The Postman Always Rings Twice is simply the best film noir ever done.
Lana Turner, who got billing above John Garfield in this movie, and deservedly so, is stunning as Cora, the most alluring woman I've ever seen on screen, the quintessential femme fatale. John Garfield gives a bravura performance as Frank Chambers, the drifter, who can't keep his hands off another man's wife. The story is by James M. Cain, whose Double Indemnity is another memorable film noir adapted for the screen. Cain's stories are a mix of lust and crime and deceit and double-dealing.
But, this movie belongs to Lana Turner from the moment we and Frank the drifter first see her to that fateful moment .. and I won't say when that moment arrives .. when Frank's and Cora's dreams and schemes are forever dashed. Frank says several times in the movie, "I just wanted to look at her..I just wanted to see her..It was horrible to be away from her.." and Frank wasn't the only one who had those feelings.
That first time we meet Cora is simply one of the most erotic, powerful scenes ever filmed. Frank is sitting at the restaurant counter, Cora's husband, Nick, has gone to see a customer, and we see a tube of lipstick rolling on the floor. The camera follows Frank's gaze from the lipstick, to the path it took on the floor, to its owner and the reason it fell to the floor. The camera stops - as Frank's gaze does - on Cora's shapely legs, shown in all their splendor from mid-thigh to heel, because Cora is wearing shorts. We see Cora's face, and then Frank's, and we can literally see Frank's breath being taken away. Ours, too.
It doesn't take long before nature takes its course with Frank and Cora, but that creates the problem of what to do with Nick? First, they simply decide to leave him, but that doesn't work, because of the three of then, Nick is the only one with money. There is a botched murder attempt which Nick recovers from. Nick isn't the brightest bulb in the array since he never realizes that his wife and the drifter he hired just tried to kill him. Some parts of this first attempt are masterfully done, and some aren't. Frank and Cora's sexual tension builds, along with the fear that they'll be found out for what they tried to do.
They succeed in killing Nick on their second attempt, but are soon caught. These aren't master criminals, you see. Cora and Nick are played against each other by the Prosecutor, and we soon see them for their true selves, as they turn on one another. Hume Cronyn plays Cora's attorney here in a role evocative of Billy Flynn in Chicago some 55 years later. This defense attorney has it all under control. He manages to razzle-dazzle the prosecution - and the court, and get both Frank and Cora off! Cronyn is so good here he nearly steals the movie!
It's not necessary to say more about the story. We know in a film noir universe that evil schemes never succeed. Frank and Cora will never get away with Nick's murder. Even though they are free, things soon begin to unravel for them. Their relationship is undermined by all the deceit and legal manuevering of the prosecuting attorney and Cora's lawyer. Neither trusts the other. Things go from bad to worse, and ultimately both Frank and Cora pay for killing Nick.
This movie is not perfect. There are some plot points that do not hold: Nick's stupidity, the sudden discovery of the life insurance policy, a stupid housecat, and others. It is tedious in spots, especially the middle.
The botched first murder attempt is not essential, the legal wrangling takes too long, and the tension that builds between Frank and Cora after they are free takes too long to build. Frank has a dalliance with a waitress that either should have been cut or expanded. But, for all its faults it is quintessential film noir. Frank and Cora for all their good looks are rotten at their core, and that's why we love them. We love the movie because in the end they get what they deserve: justice triumphs over hormones and greed. 9 out of 10.
A footnote: the newly released DVD has a bonus feature on the life of John Garfield. He died in 1952 at the age of 39, a victim of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Garfield was a prominent target, whom the committee sought to discredit and destroy, in an attempt to gain credibility with the American people. How very sad that so many lives could be shattered with such implacable malice emanating from Congress itself. Let us pray it never happens again.