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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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Lana Turner's very specific actions make this scene for me.  Every calculated move she makes sets the viewer that much more on edge; nothing about this relationship is going to be MGM-**** dory.  This is a fatalistic woman encroaching on a fatalistic love affair.

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The charred burger is hilarious. After that duel of smoldering glances ends with Cora's apparent surrender (she steps forward to retrieve her lipstick), she turns up the sex appeal even more with her seductive saunter. Garfield is left smoldering so hard he begins to sizzle. His goose is cooked.

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

 

John Garfield enters in a car as passenger. Lana Turner enters by seemingly staging the dropping of her lipstick. By Garfield's reaction he's seen the most captivating image he's seen in a long time or quite possibly ever. His actions with her indicate his downplaying of amazement. Both characters are not letting onto their true feelings.

 

What are some of the noir elements in this sequence?

 

Inclusion of a lost or doomed leading guy. Inclusion of a femme fatale. I'd argue the dramatic music and the odd non-traditional angles and shooting style.

 

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 from this time period).

 

Star power is evident. I'd say the production value would be indicative of MGM's abilities with their "house style" that's my crack at non-specific "house style" attributes. To be more specific I'd use an example 'Force Of Evil' but that's 1948 which is after the fact.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) The shadows of the lattice work combined with Lana Turner's leggy entrance. Brilliant. I love the lattice work shadows before her entrance and how they seem to coccoon the whole diner in warmth even though they are in shadow. You feel welcomed and then Lana Turner walks in all mysterious and aloof. I love these slight elements that almost forewarn us that something sinister may be ahead!

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When John Garfield enters The Postman Always Rings Twice, everything's going great for him. He's the one hitchhiker in the world who could be picked up by a District Attorney who not only doesn't have him arrested for vagrancy but actually seems interested in his theories about life. Then the owner of a diner runs up to him and practically insists that he accept a job and free hamburger.

 

And then Lana Turner shows up. Immediately, everything on the screen is covered in shadows. The music turns ominous. And John Garfield's free hamburger burns up.

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15. POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (MGM): Sizzle. 

The lattice's shadow suggests Garfield is in a web. Lana, in white, is dressed as the light source as if she had cast the net of shadows.

 

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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."

Good point on his entrance. Poor guy seems doomed from the get-go!!

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the tone of the sequence changes when he's in the diner and there's suddenly a woman. I didn't notice shadows or the blinds or anything until we trace across the floor and to her shoes. From that point forward it seemed like all I could see was the way the light filtered in from the Venetian blinds. 

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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.

 

 

And I like the way Lana Turner expects Garfield to bring her the lipstick...he thinks better of it, if you want it, he slinks back, come and get it here. So she sashays over to him, but she walks away, knowing she is in full control. The set up here with Turner is much more obvious, then the set up with Kathy Moffett..you couldn't tell when and how Moffett was siding with at any one point, except in the end. She was "like a leaf" going with whomever could help her at the time.

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We first see Frank getting out of the car and thanking the driver for not laughing at him for his philosophies of life. Frank comes across as friendly and garrulous enough - still a loner, an outcast, but not as hard-edged as other noir protagonists, at least not at this point. He appears to have at least to some degree a work ethic. Sure, he has not liked any job he has ever had, but at least he is still looking for one as opposed to, say, robbing a bank. He seems to be lost but still actively searching, despite his feet that are "itching for [him] to go places." Irresponsible, unreliable, maybe. But he has not thrown in the towel on life, at least not yet. He is not resigned or defeated - he is still taking initiative.

 

Cora? If the first glimpse we have of her is a seductive, though motionless, presence in the doorframe, we know that she is a character who has some sort of an agenda, whether it's flirtation, manipulation, or murder. Dropping the lipstick was surely no "accident." She has her wheels in motion from this very moment. A femme fatale in every sense of the word. And like so many other male noir protagonists, Frank is the "sucker" who will fall prey to her charms.

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I have always liked this scene because of the rolling lipstick presaging the end of the movie in such a neatly closed circle.   I also believe I finally have an acceptable reason for the white outfit Lana Turner is wearing - white hot, as one of the comments pointed out, is the most destructive and fierce part of the flame that is lit up here between the characters. 

 

The noir checklist is all checked off in this initial scene and Cecil Kellaway as Nick the dirty Greek is just so endearing that I don't care that he is not played as Cain wrote him.  I also learned ...thank you very much... why this film is so glossy and what the MGM style is all about.  I think I like the clearer view of the characters with the better lighting afforded by the bigger budget, even though the dialogue is stilted and dated in all the wrong places.

 

I also want to remark on the link the lipstick has to Cora's identity.  Cora's view of herself in the compact mirror is not good enough for her and she may be using the lipstick to cover symbolically the part of herself she is not satisfied with.  Her true self is covered from our view and her own view of herself by the lipstick in the scene. Frank gets to see both from his perspective and maybe holding a part of her identity in his hands when he holds out on returning the lipstick to Cora in this clip.  This kind of ambiguity permeates noir, Cain's novel, and Tay Garnett's film much to my delight.

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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.    

 

Hard not to love Ava....and not just in B&W.   She was a femme fatale on and off the screen, when you think about it.   Even when she wasn't making noir's she was.   

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From the very beginning there is a strong contrast between Frank and Cora. We learn quite a bit about Frank, from both his narration and his conversation with the district attorney. We learn almost immediately that Frank is aimless, with no clear destination in mind. His opening line gives his destination as "San Diego, I guess". He's not sure what he is looking for, with no end in sight. He has "itchy feet", always moving on, waiting for something to happen to him, rather than making something happen for himself. He's semi-interested in the job, but it's not something he needs. If Cora's husband had turned him away without a glance, Frank most likely would have shrugged it off and kept on moving. He takes things as they come, not really caring one way or another. As others have said, he's set up practically from the beginning to be used as a pawn. It's interesting to note, that Cora's husband is essentially responsible for what will happen. If he hadn't practically begged Frank to take the job, it's entirely possible Frank would have just kept on going down the road.

 

And of course, being film noir, who better to use that pawn than a femme fatale? In a complete turnaround from Frank, we learn nothing about Cora, no idea who this woman is. From her entrance, she is already starting to manipulate Frank. Throwing her lipstick down, causing him to look over and up at this gorgeous, provocatively dressed woman, first seeing just her legs, the peak of physical sexuality of this time period. She doesn't ask for help, she expects it, and when he refuses to walk over to her, practically demands it with her gaze. She's already starting to assert her power over this helpless man. In a surprising move, Frank holds his ground, and she concedes, knowing that even though she may have lost this test of wills, she already has him hooked and it's only a matter of time before she will have full power over him. Taking the lipstick, she returns to her spot in the doorway, applying it without a glance, wanting him to watch her and feel the distance between them. Once she leaves, practically slamming the door in his face, he takes care of the burnt food, throwing it away because he found something he desires more, and runs out of the room like a little boy, suddenly excited over this job that, like most things, he wasn't sure he really wanted. Something has happened, finally, and for better or worse, he is going to see where it leads.

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I like the use of shadows across the floor leading up to the first shot of Cora - it definitely heightens the impact of her all-white outfit and seductive stance.

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LOL, my first thought after viewing this scene....."His itchy feet are gone...."

 

Frank strikes me as a lonely post war soldier, out of the service and no ties.  He's looking for a life to build.  He's a traveler as happens in so many noir films but this one I suspect has seen the horrors of war and is trying to come out on the other side. There is no snarky P.I. here, just a guy who is looking for something but he doesn't know what.....his first mistake....

 

The DA who picked him up is a good guy and truly concerned about him and his views on life.....I sense honor in him and a caring for those soldiers who have made it home....at least physically. We are all with the DA on this one.....we love our soldiers and we want them to do well when they come home.....we feel no differently about Frank and we are immediately on his side.

 

We immediately sense the vulnerable spot in Frank....that desire to fill that lonely void, forget the war and build a life.  When he stops at the "man wanted" sign we begin to have a little hope for him.  Perhaps this job could be just the ticket to just be a regular guy again for a while and regain his footing.  As he is left alone to tend the burger, on cue, in walks his ruination......okay, she is THE picture of the femme fatale.  Cold, cynical, smokin hot and dismissive......just the kind of woman a man like Frank will become addicted to.

 

The pan from the lipstick case to her feet is telling in the shadow and light work.....this man has just entered his prison and he's glad. The shadow of those shutters is obviously representative of prison bars....it is funny to me when he doesn't pant his way over to her to give her the lipstick case.  He makes sure she comes to him......the game started the minute they laid eyes on each other.  

 

She doesn't think it's funny however as she walks over to him, obviously sending an instant message, "You can look all you want, but you will NEVER have this buddy".....she is a tease and a game player and I believe has instantly spotted her "ticket" or "sucker" who can get her out of the mess she has made of her life. No sooner does she shut the door on Frank, than he jumps the counter, rescues the burnt burger and runs outside to accept the job and walk into a tragic mistake.  He didn't even check to see who she was to the owner.....second mistake.  That boy should have ran......he was outclassed and outmatched immediately.

 

OKAY!!!!!   we have to mention that man wanted sign.....hardly noticeable the first time you watch the film, but once you know how this story pans out......we all know what that sign really means....the irony in films noir has always been so fascinating to me.  This is why I generally watch noirs multiple times, because I know inherently that I will discover new things, find new interpretations, see new meaning.....

 

I love the games the creators play with things like that "man wanted" sign, phrases like  "It's the stuff dreams are made of".  Everyone of us stops to think how those subtle effects can be so thought invoking, so life changing, such a warning sign when you come to that fork in the road.  They make us once again so glad to live in our normal and boring lives, so glad that we are cautious that we don't run into femme fatales or dangerous men who have the ability to make wrecks of our lives, to hook us and drag us down into their darkness.  

 

Film noir, such a delicious and satisfying way to spend ones' leisure time.

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Lana Turner's entrance in Postman is one of the greatest character entrances in film history.  She deliberately dropped her lipstick so Frank could get a good look at her.

 

As for Frank, he was like many men coming home from World War II.  "What do I do now?"  

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The plain little café, a hitchhiker a bit down on his luck and a femme fatale of the highest order would be the noir elements that I can identify.  John Garfield's entrance is that of a young, virile, and handsome man in contrast to the husband who is friendly but older, overweight and not physically appealing.  Lana makes a deliberately provocative entrance.  She is obviously not dressed for work in her short shorts and halter top.  Like John Garfield, who can't yet see her because he has bent down to pick up the lipstick she has deliberately dropped; the audience watches with anticipation as the camera follows the roll of the lipstick before panning up her figure from her toes to her lovely face.  He can only stare with amazement.  She stares boldly back at him and feels no need to be friendly but finally gives a slight, suggestive smile.

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"Cats don't know anything about electricity..."

 

Maybe not, but while old Tabby was shorting out the Twin Oaks Cafe, I wish he/she had been able to send a little voltage into the two co-stars. I've never been able to understand the star status that John Garfield and Lana Turner enjoyed. Both are awkwardly mannered and wooden, and have facial expressions as limited as those two Greek masks. True, Turner did tolerably well in The Bad and The Beautiful, but Kirk Douglas has enough charisma to make any fellow actor seem animated.  

 

Even with a vehicle (pardon the pun) like "Postman...", the only suspense I felt was which white outfit the costume designer Irene would dream up next for the over-dressed Turner. I don't think there was any legitimate symbolism in Turner's white outfits...virtue, etc. It appeared to be a visual ploy to showcase Turner's glow-in-the-dark platinum hair. In fact, Lana's hair probably deserved its own credit, first covered in a turban to build anticipation, fluffed to express playfulness, in a sedate bun to portray innocence...and so on. I couldn't help thinking of and missing the original platinum blonde--Harlow--the lovable bombshell who didn't mind mussing her hair. Or the last great platinum blonde--Monroe--who took the "dumb" out of "dumb blonde" and turned the look into her eternal crowning glory. 

 

As for the costume thing, it was pretty heavy-handed to show Cora (Turner) suddenly in a black robe, holding a wicked-big knife. (Lady Macbeth in her burger-flipping days?) Anyway, Nick (Cecil Kellaway), the cuckolded husband, came across as not nearly as clueless as he was assumed to be. He was also a refreshingly skilled actor. In sharp contrast, recall Frank's (Garfield) "beat down" of the much larger blackmailer. The slap-fest looked as silly as a Three Stooges skit. Compounding all this were Postman's plot loopholes and lapses of logic, plus goofy dialogue like "You can't sing and drive at the same time!". The film also felt much too long, with multiple endings tacked on.   

 

However, the production values can't be faulted, particularly the set design and Sidney Wagner's lushly gorgeous cinematography. As Chris Dashiell's excellent article states, MGM was clearly all in when it came to making a big, glamorous film. Even the cat got its close-up, a decent action scene, and a sizzling exit.  

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Where Garfield is introduced is when he gets out of the car.  He is framed in the window.  His manner is boyish.  He tells the driver why he must keep moving.  The next moments with the police officer reveal the DA was in the car.  This sets them up for later in the film when he gets arrested for murder.

 

Next thing Garfield gets rushed by the cafe owner into the job.  He has not decided to take it.  When he goes into the cafe, he is listening to the sales pitch of the owner about the job benefits.  The owner goes out, and a lipstick comes rolling across the floor.  The camera follows the floor and then pans up very slowly over the figure of Lana Turner.  You see the look on Garfield's eyes.  He refuses to give her the lipstick.  The camera does a close up on her eyes.  She has to get it.  She poses there putting lipstick on before closing the door.  Then Garfield runs out.  You don't know if he is going to say I will take the job, or no thanks.

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We start with the voice over with Garfield telling us he's traveling from San Francisco down the coast and San Diego is mentioned.  We see the scene of the beautiful bay in the background as he exits the car.  Nothing too mysterious yet.  The sign "Man Wanted" has caught his eye and may be part of his destiny.  Cecil Kellaway is all that hospitality entails.  The most striking element of the film noir style is the entrance of Lana Turner.  The camera pans from the bottom of the frame to the top, that angle thing that film noir has going.  The total bright whiteness of her shoes, her outfit (those tight little shorts), and her hair turban stands out in contrast to the muted grays etc.  The look on her face is so film noir.  She reeks of being a femme fatale with the eyebrows and the complete sensuality of her demeanor.  This is the real thing coming from MGM this time.

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Frank Chambers is a good guy, he is a happy fella, a restless soul that keeps wandering the world and never stays longer in one place, because of that itchy in his feet. We meet Frank when his hitchhiking, as usual, and is dropped by the DA at „Twin Oaks”, the roadhouse cafe. He sees the sign „Man wanted” and decides to try his luck here. He is warmly welcomed by the owner, Nick Smith, who wants to hire him right away and offers him a hamburger. So Frank enters the diner and sits by the bar. Nick has to leave him because of the client. Suddenly, Frank sees a lipstick rolling towards him on the floor. He picks it up, the camera follows his gaze and he sees the one who dropped it – a beautiful and sexy young woman. He is astonished, but still manages to play it cool and forces the local beauty (Cora Smith) to come to him to get the lipstick. And that was the first mindgame between these two. He resisted and that made Cora angry.

What is noir in this sequence is definetely Chamber's voice-over and the play of shadows on the floor while the lipstick was rolling. Frank was about to leave his realistic world just to enter the dangerous formalistic world of Cora Smith and her affairs... The close-ups of Frank and Cora's faces are also very noir – showing Frank's astonishment and Cora's mask-like surface beauty. 

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Hard not to love Ava....and not just in B&W.   She was a femme fatale on and off the screen, when you think about it.   Even when she wasn't making noir's she was.

You should watch "Night of the Iguana" then. If you haven't already. Also, "Seven Days in May" ...

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Hard not to love Ava....and not just in B&W.   She was a femme fatale on and off the screen, when you think about it.   Even when she wasn't making noir's she was.   

 

Well Ava might have been a femme fatale to Frank but not to her first husband Mickey Rooney.   It was Mickey that went out almost every night with the boys to drink and party leaving a 22 year old Ava alone in their apartment crying.     They got divorced and Mickey saw that opening scene of The Big Sleep and a year or so later married Martha Vickers,  the gal that fell into Bogie's arms in that first scene.      She also divorced him for similar reasons. 

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The entrance of Garfield is one of innocence.  He is applying for a job at the establishment.  And he meets his boss right way.  From there the wife, Turner, enters the scene.  She deliberately drops her lipstick.  This was done to get Garfield's attention and it worked perfectly.  They size one another up during this scene.  She can tell from the look on his face that this guy wants her.  If he wants her badly enough, she can get him to do anything.  And since she is married, he will have to do something about that.  Even though, Garfield is struck dumb by the wife at first, he makes her come and retrieve her lipstick herself.  He is letting her know that he maybe working here, but he is not a servant.  This is all the more tragic as the film moves forward.  This scene is classic noir in that there is a man and a woman.  Each one is curious about the other and moving cautiously.  Turner's character appears to be the feme fatal.  And Garfield's character is the foolish lover.   

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