The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)
On the basis of film noir, were I husband in the '40s, I'd never allow my wife to speak with another man. Not out of jealousy, mind you, merely self-preservation instinct. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film about comeuppances both undeserved and well justified. A wife plots against her kind, if too-often drunken, husband to run away with a drifter, who has no qualms turning on her when the police put the squeeze on him. Double-crosses and the long-reach of karma arrive through cynical, razor-sharp dialogue and the always scheming faces of John Garfield and Lana Turner (even the wise prosecutor played by Leon Ames has his manipulating plots). Not as atmospheric as my favorite noirs, the Postman Always Rings Twice is nevertheless a finely crafted vision of a world where love and hate can invert on a dime and justice always catches up with the criminal, even if it has to fabricate a new crime to do so. Grade: B+
The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)
Marred by a simplistically moralizing final act, The Lost Weekend is nevertheless one of Wilder's most aesthetically inventive films and, for a time at least, a remarkably nonjudgmental view of a taboo that had yet to be seriously explored in cinema. From a crucial opening shot of a whiskey bottle danging outside an apartment to theremin-scored nightmares that detach our poor alcoholic from any semblance of sanity, Wilder's camera is devilish in its visualization of the despair of the alcoholic. But it's Ray Milland's agonized performance that continues to impress most of all. Milland talks fast, fidgets incessantly and constantly darts his eyes back and forth, not only seeking out the next drink but in paralyzing fear of being found out. He's the addict trying to "maintain" when everyone around him knows of his addiction and even strangers could never mistake his stumbling gait for anything less than substance abuse.
Wilder's writing is ripped from the headlines but nevertheless informed by his singular gift as a screenwriter. A lengthy monologue near the start gets at the comforting and inspiring effects of alcohol on the alcoholic, but Wilder adds comedy to it by cutting away from Don to his impatient brother and girlfriend ranting about them before returning to show Don still boring the bartender to death with his spiel. There are also some disturbingly felt scenes of true human terror, such as Don pleading with a ringing telephone to stop, not only to ease his hangover but because he assumes the person on the other end is the devoted girlfriend he cannot face. Scenes like that bring the film to the edge of greatness, and it's a shame the climax drops a top-tier Wilder picture down a rung. And who would expected the weakest part of a Wilder film, any Wilder film, to be its conclusion? Grade: B
Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930)
Capra's first collaboration with Barbara Stanwyck makes a quick case for the fruitfulness of their relationship: she adds an edge his films lack without her, while he sentimentalizes her overpowering presence just enough to show how genuinely appealing Stanwyck is as a person, not merely a sexual virago. Capra's style is evident even in this early talkie, courtesy of Joseph Walker's backlighting of the ladies (finely honed in Stanwyck's poses for Ralph Graves' trust fund kid/aspiring painter) and tranquil nighttime shots that use diegetic sound to alternately romantic and suggestive effect. The two of them were also smart enough to ignore Harry Cohn's attempts to glamorize Stanwyck by instead making sure to capture the far more appealing realness of her look. This fine-tuning of Capra and Walker's long-running partnership is as rewarding as Stanwyck's performance, which, as Pauline Kael would later note of her effect on all melodrama, gave a naturalism to even the most saccharine treacle.
And God does this movie serve as much a demonstration of Capra's excesses as his skills. Capra came up with a first draft based on a Broadway play that screenwriter Jo Swerling found so awful he didn't even want to waste his time rewriting it, and even his best efforts fail to make the film feel like anything less than a pat emotional shortcut of a melodrama. But Capra also helped shape Stanwyck into the actress she became, catering to her first-take style even as he challenged and teased it to make sure that one take was as golden as it needed to be. And that care paid rich dividends: after misleading Stanwyck as to how Graves would play a confrontational scene, she had to play off a much tougher and angrier moment than she expected, and Stanwyck responds by tearfully holding two fingers up to Graves' mouth to silence him. The way she slowly drags her fingers down Graves' lips is more pained than any expression of hurt she just silenced with her morose gesture. A moment of visual poetry in a film that too often counteracts its unspoken grace with simple-minded plot progression and starched dialogue. Grade: C
P.S. Also enlivening this otherwise tedious narrative is Stanwyck's equally streetwise, slowly plumping roommate played by Marie Prevost. She gets the biggest laugh of the film out to dinner with a man who's gentlemanly compliments are belied by the look of concern on his face as she orders enough food to feed an entire speakeasy. She tops off the order with a cup of coffee, and the poor, dumb waiter has the thickness to asks "small or large?" Prevost picks herself up in almost aristocratic dignity and replies, "Do I look like a SMAHLLLL cup of coffee?" drawing out that "small" to hysterical effect.