fury, with Sylvia Sydney and Spencer Tracy. 

 

Thanks for mentioning The Bribe.   Very underrated film, with a great cast, that included Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, a wonderful Charles Laughton, and Vincent Price.   A seedy, steamy little noir.    

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One comment on Lana Turner's famous entrance. When Garfield picks up the dropped make-up, he doesn't return it, he leans back cool and confident trying to establishing dominance. Watch Lana as she vamps an annoyed look, she's unimpressed, she knows she's the spider. She walks over takes it and then struts away, the camera following her the entire way as she snares Garfield, and everyother male in the theater.

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Garfield's entrance is as a guy who doesn't like where he's been and doesn't know where he's going, a personality adrift, vulnerable.  Turner's entrance is stunning. She knows how to use what she's got, and when Garfield tries to show strength, she knows that she's got a nibble and just needs to set the hook. Which she does. In case the audience didn't get that Garfield's goose is as good as cooked, the hamburger patty is burned and into the trash it goes.  A metaphor for the fresh meat that's going to get wasted by film's end.

 

Noir element:  Vulnerable but not without merits guy meets obvious femme fatale. Its a wonder the hamburger patty didn't go up in flames.

 

Noir element: District attorney lives down the street, we're going to see him again for sure.  Trouble is around the corner and we haven't seen Lana yet.

 

Noir element: The metaphor, sets us up for trouble, something gets burned.

 

Noir element: Double entendre, "man wanted". Not until Lana makes her entrance is it clear what the position is going to be.

 

Love this film!

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Thanks for mentioning The Bribe.   Very underrated film, with a great cast, that included Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, a wonderful Charles Laughton, and Vincent Price.   A seedy, steamy little noir.    

 

The Bribe is a fine film and as you noted it has a great cast,  with Laughton and Price fine in their supporting roles (with Laughton right on that border of overdoing it).    Of course we have Ava;   40s Ava in B&W is something else.      Clearly Steve Martin liked the film since it is used often in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.    

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Great entrances. Garfield's is full of visual irony, especially in the sign of "Man Wanted." In that moment, it means opportunity of employment, but later, Garfield will become a man wanted, but in an entirely different way. He gets out of the car, as a restless drifter (cynicism?), at an isolated eatery, the D.A. seems think he's a good enough man but when he leaves that car, his fate is almost sealed. While Garfield's entrance portrays him as the average man, a cynical hitchhiker, Turner's entrance casts her as a beautiful, statue-like ice queen – carefully manicured and untouchable. 

 

Garfield and Turner spend their minute together sizing one another up, and working each other. She knows how good she looks, and "accidentally" drops her lipstick. He picks it up, and she waits cooly for him to come to her, but realizing her play, he leans back, waiting for her to come to him. She concedes but wins back her stake by slowly and seductively putting her lipstick on. She closes the door, but in the end, Garfield ends up with the burnt meat and no food.

 

Noir Elements: Voiceover narration, lighting of Lana Turner (gleaming white outfit and skin against shadowy background), femme fatale, literary precursor (James M. Cain), moral taboos, and cynical main character who makes fateful decisions that end in doom

 

"MGM House Style:" Glamourous stars (Lana Turner, John Garfield on- loan from Warner Bros.), middle class appeal (roadside restaurant that could be set anywhere, moral reckoning), high budget and production values (wholly created diner set, over $1M budget, lush appearance), and lack of risk (studion only chose to do the film after the success of Paramount's Double Indemnity, a studio with more creative freedom)

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Talk about getting burned!  She enters wearing all white like Kathie Moffat.  A wolf in sheep's clothing.  She stands just inside the doorway somewhat in the shadows.  Do I need to mention the tension?

 

His entrance is marked by foreshadowing also.  Given a ride by the district attorney and given the farewell greeting, "Maybe I'll be seeing you again."

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I'm so glad you posted Philip French's article from the Guardian about Edward Hopper's influence on and having been influenced by films noir! This is clearly evidenced in this clip, not just in the desolate diner counter evocative of Nighthawks or by the shoreline visible in the distant background which was characteristic of so many of Hopper's works, but the exterior shots are a dead ringer for his 1940 piece Gas.

 

I especially love that during the scene in the diner the frame is split down the middle by the countertop, Garfield on one side and the propieter on the other...will he accept employment there or won't he? He goes back to tend the grill after his encounter with Turner, discards the charred burger (foreshadowing?) and then literally clambers up and over the countertop to the civilian side as if to say, "I don't know if working here is such a great idea."

 

Anyway, Hopper has always been my favorite painter and through this course I'm discovering that many of my favorite classic films have also been films noir. After reading the French article and discussing last week's film clip from the Killers I totally had an aha! moment. Of course the two were never mutually exclusive! It only makes sense that two of my favorite things were influenced by one another. Keep it comin', teach.

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John Garfield's character arrives at a roadhouse cafe seeing work. You get the sense upon his arrival that bad things will ultimately happen. There's narration that spells out a potential demise. His arrival is met with a little hostility from a passing motorcycle cop. He is met by the cafe owner, an older man, who, of course, has a smoking hot bombshell of a wife. The bombshell, in particular, is lit like every gorgeous female is in a noir. Very soft lighting gives way to an angelic glow that surrounds her. You can see shadows from the blinds on Garfield's clothing. You can see traditional noir tropes from the opening scene.

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Garfield's entrance is more casual, but through the dialogue, it reveals his free-willing nature and that sort of optimism about the future or "nothing bad will ever happen to me".

 

Turner's entrance was obviously more grandiose. The way we see the lipstick? roll out on the floor as the camera zooms on her, diagonal shadows across the floor, pretty good camera work.

 

The brief encounter with brief words tells us a lot. Garfield is confident, bold, while Turner doesn't shy away. However, something will end up burning in the end... or I guess, I haven't seen the film.

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Garfield's entrance is more casual, but through the dialogue, it reveals his free-willing nature and that sort of optimism about the future or "nothing bad will ever happen to me".

 

Turner's entrance was obviously more grandiose. The way we see the lipstick? roll out on the floor as the camera zooms on her, diagonal shadows across the floor, pretty good camera work.

 

The brief encounter with brief words tells us a lot. Garfield is confident, bold, while Turner doesn't shy away. However, something will end up burning in the end... or I guess, I haven't seen the film.

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I want to reply to the sizzling hamburger in the opening scene and reply to the writer up above who made the comment about it, Newbie? Anyway, the hamburger burns and sizzles just like Garfield's desire when he sees Cora, but the burger goes into the trash, the only place for something all burned up.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice noir hook of a voice-over narration by Frank (John Garfield), with a thread of tiredness running through his stree-wise narration, is seamlessly paired with the flash-back sequence.  Frank is a drifter, an idealist who is always on the lookout for “new places, new people, and new ideas”.  


Frank is dropped off next to a “Man Wanted” sign, wearing a worn suit and carrying a suitcase that looks like its seen better days - and places.  He seems eager to fit in, “maybe my future starts right now”, but his itchy feet always keep him moving along, from one town to another.  Our noir hero isn’t sure he wants to stick around “maybe I’ll try it for a couple of days” --- until he sees Cora (Lana Turner), the sizzler blond femme who belongs to a dropped tube of lipstick.


Dressed in a pure white outfit, with shorts so short they leave nothing - and everything - to the imagination, Frank gets lost in this vision that promises quite a lot, as she stands, framed in a doorway.  She tries to get the upper hand during a long cynical look, but then gives into what will be one sizzling, hot - and burning - affair.  (Don’t forget to flip that burger!)


John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake are two MGM noir films that also featured blond dames.  There’s a languid quality to the MGM A-list noir dialogue, especially on the part of the women, with the action telling us, “It’s okay, we’ll get to that heist (or murder) - eventually.”  MGM’s style usually gave audiences more class with their noir, thank you - except when it came to their B-list noirs, which often didn’t make back their production costs.  MGM didn’t dwell on the dark side of the city, content to focus on adventure films, women’s melodramas, serials (the Maisie comedies, Andy Hardy family fare, and the sophisticated Thin Man mysteries), and of course, their innovative musicals.  


 


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I had stumbled onto this film back when netflix streaming was new, watching this on a hot summer's day. In someways we are all Frank, meaning we all like to go to (or move) new places, to forget our troubles and start over. but the old saying goes, your life follows where ever you go, meaning your happiness, sadness and troubles of your past (more inside then out) you can never escape them no matter where you go.

 

And as a few points that were made in other posts - when the girl walks out she has short shorts on and looking to say you can look but you can not touch. as the burger burns that can mean a few things, the girl was super hot and the girl made frank feel awfully warm and as frank threw the burnt burger into the trash that could also mean that the choices he will make from this moment on will go on  a downward spiral into the trash, and the other reason why he threw the hot burning burger into the trash was because thats all the hot girl was just trash.

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Q: How are the “entrances” of John Garfield and Lana Turner staged in this sequence? What do their “entrances” reveal about their character?

A: John Garfield comes on the scene as a hitch-hiker, someone who appears to be a drifter. He’s got an ordinary everyman quality to him. Lana Turner on the other hand, enters the scene like a goddess. She’s dressed in white shorts, top, and turban. And like a goddess, she’s aloof, but aware of her impact on men; she’s bothered by the fact that Garfield’s character didn’t fall at her feet in worship (he’ll do that later!).

 

Q: What are some of the noir elements in this sequence?

A: The flashback narration by Garfield. The nice shadows inside the diner, the lattice shadows on the wall, the venetian blinds form shadows that fall over Garfield. Those same shadows fall on Turner when she moves into Garfield’s space to retrieve her lipstick.

 

Q: What did you notice in this sequence that you identify with the MGM “house style?” (Answer this question only if you are already familiar with other MGM films noir from this time period).

A: The scenes feature great key lighting that shows both Garfield and Turner at their best. No odd angles, but rather pretty straightforward (but effective) camera work. Also the gas station and the diner look beautifully well kept. Nothing bleak or low-rent about the place.

 

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The minute Lana Turner makes her entry into the scene Garfield is caught as a fly on a spider's web. Turner is the ultimate femme fatale that will take Garfield down the abyss. Upon seeing Turner, Garfield can think of nothing else to the extend that he burns the burger and throws it out. His hunger now is not for food but for Turner and for this desire his fate is sealed. It is ironic how the sign reads MAN WANTED; Turner is looking for a man and soon after the crime is committed he is a MAN WANTED. Great film that plays on the sexual tension and manipulation of the man by the femme fatale.

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I almost wonder if Cora used that lipstick to write Man Wanted on the sign outside.

 

The "entrances" of the two main characters reveal volumes about their personalities and motivations. Garfield is a good natured rambler. He's not ties down to a particular place and doesn't seems to have a past in the form of friends and family that he is emotionally tied to. He seems like a decent if somewhat too carefree guy. His demeanor suggests a sort of post-war malaise. His morality may be slightly questionable. When he observes the driver "slip something" to the policeman to avoid a ticket--presumably a bribe--he isn't outraged or shocked by hints of corruption. He doesn't seem to have a plan at all; he's just seeing where things take him.

 

Turner projects the opposite. Despite the economy of her movements and speech, everything about her seems calculated and thought out. She's looking for someone she can beguile to achieve her ends. She's inappropriately sexual considering her surroundings. She knows she can use her sexuality to achieve her ends and she has no qualms about doing so.

 

The camera work for Cora's entrance is beautiful and seductive. We watch Garfield as he hears and watches the lipstick roll across the tile floor, then we are seeing things from his point of view as the camera pans up from Turner's high heels, up her shapely legs to her short shorts, bare midriff top, and that strange turban. (Were turbans a typical fashion in this time period?) Then she applies the lipstick, slowly and sensually. 

 

This introduction of the drifter, hapless but perhaps capable of evil if driven by the femme fatale, certainly has the hallmarks of a noir set up. The star quality of the actors and the high quality production values are consistent with MGM films.

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John Garfield's entrance is unassuming and humble. Which is what his character is like. On the other hand, Lana Turner almost explodes with sexual energy.  She is probably the sexiest femme fatale we have seen so far.  This is a woman who is used to get anything she wants by any means.

 

Obviously the femme fatale and the sucker are the main noir elements.

 

The film seems to have a much glossier look to it and the budget to go along.

 

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When we first meet Frank he is rather happy go lucky. Calm about no job, interesting philosophy on life. We first see his face through a car window. We see a “Man Wanted” sign. Frank thinks it means a new job or something, though he’s not interested. Then we see the police drive by and the “Man Wanted” sign takes on a criminal meaning, like a wanted poster. The location seems to be on a soundstage, with the valley below seeming green scene. Frank’s character is happy to do things for the owner, like watching the hamburger so he can tend to another customer. The lighting has black X’s like prison bars or barbed wire across Frank as he sits at the counter, foreshadowing future events. Then the tone shifts with the first camera movement. The camera tracks a lipstick rolling down the floor. The angle shifts to diagonal as it follows the lipstick’s path backwards to its owner: a pair of white open-toed high heels. We shoot back to Frank’s reaction then to what he’s reacting to: a gorgeous woman. The film noir low key lighting of the actress makes her more seductive and yet unattainable. We don’t know anything about this woman except that she’s gorgeous and has an odd look in her eye at Frank. That “Man Wanted” sign takes on sexual undertones immediately. There is a diagonal angle to how they are facing each other. Absolutely no words are spoken and there is a serious power struggle. Frank bows to Cora when he picks up the lipstick. Yet he refuses to give it to her; before when he was happy to do things for others, now he refuses to walk over to her to give her the lipstick. She walks over, takes it, and then walks back to the doorway. Rather than close the door right away, she pauses and lets him watch her put the lipstick on, adding sexual tension to the scene, and then closing the door. Only then does he realize that the hamburger he told the owner he would watch, is burning. 

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I've always heard how great this film is, but I've never gotten around to seeing it. I'm borrowing it from the library this weekend, though, and I'm excited to see what happens to these two characters.

 

This is quite a moment for both Frank and Cora; meetings between major characters usually are. Frank seems unassuming but confident in his beliefs and ideals (I definitely share his itch in travelling; I have a feeling, though, that Cora will scratch that itch for him and he'll stay put for a little while). I don't know where Frank came from or where he's going, and that doesn't seem to matter to him either. He's along for the ride. Of course, per noir fashion, he stops at a diner and then meets Cora.

 

Cora has a much more typical "entrance" than Frank does (I have expected the shot to continue up her body instead of cutting away just at the feet). We get some rolling lipstick, which Frank carefully uses as a flirtation device (and, since lipstick is often used as a sexual symbol, and with the lipstick probably being read, we get much more than just sexual tension). While Cora's grand entrance may mean she's the star of the picture, while Frank's entrance means he may be in a supporting role (though I doubt that), I think both are effective in establishing their characters no matter the billing.

 

Dressed in white, are we to believe Cora's innocent in any way? No, of course not. She's wearing short shorts and putting on lipstick. Is she really trying to come off as innocent here? It's seems to backfire, and, if that's the case, I think that was Garnett's intention.

 

I'm excited to see the film in its entirety this weekend. It looks pretty good, especially since it does look more like an A picture than a B picture.

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Did anyone note the hint of danger ahead when the motorcycle cop comes into the scene? Even before we meet the extremely sexy Cora all signs put to a threat to easy going Frank. "Man Wanted" and sirens and the DA never bode well for a character. I have a feeling Frank should have kept hitching!

 

 

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Frank is on the bum.  He is first presented as an amiable hitchhiker with a sharp eye for a paycheck and a meal, and self-confidence enough to tease a motorcycle cop about taking a bribe.  He seems to be nobody’s fool, until his first long, lingering look from the lipstick coyly dropped in his direction, up the form to the face of seductively underclad Cora gobsmacks him.  Not completely in her thrall yet, he waits for her to cross to him and retrieve the lipstick from his hand.  She then returns to the doorway, poses as she applies the make-up, eyes him for moment then unhurriedly closes the door.  This power struggle ends in a draw, but the attraction has been established, as have their relative societal standings.  He is a drifter, a man of the moment, unafraid to reach for what he wants.  She is part of an established enterprise, a rung up, but not above calculating the man’s usefulness.

 

The clip opens under a partly sunny sky with storm clouds behind the truck stop, and fog rolling in over the bay.  There is a wariness to Frank’s cheerfulness, a look he gives as the owner grabs his arm says his public and private faces are different.  The tracking shot from the lipstick on the floor through regimented bars of  window shutter shadows to Cora inventively foretell obstacles to come. The lighting choices are noir-ish, albeit not too dark and threatening, creamy blacks, whites and grays.  It is MGM, after all, the home of Andy Hardy and company.   

 

The caliber of stars John Garfield and Lana Turner indicate an MGM “A” picture.  Supporting players Cecil Kellaway and Leon Ames are also MGM staples.  The spruceness of the mise-en-scene is more indicative of MGM art directors than the gritty feel of a Poverty Row shot-in-six-days film noir.  In this short clip there is no dirt at all, even outside. The gleaming white turbaned, halter-topped, short shorted, high-heeled waitress Cora looks as if she has been dressed by MGM designer, Adrian.  The hitchhiker's clothes are spotless and neatly pressed, as are those of the cook/proprietor of the greasy spoon, who has supposedly been run ragged enough with the business to advertise for a man to help out.  Every table setting and condiment dispenser is exactly where it should be.  Nothing is out of place in this world until Cora drops her lipstick.

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The Bribe is a fine film and as you noted it has a great cast,  with Laughton and Price fine in their supporting roles (with Laughton right on that border of overdoing it).    Of course we have Ava;   40s Ava in B&W is something else.      Clearly Steve Martin liked the film since it is used often in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.    

I agree.  The Bribe is one horrible, nasty little noir treasure.

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John Garfield's character enters the scene getting out of the car of the local district attorney (unbeknownst to him) he has hitched a ride with. He is open, friendly and has been talking freely to his driver. He is not naïve, and unafraid of authority, accusing the motorcycle cop of bribery. He comes to the diner in full daylight. He is hiding nothing and is simply looking for a job and the sign is in plain sight.

He comes into the diner, and the counterman is welcoming and friendly, delightful, really, but as we enter the diner, it is empty, with no lights. The daylight that was so welcoming outside is in shadow in here. It is quiet, a bit lonely, but the counterman's chatter fills the room until he is called outside by a customer at the pump.

Enter Lana Turner, or at least her lipstick, as it rolls across the floor towards Garfield. He sees it and the camera tracks in first person what he sees and the way his eyes linger as they make their way to her shoes, her legs, thighs and the rest of her as she poses in the doorway, casting dark shadows on the doorframe around her. She is unabashed and brazenly sexual, but dressed all in white. She saunters over and gets her lipstick, walks slowly back so that he can get a good look and then turns at an angle to slather her lips as he watches, completely taken by her. Like the sign, she is advertising for a new kind of job for him, this one is also in plain sight, but she casts dark shadows of foreboding, unlike the clear, well-lit job advertisement outside. Both say, "Man Wanted."

The hamburger on the grill begins to burn as Garfield does, signaling the destruction of both.

You can tell this is an MGM picture because of the on-site location next to the beautiful pacific coast, the glossy close-ups of Lana Turner and the cast itself, with names like Turner, Garfield, Cecil Kellaway (who has always been a favorite of mine) and Leon Ames.

The film noir style adds mystery and suspense and clever clues as to the motives of the characters. Cecil Kellaway is warm and friendly "outside" but although he is still friendly inside, he is in the dark shadows, part of what is hidden in this lonely place. She is in white, beautiful, but the stark shadows  she casts and her standing in the doorway, suggests that she is dangerous. The burger on the grill says she is "too hot to handle.:

Garfield is definitely getting more than he bargained for when he accepts the job. One could almost blame him for the trouble later on because it is so evident to the viewer that this man is in trouble. Any well-adjusted person would run outside and grab the next ride that stops! But therein lies the rub of film noir - the characters are not well-adjusted. They all live on the edge, accepting life and its dangers as a matter of course.

 

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