Our first glimpse of Lana Turner’s character, Cora, is a slow pan of her legs, starting from the tips of her white peep-toe heels and moving up beyond her knees. She is revealed to be wearing shorts and a midriff top, showing an awful lot of flesh for a woman who works in her husband’s diner, although Cora doesn’t seem to work much. She toys with Frank, the drifter played by John Garfield, rolling her tube of lipstick across the floor to get his attention, giving him a good view of her scantily-clad body, front and back, opening her compact and taking her sweet time applying the lipstick. Frank knows exactly what he’s in for, and so do we. Cora’s husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) was cooking him a hamburger when he was momentarily called away. Frank is supposed to be keeping an eye on the grill but, unable to keep his eyes off Cora, his hamburger goes up in flames. Talk about foreshadowing!
James Cain summed up the story of Postman in one sentence: a couple of jerks discover that murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story, too, but then wake up to discover that once they’ve pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible secret. The attraction between Frank and Cora is primitive in its intensity. The first time they kiss, Frank bites Cora’s lip hard enough to draw blood, a scene that occurs nine pages into the book. “I sunk my teeth into her lip so deep, I could feel blood spurt into my mouth.” Needless to say, sadomasochism does not figure in Tay Gannett’s adaptation; however, the sexual charge between Frank and Cora is quite powerful. Frank is no chump—Garfield’s character can hold his own against Turner’s, unlike Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Double Indemnity—but once aroused, he cannot resist Cora and chooses to hang around at the diner, doing odd jobs for Nick, awaiting his chance to get her into bed.
Choose is the operative word here. The film emphasizes the couple’s willful slide into adultery and murder, and what’s brilliant about Garnett’s adaptation is how the director makes us complicit in their transgressions. That slow pan of Turner’s legs pulls us immediately into Frank’s point of view. We too are burning with desire, and getting the husband out of the way seems like the logical next step, once he and Cora become lovers. Only when we learn (along with Frank) that Cora will be the recipient of Nick’s life insurance policy do we (along with Frank) begin to have qualms. Maybe he was a chump, but it’s too late now. Both book and film conclude on the eve of Frank’s execution for Cora’s death, which was an accident, but whereas Cain’s Frank is aggrieved, regarding his wrongful conviction as further evidence that the world is against him, the movie’s Frank is reconciled to his fate. Violins play in the background as he confesses his sins to a priest. “Father, you were right. It all works out. I guess God knows more about these things than we do.”
MGM struggled for years to come up with a script that would pass muster with the Hays office, and most critics feel that the sizzle between Turner and Garfield is adequate compensation for the bowdlerization of Cain’s work. It’s interesting that both Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni directed versions of Postman. I’ll be reviewing those next.