POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE
***/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras A
starring Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn
screenplay by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, based on the novel by James M. Cain
directed by Tay Garnett
RAINS OF RANCHIPUR
**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Lana Turner, Richard Burton, Fred MacMurray, Michael Rennie
screenplay by Merle Miller, based on the novel by Louis Bromfield
directed by Jean Negulesco
by Jefferson Robbins There's a series of doublings in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lana Turner's best-known vehicle, that illuminate its obscure title. Disillusioned young wife Cora Smith (Turner) and drift-through handyman Frank Chambers (John Garfield) try twice to make way for their illicit love by eliminating her diner-impresario husband, Nick (Cecil Kellaway). There are two court cases steered by suspicious chief prosecutor Sackett (Leon Ames) and defended by wonderfully shifty lawyer Arthur "I'm Handling It" Keats (Hume Cronyn). There are two moonlight swims, each a turning point in the criminal couple's courtship. Twice the action bends when ailing female relatives, never seen, summon a main character to their sickbeds. There are even two roadside-diner femmes fatale: Cora, and her double Madge (Audrey Totter), who diverts Frank while he's on the outs with the woman he killed to obtain. Finally, the murder itself creates a literal echo. These aren't anvils falling from the heavens, but instead the patterns life presents only in retrospect: This moment, that day, that was when God was trying to get my attention. Like Frank, we're too preoccupied to ever hear the first ring.
Frank, and the audiences of 1946, gasped at their first sight of Turner, ushered in and out of the picture by a rolling tube of lipstick. I did, too, but mostly because I couldn't figure out what the hell she was wearing. Turns out the turban and shorts jumper are her standard diner uniform, which...okay. Tay Garnett's adaptation of the James M. Cain novel gets placed high in the film noir pantheon, and while it qualifies chronologically, it goes sideways from the template. The sun-washed seaside setting, for instance, is far from urban darkness--Frank and Cora orbit Los Angeles, but their story is very much apart from it. Turner's Cora is no duplicitous schemer, but a naïf necessarily hardened by a decade of persistent male sexual threat. (Her story parallels Turner's biography in many ways.) Neither party actively leads the other astray; there are no hidden motives, just distrust planted by Sackett and Keats, who more or less collude to settle a private bet rather than observe justice. There's an insurance policy that draws Sackett's suspicions, though it's not the goal of the plot. The affair appears to take hold with Nick's encouragement, if not his spoken consent: "I didn't expect you back so soon," he remarks once they return from their first nightswim, before bundling himself away to bed without his wife. Finally, Cora would have better luck getting away with midnight murder were she not always clothed in blazing white. These are characters who don't know they're in a noir. When a new neon sign pulses its light over Frank and Cora, they're symbolically tipped into that unknown, dangerous genre.
The movie also seeks a redemptive spark, with both Cora and Frank groping towards some kind of moral conclusion. This differs from the common postwar noirs, which usually left their survivors crushed and crippled from the wringer they'd just crawled through. Frank and Cora, by contrast, refuse to be weighed down by the cynicism that is noir's stock and trade. Happiness is within their grasp--or, at film's end, within Frank's grasp alone--perhaps because they're cushioned by simple-mindedness or denial. My own feeling is that Postman's hopeful heavenward glance is a sop to audiences, a fatal weakening of nerve that disavows the inherent grimness of the genre. This was from prestige studio MGM, after all, not known for the grit of Warners. Frank's jailhouse conversion throws the viewer off his bearings, unsubtly. It's what keeps the picture, in my mind, from four-star status, despite all the repercussions it's had in crime thrillers since.
Jean Negulesco's caste-porn melodrama The Rains of Ranchipur is lesser Turner, to be sure, and it finds the sultry star--thirty-four at the time of release--simultaneously shored up and undermined by the introduction of a younger ingénue. There's vast promise in its beginning, as Lady Edwina Esketh (Turner) frostily entertains a visit from husband Lord Alan (Michael Rennie) in her private compartment on an Indian rail journey. In a fraught, single-take exchange punctuated by Rennie's expert fashioning of a café diablo, the premise of their relationship is laid bare: The titled man without wealth and the rich but cruel temptress have settled into a grudgingly open marriage, conjoined in cuckoldry. This type of interior two-shot is the worst possible use of the then ultra-wide CinemaScope aspect ratio, one Negulesco returns to all too often (although his camera also glides well when called upon), but Turner transfixes (as was her gift) as an unmoved confessor, and Rennie, stately edifice that he is, bares Alan's soul eloquently. He's Postman's Nick all over again, only with his pride unsettled. It's the first, and best, of the film's many long, looooong self-disclosing soliloquies. Although we don't necessarily wish a loving marriage for these two, we do want to see where their estrangement leads them.
Straight into exotic weeper country, it turns out, as a horse-shopping jaunt to the estate of a widowed Maharani (Eugenie Leontovich, the first of a few blue-eyed South Asians we'll meet) leads to an encounter with too-good-to-be-true Indian physician Rama Safti (a turbaned and bronzed Richard Burton), the Maharani's surrogate son and the next pretty thing to catch Edwina's fickle eye. The sparks strike, as they will when Turner shows off some shoulder in a pink single-strap evening gown; the crucial exchange of glances between her and Burton, as they watch a dance display in the Maharani's palace, is electric. Among Safti's local pals is American side-plot Tom Ransome (Fred MacMurray), once a brilliant engineer whose only joy now is a stiff scotch on his veranda--or wherever, really. Tugging at Ransome's shoelaces comes yet another expat, perky Midwestern missionary Fern Simon (Joan Caulfield, the second-fiddle sex appeal mentioned above), who aims to unpickle his heart, for the apparent reason that she's cute and he's there, because God forbid two Americans in India fall in love with anyone but each other. Edwina is the transgressive wrinkle in this fabric, a documented race tourist (her past conquests include a presumably also dusky-skinned Argentinean she met on her honeymoon with Alan) whose initial carnal intent towards the achingly noble Safti quickly gives way to romantic love. Or so she tells us.
This film set in the caste-conscious subcontinent is maddeningly uncertain about Safti's place in the culture, using his turban--worn for different reasons by different subcommunities--to signal, simply, "Indian." (He's not an orthodox Sikh, for instance, since his hair is later shown closely cut. Still, a turban suits Burton better than it does Turner.) In some seriously middle-school environmental symbolism, zoology, climate, epidemiology, and plate tectonics reflect and prefigure their passions. A near-strike by a cobra signals the venom of forbidden love; the monsoons torrent down just as a tiger mauls the unmanned Alan on a Hemingway-lite safari; an earthquake tumbles the province as Edwina inspires the men around her to violence; and a near-fatal fever lifts when a crucial dam is burst.
To its credit, The Rains of Ranchipur makes clear that it's selfish Edwina who's the roadblock in Safti's path to improving his country and does not write off the doomed relationship to India's closed "exoticism." Unfortunately, all this tumult fails to inspire a lick of sympathy for almost any of the characters--Alan being the obvious exception--and Edwina still fails to put the concerns of, say, a few hundred drowned Untouchables above her own. Of the contemporary transcontinental weepers, The Rains of Ranchipur reminds most of The English Patient, with its all-important Anglo love triangle set off against easily-ignored colonial upheaval. The cast truly sells the lengthy confessional monologues (Turner is the only actor spared one of these), but there's no counteracting the sheer number of them, and they add up to no larger picture. Not enough of a picture, at least, to merit the vast CinemaScope frame.
Visually and sonically, Warner's 1.37:1, 1080p Blu-ray version of the original The Postman Always Rings Twice doesn't offer much my 2003 DVD edition couldn't afford. Day-for-night scenes appear more lucid, however, and overall picture quality keeps detail clear without notable edge enhancement. The print is clean if prone to some softness from the original lensing, while a sheet of grain persists, sometimes overbearingly so. It's not a dealbreaker, but it does make one question whether a HiDef product shouldn't look just a bit cleaner. The sunny setting means there's not a lot of contrast to compare the handling of light and dark, though shadowier scenes never lose too much detail. And I can say that this disc finally lets me see the weapon that Frank gives Cora to carry out their murder plan--a sap straight out of the pulps: a little bag loaded with ball bearings. The 1.0 DTS-HD MA track means never having to back up to catch one of Garfield's mumbles or Turner's babyish purrs, and the score by George Bassman shares the soundfield generously.
Where the disc excels is in repurposing biographical extras within the special features. All are ten years old or more, all standard definition, drawn from prior DVD editions or Turner Classic Movies programming, but they're welcome additions--particularly "Lana Turner... A Daughter's Memoir" (86 mins.), a definitive 2001 bio of the radiant and deeply-troubled actress. For every grand leap forward in her career, her not-so-private life suffered a crushing blow; by the time the silly slo-mo re-enactments kick in to dramatize events around the death of ogreish Johnny Stompanato, we're already marvelling that she survived. (The public court imbroglio that followed Stompanato's death probably did more to crystallize the anguish of domestic abuse for a generation of women than any other moment of the 1950s.) The sit-down testimonials alone are a who's-who: Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack, Jackie Cooper, and Turner's wonderfully forthright daughter Cheryl Crane mark the chapters in her life, but best of all is Juanita Moore, Turner's bedrock in Imitation of Life, disclosing the catharsis the star gained from that movie's pivotal death scene. Though Crane suffered vastly at the hands of Turner's partners, the doc reveals that Turner wanted to go to the morgue to view Stompanato's body rather than see to Crane--a touch that reminds me of how the ambulance in Postman takes Nick to the mortuary before bothering to transport a concussed Frank to the hospital.
Turner's Postman co-star gets his moment too in the 57-minute "John Garfield Story", lifted from the film's 2004 DVD release, in which the actor's own struggles with typecasting, a weak heart, and the fatal harassment of HUAC receive a going-over. Easier to list which luminaries don't have something to say about Garfield, for his eulogists include Richard Dreyfuss, Lee Grant, Joanne Woodward, Harvey Keitel (his nearest contemporary heir?), Danny Glover, Norman Lloyd, Martin Scorsese, James Cromwell, Patricia Neal and Hume Cronyn. "Phantoms, Inc." (16 mins.) is an unrelated "Crime Does Not Pay Subject"--it probably unspooled ahead of Postman or films of its like--about con artists, which is fitting, given that was Turner's father's career before it got his head busted open. Tex Avery's classic Red Hot Riding Hood cartoon heats up the old folktale in wolf-whistling Stork Club style (7 mins.), and there's a 29-minute radio adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, voiced by the film's stars and aired in June of 1946. The two-minute theatrical trailer is onboard, as is an enlightening 2003 introduction by film scholar Richard Jewell, again ported over from the DVD. The cover art, with a retouched, colorized publicity still, disappoints. I prefer my old snapper DVD with its painted poster art and breathless tagline, "Their Love was a Flame that Destroyed!"
Twilight Time, distributing limited-edition BDs of neglected Fox and Columbia titles, does right by The Rains of Ranchipur as it did Bell, Book, and Candle last spring. Everyone looks quite tan, a way of saying the pinks one might expect to show up in fleshtones are largely absent outside of Turner's rouge. The 2.55:1, 1080p image is smooth and lacking obtrusive grain save in a few obviously-second-unit shots, while the transfer's treatment of colour--the golds and ebonies of the Maharani's palace, the glowing aqua of Safti's mid-film turban, the science-fiction sheerness of...whatever that thing Turner has on in her train compartment--is largely adoring. Originally released in four-track stereo, Ranchipur's 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track really shakes things up when the earthquake and rainstorms hit, and there's a pleasing directionality to the mix. Composer Hugo Friedhofer gets some love with an isolated score, demonstrating how much character his music contributed to the project. Extras beyond that point grow scarce: three breathless HiDef trailers ("Shattering all barriers of race and time!"), each clocking in at 2:34 and practically identical but for one of them being in black-and-white; and a clickthrough catalogue that lists Twilight Time's small but admirable inventory. Essayist Julie Kirgo contributes another valuable analysis in the insert booklet, this time viewing The Rains of Ranchipur through the lens of Negulesco's rather swashbuckling life. This cover, it should be said, replicates the film's original poster art, with a brown Burton-Indian nuzzling a stylized Turner's arched neck. Yes.