Whenever I hear Lana Del Ray, I always think of the Postman Always Rings Twice, the 1946 Film Noir based on the sado-masochistic novel James M Cain.
It must be in the name – sounding like a hybrid of Lana Turner and Southern California’s Marina Del Ray, which would make a great name for a femme fatale in itself. She sings of no good men, driving along coastal highways, a white bikini – and all these elements are in this noir.
Lana Turner plays Cora, the bored and restless wife of a roadside cafe owner, and John Garfield is Frank, the drifter who will do anything for her, including murdering her husband.
MGM didn’t normally make thrillers, but the success of Paramount’s Double Indemnity, also based on a James M Cain novel, inspired the studio to make a film of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Because of the depiction of an erotic, seedy love affair, the censor’s office, run by Joseph Breen, had been dead against it. MGM’s Louis B Meyer had also considered it ‘evil’.
Director Tay Garnett toned down the more shocking aspects of the novel, such as the sado-masochism of Cora and Frank’s relationship.
The blazing Southern California sunshine takes away the dark corners normally associated with Film Noir, but the waves crashing on the rocky beach were a blatant metaphor for sex.
After seeing a sign outside the Twin Oaks diner on the Pacific Highway for ‘man wanted,’ Frank gets a job as cook and handy man, and begins an affair with Cora, cold wife of the owner, Nick.
Turner in her real life was infamous for a tempestuous (and at one time murderous) love life, and a fondness for white mink and diamonds, which off-set her blonde hair. She was discovered as a teenager in a Hollywood dime store sipping Coca-Cola, and got her name The Sweater Girl from the tight knits she wore in her film debut.
MGM’s hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff said of the actress: “I liked Lana very much. She was a very beautiful girl. She had a kind of mystique about her. She looked so sad. She invented the pearls and sweater look. That is still with us today.”
Tay Garnett, who claimed Turner was “as soft as a bunny rabbit,” dressed her completely in white, to take the edge off her ‘sinful’ desires. White makes her icy, angelic, particularly with the bleached blonde halo of hair.
Pauline Kael, film critic of the New Yorker, noted that in A Postman Always Rings Twice, she was dressed “in impeccable white, as if to conceal her sweaty, murderous impulses”.
Garnett said: “There was a problem getting a story with that much sex past the sensors. We figured that dressing Lana in white somehow made everything she did less sensuous. It was also attractive as hell.”
Every item is white, from her white bathing suit to the pristine white waitress uniform, worn when they plot out the murder of her husband. There is a pretty white dress (above) with a scoop neckline, draw string around the neck and pocket on the skirt. It is the dress of a woman who works for her keep.
Lana Turner also makes one of the greatest entrances in film. She drops a lipstick and it rolls across the floor to the feet of Frank, who is sitting at the restaurant counter. The camera focuses on the lipstick as it rolls and then moves across to peep-toe heels, her bare legs, and then we see Cora in full, in little shorts, a shirt tied at the waist and a turban wrapped round her head.
He burns the hamburger that is sizzling on the grill – an obvious comparison to Cora as a piece of meat. Or is it Frank who is the piece of meat? When he grabs hold of her and kisses her for the first time, she makes no reaction except to coolly reapply lipstick.
“I began to feel like a cheap nobody making a play for a girl that had no use for me. Oh, I disturbed her. I knew she hated me for that worst of all,” he says in one of the voice-overs.
Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, May 3 1946, wrote: “Mr. Garfield reflects to the life the crude and confused young hobo who stumbles aimlessly into a fatal trap. And Miss Turner is remarkably effective as the cheap and uncertain blonde who has a pathetic ambition to “be somebody” and a pitiful notion that she can realize it through crime.”
Cora wears a beret, blouse and pencil skirt when they make their half-hearted attempt at running away together.
And of course there is the 1940s bikini, with a white coat and shoulder pads slung over the top, as they go for an evening swim at one of the rocky, cliff-side beaches.