(director: Tay Garnett; screenwriters: from a novel by James M. Cain/Harry Ruskin/Niven Busch; cinematographer: Sidney Wagner; editor: George White; cast: Lana Turner (Cora Smith), John Garfield (Frank Chambers), Cecil Kellaway (Nick Smith), Hume Cronyn (Arthur Keats), Leon Ames (DA Kyle Sackett), Cameron Grant (Willie), Alan Reed (Ezra Liam Kennedy), Audrey Totter (Madge Gorland); Runtime: 113; MGM; 1946)

“The magic in the film is in the chemical reaction between Garfield and Lana.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a drifter from San Francisco with itchy feet, who is given a lift by the local DA Kyle Sackett (Ames). He comes to a small California town named Twin Oaks and spots a Man Wanted sign by a gas-station/diner, which is run by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway). The owner is very eager to have him work there but Frank is not impressed with the place, that is, until he gets a load of his much younger wife, Cora Smith (Lana Turner). She is a knock-out who appears in tight shorts and upon seeing him, rolls her lipstick on the floor toward him. This sets the sexual tone of the film, as Frank accepts the job and becomes the grill and handyman.

The sexual tension between the two builds as they can’t avoid the attraction they have for each other, while Nick seems to be blind to what is going on; he treats her as if she was his possession and doesn’t really listen to what she is saying. Nick is not the sort of guy that a hot girl like Cora marries, unless she is running away from something. What she wanted was the respect that comes from a stable marriage.

Soon, Cora confesses to Frank that she doesn’t love her husband. The two make one attempt to run away together by hitching, but Cora decides she doesn’t want to start life again with nothing and returns to the diner. By this time, Frank can’t get Cora out of his head.

Cora feels trapped; she can’t stand being with her husband anymore so she comes up with a plan to electrocute him in the bathtub, making it look like an accident. But the two lovers bungle the murder, and Nick is only severely injured. The two have to contend with a suspicious DA who questions them, but doesn’t have any evidence to charge them.

When Nick is in the hospital, the two have the best week of their lives they ever had. But when Nick comes home from the hospital, Frank can’t stand it and heads for Los Angeles.

But Frank can’t forget her and returns to the diner with Nick, who finds him at the city marketplace. Nick amazingly still doesn’t have a clue as to what’s going on behind his back. In any case, Nick is delighted that he found a buyer for the diner at a huge profit and tells Cora that he is taking her to Santa Barbara, where she can take care of his dying sister. For Cora this sounds like a death sentence and she tells Frank, that he’s the bright one, this time he should come up with a plan to kill Nick.

Frank decides to take advantage that Nick likes to get drunk as the three ride together to Santa Barbara, planning to use the excuse that he killed himself while driving under the influence. With Cora behind the wheel, they go over the side of the road as she jumps out of the car while Frank smashes Nick over the head with a bottle. But Frank gets stuck in the car and can’t jump, going down the hill with the car. Frank somehow recovers only to be confronted by the DA Sackett, who tells him that there was a $10,000 insurance policy on Nick. He then tricks the confused Frank into getting him to sign a statement against Cora, saying she killed her husband.

Cora’s attorney, Keats (Hume), manages to get her off, winning a $100 bet with the DA, by having her plead to a manslaughter charge and receiving only probation. But the fireworks between the lovers is only beginning, as both feel betrayed and unsure of what to do.

At first Cora keeps Frank at a distance, as she takes that insurance money to open the kind of classy diner she always wanted. When she goes back to Iowa for her mother’s funeral, the frustrated Frank picks up another waitress (Totter) and romances her for a week in Mexico. Cora angrily finds out about this on her return.

The only sensible thing the lovers could do at this point is separate from one another. The magic in the film is in the chemical reaction between Garfield and Lana, their performances are sizzling. The James Cain hard-boiled novel about lust, deceit, betrayal, and murder becomes a classical noir tale of a love that has to go beyond the bounds of reason, one that can’t be resolved in normal terms. The lovers can’t let go of what has always trapped them: the insecurity of Cora who wants something in life that can give her dignity, something that has always eluded her; and Frank, who is caught in his own seduction, too weak-minded to see how warped his judgment has become. The reason the film is so provocative, is that it hits below the belt where the lovers were most vulnerable. When they finally do realize that they are in love, it is too late for it to count anymore; they realize then that they can’t escape from their doomed fate.

John Garfield is the condemned man, trying to make sense of what happened, who narrates the story while awaiting execution. He has gone too far afield to evoke any sympathy for his plight. The most apparent thing that went wrong for them was that their sex was tainted with violence; their love was filled with mistrust.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)