Out of the Ashes
the postman always rings twice (1946)
directed by Tay Garnett
force of evil (1948)
directed by Abraham Polonsky
March 31, 2021
The Second World War altered the American landscape in more ways than one, not least of which was the Hollywood system and its relation to the movie-going public at large. A period of political, cultural, and economic bedlam, the years following the troops’ return home marked a drastic change in the film industry, never to recapture the Golden Age of classicism which reached its peak in 1946 – for better or for worse. Studios which had dominated the production, distribution, and exhibition of their product with monopolistic rule for over 20 years were suddenly pressured into adapting their business model to appease government antitrust laws, declining box-office numbers, and a new audience; an audience reawakened by the horrors of war. They called for a modern cinema, and movies, which have always reflected the spirit of their times, responded appropriately with film noir. Characterized by a brooding atmosphere felt in both the narrative and visually stylized look of the pictures, this emerging stage in film history explored heretofore restricted subject matter deemed too crass or morally degrading for ticket-buyers. The consensus seemed to be, If they can handle the tragedies of lost lives or the difficulties of repairing uprooted families, surely they can cope with a little on-screen violence. In fact, the exclusion of such daring material would be unnatural or at the very least insincere; in much the same way habituation develops from mere-exposure, the public had been irrevocably attuned to calamity. What this essay aims to underscore is how the tumultuous cocoon-phase of Hollywood between 1946 and 1950 spawned an exciting new breed of motion pictures that captured the nation’s current of unrest. Using two films of the era, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Force of Evil (1948) as examples, we will examine how the previously upheld standards of classical filmmaking including modes of production, content, and mass reception were tossed into upheaval, confirming cinema’s symbiotic relationship with contemporary history.
Prior to World War II, Hollywood films were under strict regulation when it came to what they could and could not display. The Production Code (or Hays Code, as it was commonly referred to, after its first chairman Will H. Hays) laid out in great detail any and all taboo subject matter, forcing directors to either creatively film their way around sensitive issues like sex, immorality, or violence, or simply not make the picture. This was to decrease risk of offense and ensure maximum attendance, as the goal of the studios has always been to cash in the biggest possible cheque. It is no wonder, then, that in 1934, when a synopsis of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice was submitted to the Production Code Administration for authorization, the story was deemed unsuitable for an adaptation. A tale about a wife who seduces a drifter into an adulterous affair only to use their “love” as a plot to kill her husband and take over his business could never gel with the board of censorship, no matter how hard they tried to clean it up. Regardless of the PCA’s rejection, MGM bought the rights to the film 12 years prior to its eventual release. It was only after another of Cain’s script-to-screen adaptations, Double Indemnity (1944), proved highly lucrative, not to mention the affect caused by the war to the industry which allowed such a movie to be released in the first place, that Postman was granted the go-ahead. The extended, uncertain preproduction is a testament to the unsettled state of Hollywood in the years leading up to the board’s reevaluation of its acceptability. A conflict between “divergent censorial bodies – that is, the conservative morality of the PCA versus the liberal ‘New Deal’ political propaganda agenda of the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures” (Biesen 44) during wartime created a demand for some new stasis. Audiences were already adjusting to the overtly patriotic violence of propaganda films, opening doors previously barred, potentially allowing non-war films to explore more mature matters. Instead of filmmakers adhering to the Code, it was the Code’s turn to adapt to unprecedented times. Even after such an arduous journey to production, Postman does not stray too far from the moral obligations of classical Hollywood. In the words of New York Times critic Bosley Crowther:
The long hesitation of the 'Hays office' to permit a motion picture to be made from James M. Cain's plain-spoken novel ... is proved an unnecessary caution by the film which came to the Capitol yesterday ... Actually, there is nothing so sensational about the story 'The Postman' tells. It is strictly a crime-and-punishment saga, and it has been told on the screen before.
CROWTHER, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 1946
While the theme of murder-for-profit is slightly risqué, as well as visual accentuations of Lana Turner’s sensuality which play up the characters’ immediate sexual tension, the criminals are ultimately paid their due by fate; the title itself refers to the postman’s habit of ringing twice to signal the arrival of mail, just as justice, if not served the first time in a court of law, will find a roundabout way to fulfill its duty.
Pairing Postman and Force of Evil we begin to see similarities in the presentations of both interior and exterior locations and how they differ from the longstanding tenets of classical form. Whereas earlier Hollywood films were shot almost entirely on studio lots, imbuing the scenery with immaculately-lit artificiality, the post-war cinematic era leaned into a grittier, heavily shadowed mise-en-scène. The use of real sites made the social problems tackled by film noir tangible; even the deliberate casting of a man like John Garfield who stars in both films and grew up poor in the slums of New York adds to the authenticity of his performance. Had Force of Evil not featured daunting imagery of a barren Wall Street and the rocky hellscape of the waterfront, the picture would lose a significant part of its appeal. Furthermore, much of Postman’s action was shot out-of-doors, and any scenes in the jail, courthouse, or lunch-stand were given “all the tough-grained texture of actuality” (Crowther). It is also interesting how the two films compare in terms of budget; Postman, released in what was till then the most financially successful year in Hollywood’s history, was very much a studio project, fully backed by big-time executives in the tradition of the producer-unit system. However, a great deal can change in two years. As Jon Lewis writes in his essay on the Hollywood blacklist, three major events occurred in near-simultaneity following the Second World War: “the shift in population out of the big cities (prompting a decrease in revenues at the studios’ first-run deluxe theaters), the Justice Department’s rekindled interest in breaking up the studio trusts, and the development of a competitive audiovisual pop culture on television” all served to threaten the “stability and profitability of theatrical motion picture exhibition” (4). The fragile state of the industry loosened the grip of the larger studios, allowing “a new generation of socially minded filmmakers” (Neve 393) like Abraham Polonsky to gain a foothold in the business. These were the filmmakers who had gone through the Depression and the New Deal, granting them a unique viewpoint when it came to telling stories. Money was certainly low, and directors often turned to independent producers for funding (Force of Evil was produced by Enterprise Studios, one of the executives being Garfield himself), but a new degree of authorial control had been unshackled, as evidenced by the visual novelty of the films.
More important than the decision to bring reality to the screen via genuine location filming is how the filmic world reflects and deepens the characters’ inner struggles. A staple in film noir is the presence of a moral battle, usually held between the upright figure of the law and the hard-pressed doer of evil, although the criminals often wrestle with their own actions as it pertains to their principles. Look to the beach scene prior to Cora’s death in Postman; the same wide, overcast expanse where her and Frank shared many a romantic night out has become the site of a trial to test their love. Cora leads Frank to the far reaches of the ocean until she is unable to swim any further, leaving him the choice to either let her drown or half-carry her back to shore. Frank saves her, solidifying their devotion to one another, only for Cora to die on the ride home in a totally out-of-left-field car accident. A similar conflict is felt in Force of Evil as Joe wanders the skyscraper-lined streets of Manhattan, dwarfed by the city, weighing his allegiance to the mob with the love he holds for his innocent brother, Leo. Crowther’s view that the artistry of the writers and actors is what elevates an otherwise melodramatic tale into “a sincere comprehension of an American tragedy” holds true on both accounts. Films following the war couldn’t help but be influenced by the paranoia felt all over the nation. The industry had learned how great a role cinema played in issues beyond sheer entertainment; a certain responsibility had been assigned by the war and with tensions rising between Russia and America, politics bled into the frame (Neve 391). Polonsky’s picture is drenched in this claustrophobia, and unlike the cliché Hollywood ending of peace on earth and good will towards men, Force of Evil concludes quite abruptly, leaving the viewer with a sense of uneasy melancholy. In fact, we do not witness either of Garfield’s characters’ demise, though we are certain of their fate. Postman fades off of Frank’s sweaty look of delirious glee, comforted by the fact that he will be executed not for Cora’s death but for the murder of her husband, an emotion echoed in the isolated surrender of Joe in Force of Evil who settles on turning himself in, burdened by the guilt of the loss of his brother.
Another commonality of film noir is the “femme fatale”, a figure fully embodied by Lana Turner’s character in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Although attempts were made to downplay her steamy presence on the silver screen such as dressing her all in white as opposed to the seductive black generally associated with the lady temptress, Turner’s aura (no doubt dialed up by the camera’s gaze) is nonetheless a symbol of feminine power. This became a trend in the genre in large part due to women’s conflicting roles at the time. In his chapter on Leave Her to Heaven (1945), another identifiable deviation from the Production Code standards of classicism, Michael Renov describes the “double bind” felt by women across the country while their sons or husbands were fighting overseas. The tug-of-war played by the ad agencies and film propaganda during and immediately following World War II pulled the “wife” side towards manual labour, essentially stating, “‘If you women don’t take jobs in the factories, schools, hospitals and offices across America … we will lose the war’” (Renov 229); meanwhile, the “mother” is told to “‘bear children, especially sons, dutifully and in large number, [or else] the American way of life for which so many suffered and died will be seriously threatened’” (Renov 231). The average female audience member was torn between two massively crucial duties; she was relied upon by her country to satisfy demanding yet opposing positions, and after all this what was the reward for her hard work and allegiance? She was fired from her job to make room for the incoming soldiers. Confusion, relief, and resentment boiled beneath every domestic home; it is understandable, then, once this image of the independent woman, her sexuality a rival to the men in her life, appears on the scene, the women in the audience are not appalled by her devious schemes, rather they find themselves identifying with her. Cora’s actions are not driven by a desire for romantic freedom or even money per se, but it is her “longing for financial independence by way of sexual initiative that makes her so threatening to traditional phallocentric authority” (Boozer 21). Once again, sentiments felt by the real world have a way of projecting themselves onto the screen – or maybe it’s the other way around.
The repercussions to the Red Scare political climate were felt as much inside the film industry as they were outside. Hollywood was changing and it knew it. Investigations were being led by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to root out any members of the film community who, no matter how fleetingly, were at one point associated with the Communist party. Films were prohibited from promoting any socialist ideologies, although what makes film noir stand out in cinematic history is its ability to mask touchy views on society or politics with the hardboiled style of crime fiction, dodging accusations of potential treason. Still, no one was safe. Polonsky and Garfield were both blacklisted; Polonsky, who was a dedicated Marxist, pleaded the fifth and was subsequently forced into anonymity. Garfield eventually died of a heart attack not too long after the release of Force of Evil due to governmental pressure, though he was never a Communist (Neve 395). The studios, on the other hand, sniffed out the potential for profit amidst all the trials and finger-pointing. “What the studios discovered,” writes Lewis, “was that self-regulation in compliance with HUAC and grassroots pressure to make less political, less meaningful films enabled them to better control the industry workforce and to exploit the increasingly international postwar theatrical marketplace” (6). The admittedly tough yet fertile period of film noir, where opportunities to explore previously restricted issues of social relevance had finally caved in, gave way to an “‘optimistic portrayal of the American way of life’” (Neve 393) in order to capitalize on the foreign demographic. One need look no further than the box office results of Force of Evil to see how quickly the genre declined; the film tanked amidst mostly positive reviews. Crowther put it well when he said, “[I]t reeks of greed and corruption and it ends in death and despair. But for all its unpleasant nature, it must be said that this film is a dynamic crime-and-punishment drama, brilliantly and broadly realized.” While it is true that one of the reasons why these gris melodramas tapered off into the 50s was because those associated with making them had been, for the most part, banished or tainted in the eyes of the industry, America as a whole was emerging from its post-war fugal state into a period of suburban prosperity. A new idealized portrait of the masses had taken over, and, as it’s always done, Hollywood packed its bags and followed suit.
As evidenced by The Postman Always Rings Twice and Force of Evil, the Second World War played a major role in altering the classical standards of Hollywood’s production, content, and relation to sociopolitical issues. The widespread precariousness that overshadowed the country manifested itself not only in the scripts and style of film noir, but how these movies were made and, even more importantly, how they were perceived. Lana Turner’s perverse sporting of a white bikini (a colour linked to purity) and John Garfield’s stone-carved face bottling in that expression of frayed anxiety deep in his black eyes are portals into that era. They speak to yesterday’s leftover trauma and today’s uncertainty of what tomorrow holds. Looking back, we are privileged to see how each piece fits into the bigger picture, how certain values are abandoned for new ones and new ones carry on until they become outdated in their own right. Looking forward, however, we are as oblivious to what will linger or fade as the industry executives were in 1945. What we can hope for is a period of film history, no matter how brief, as rich and evocative as film noir.
Biesen, Sheri Chinen. “Raising Cain with the Censors, Again: ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (1946).” Literature/Film Quarterly 28, no. 1 (2000): 41-48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43796920.
Boozer, Jack. “The Lethal Femme Fatale In The Noir Tradition.” Journal of Film and Video 51, no. 3/4 (1999): 20-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688218.
Crowther, Bosley. “At Loew’s State.” The New York Times (December 27, 1948): 14. https://www.nytimes.com/1948/12/27/archives/at-loews-state.html.
Crowther, Bosley. “THE SCREEN; ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ With Lana Turner in a Star Role, Makes Its Appearance of the Capitol.” The New York Times (May 3, 1946): 2. https://www.nytimes.com/1946/05/03/archives/the-screen-the-postman- always-rings-twice-with-lana-turner-in-a.html.
Lewis, Jon. “‘We Do Not Ask You to Condone This’: How the Blacklist Saved Hollywood.” Cinema Journal 39, no. 2 (2000): 3-30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225550.
Neve, Brian. “Hollywood and Politics in the 1940s and 1950s.” In The Classical Hollywood Reader, edited by Steve Neale, 389-398. London: Routledge, 2012.
Renov, Michael. “‘Leave Her to Heaven’: The Double Bind of the Post-War Woman.” In Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film & Television Melodrama, edited by Marcia Lindy, 227-236. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.