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ARCHIVES - WORLD CINEMA

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The Postman Always Rings Twice: Postman delivers murder

MURDER WAS on Cain's mind when he wrote "The Postman Always Rings Twice". It caused a sensation when it was published in the early 1930s. James M. Cain pushed a forbidden romance - with all the sizzling elements that go with it, like steamy sex and infidelity and death - between the covers of his book.

Murder was also on Lana Turner's mind when she screenplayed Cora Smith. MGM, which bought the film rights from Cain, could not have found a better woman. The studio was looking for a new Harlow. Although Lara was many light years from Harlow, the younger actress managed to fit into the slot, not quite by her burning carnality as by her stormy private life, which curiously mirrored some aspects of her part in "The Postman".

Where director Tay Garnett, despite his drinking bouts that made him "a roaring, mean, furniture-smashing drunk", succeeded in drawing seething passion from Lara. It was difficult, because American censorship in 1946, the year the movie was released, was frightfully rigid about sex. In fact, it took more than a decade for MGM to prepare a script that would be acceptable to the then Hollywood code.

And "The Postman Always Rings Twice" turned out to be a fascinating piece of celluloid. Lara and John Garfield (who got the role, because he was released with a bad heart from the military in the nick of time ) were "electric". The idea of dressing up Lara all in white - except for two scenes where she is in black - paid: she looked angelic and innocent, but nobody could miss the fact that it emphasised a certain sordidness, a certain haughtiness that lay behind the veneer of such beauty and supposed purity.

Which the story underlines with tremendous clarity. Lara is married to a middle-aged cafe owner, but the security of his money is not enough to give her life that pep she is looking for. When handsome Garfield arrives to work at the cafe, the two become lovers and begin to scheme of a way to murder the husband. They get him out of their way all right, but Lara, who wants "kisses that come from life, not death", is unhappy, even though she had put the ghastly idea into Garfield's head.

Apparently a black tale, "The Postman Always Rings Twice", has a moral: evil seldom goes unpunished, and as Garfield narrates his life's misadventure from the death cell, this message rings loud and clear.

The picture made a lot of money, and MGM even thought of a remake in 1972. It came about after eight years, but the Jack Nicholson- Jessica Lange work was a disaster. Maybe it was more candid than suggestive, a high point of the 1946 version. What is more, Lara's performance was hailed by Cain, who presented her with a leather-bound first edition of his novel. "You were even finer than I expected", he told her. Miss Turner could not have liked that better.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated August 5 2000)

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