The Postman Always Rings Twice ★★★★★

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 11: Film Noir

I've talked about this already, but I don't think it can be stressed enough, how much the rise of film noir was dependent on a curious thing that was happening in the literary world in those same years. Basically, after literally decades of there being a wide gulf in quality between high-art "literary" authors (think Bronte, Dickens, Henry James, etc) and the low-art crap that was being churned out quickly for cheap entertainment (penny dreadfuls, children's literature, grimy erotica), in the years after World War One this gulf narrowed to the point of being nearly invisible, with award-winning literary authors like Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis whose books often read like dime-store pulps, and pulp authors such as James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler whose lurid crime novels often read like fine-art. This was such a big reason why film noirs were so striking in those years, because the source material they were working from was so great to begin with; for as we've seen already in the FSDO challenge, Hollywood was certainly cranking out crime dramas before the rise of film noir, but when they were Hollywood-dervied gangster films instead of adaptations of hardboiled detective novels, they most often barely rose above serviceable in quality, more famous for their subversive attitudes and graphic violence than for any of the lasting stylistic and philosophical issues that have allowed noirs to remain still so relevant and watchable 70-odd years later.

Take today's movie, for example, 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice, which is considered one of the most famous noirs that industry ever put out; but after watching it, it's hard to deny that its main claim to sustainability is the exquisite James M. Cain novel it's based on. And that's because Cain does something really creepy and brilliant here, focusing not on the spouse murder itself like so many other crime novels do (that's over and done with before even the halfway point), but rather examining what such a crime would do to the people who perpetrated it and who are left behind to deal with the aftermath, not just the growing paranoia behind knowing that they will now forever be one step ahead of the law from now until death, but also realizing that their now current romantic partner has no problems with bumping romantic partners off if they grow tired of them.

They're issues that are rarely dealt with in genre stories, of what happens to the world of incidental criminals once their incidental crime of passion is actually over with; and when combined with extraordinary performances from people like the proto-Method actor John Garfield (who quite literally died from a heart attack at 39 from the stress of being accused of Communism by the McCarthy witch hunts), Hume Cronyn (who you might remember as "that one old dude you didn't immediately recognize" in Cocoon), and Lana Turner (who for the rest of her life considered this the best role of her career), as well as the sometimes dramatic, Expressionist-influenced cinematography that director Tay Garnett (as well as every other noir director in these years) liberally stole from Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, it's easy to see why the film has had such lasting power when so many other crime dramas both before and after have come and gone in the blink of an eye.

Coming tomorrow, Film Noir Week continues with my look at 1948's Oscar-winning Key Largo, famous not just for its astounding cast (including married couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore and more), but for establishing a noir tradition for the first time in the sunny state of Florida, a reputation for sleaze that the state has never been able to get rid of since.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews