5 Favorite Films of the 1950s: The B Sides

Just a day ago a whole slew of individuals shared their 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s for National Classic Movie Day. Thank you again to The Film & TV Cafe for spearheading that quality endeavor!

In retrospect, I realized all my choices were really “A Pictures,” which were difficult and yet at the same time fairly easy to choose. They were all no-brainer picks because I love them a great deal. Many others also chose the likes of Singin’ in The Rain, Roman Holiday, and Rear Window (for good reason, I might add).

However, the decisions that left me the most intrigued were, of course, the dark horses and the underappreciated gems. Certainly, you have to start somewhere when it comes to embarking on the classic movie journey, but half of the fun is unearthing treasures along the way. For instance, I was left charmed by the following picks, all wonderful films in their own right, that I would have never thought to choose:

People Will Talk, The Narrow Margin, The Earrings of Madame De…, It’s Always Fair WeatherThe Burmese Harp, and Night of the Demon, just to name a handful.

All of this to say, I was inspired by these folks to take on “Round 2” for my own edification. I’m going to leave my highly subjective list of “A Sides” behind for what I’ll term the “B Sides.” The only rule I’m going to place on myself is that this fresh set of picks must be what I deem to be “underrated movies.” Again, it’s a very subjective term, I know.

Regardless, here they are with only minor deliberation!

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Stars in My Crown (1950)

Jacques Tourneur is an unsung auteur and if all he had on his resume were Cat People (1942) and Out of The Past (1947), his would be quite the legacy. However, throughout the ’50s, he helmed a bevy of fabulous westerns and adventure pictures. I almost chose Wichita (1955), also starring Joel McCrea. In the end, this moving portrait of a frontier minister won out because it cultivates such a fine picture of how one is supposed to live in the midst of a bustling community of disparate individuals. This involves conflict, tension, tragedy, and ultimately, a great deal of human kindness.

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The Breaking Point (1950)

Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not with Bogey and Bacall is probably more well-known but this version has merits of its own. Namely, a typically tenacious and compelling John Garfield playing a returning G.I. and family man trying to make a living in an unfeeling world. His wife portrayed by Phyllis Thaxter deserves a nod as well for her thoroughly honest effort. The movie gets bonus points for shooting in and around my old summer stomping grounds on Balboa Island.

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Bigger Than Life (1956)

It does feel a bit like Nicholas Ray was the king of the 1950s. Rebel Without a Cause is the landmark thanks, in part, to James Dean. However, his best picture, on any given day, could be Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford, On Dangerous Ground with Robert Ryan, or The Lusty Men with Robert Mitchum. Today I choose Bigger Than Life because James Mason gives, arguably, the performance of his career as a man turned maniacal by the effects of his new miracle drug, cortisone. It employs the same gorgeous Technicolor tones and Cinemascope Ray would become renowned for while also developing a truly terrifying portrait of 1950s suburbia.

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Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

I skipped James Dean’s most famous film, but never fear because in his place is a film featuring an actor who channeled the American icon’s angsty cool. In Andrzej Wajda’s Polish drama, set at the end of WWII, Zbigniew Cybulski embodies much of the same electric energy. His defining performance is central to a gripping tale about a country absolutely decimated by war, between German occupation and the ensuing columns of Russian soldiers arriving on their doorstep.

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Good Morning (1959)

This might be my personal favorite of the Yasujiro Ozu’s films for its pure levity. The images are meticulously staged as per usual with glorious coloring. Every frame could easily be a painting. However, against this backdrop is a domestic story about two brothers who hope to wage a pouting war against their parents who won’t cave and buy them a TV like they want. The conceit is simple but the results are absolutely delightful.

Well, that just about wraps up my 5 supplemental picks…

Except I would be remiss if I didn’t share at least a handful of other outliers. Let me know what you think of the films I chose!

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)

Four Daughters (1938)

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The entire packaging of this Warner Bros. film includes director Michael Curtiz, screenwriter Julius Epstein, composer Max Steiner, and Claude Rains all who (not unsurprisingly) would have their hand in that revered classic Casablanca (1942).

Here the Lane Sisters are joined in their quartet by Gale Page with Claude Rains playing the musical patriarch of his family who has trained his daughters up to be an orchestra right in his living room. He’s a belligerent but good-willed father with all his show of bluster merely a facade to hide a heart of pure gold. The role slightly subverts many of Rains’ typically even-keeled gentlemen.

Most of these opening sequences draw up just how quaint and delightful they all are together and what a perfect little life they share as the men begin to show up in their lives to call on them. Isn’t love grand? That’s what we might be prompted to surmise is the film’s main theme.

Four Daughters teeters perilously on the edge of being insufferably schmaltzy to its core and yet it seems that the arrival of John Garfield and the insertion of his character into this idyllic world of giggling girls and small-town romance is just enough to save this story and make into something worth remembering.

Mickey Boyd (Garfield) walks into their home as an acerbic outsider who thrums his nose at the picture-perfect American family in their quintessential American home but he also has a gift for the piano and as musicians themselves, that’s an instant point of connection. Furthermore, he’s come into town as a favor to his old colleague Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) who happens to be a close family friend and maybe one of the nicest guys you’ve ever met, either onscreen or off.

Still, Mickey is a tough one to crack but that doesn’t keep the maternal Aunt Etta (May Robson) or vivacious young Ann (Priscilla Lane) from trying their best to figure him out. In fact, Mickey becomes a bit of a pet project for Ann as she looks to slowly transform him into an honest to goodness genial human being. She does a fairly good job at it too as he is brought into the fold of the family for every subsequent round of holiday festivities.

The second act proves to be the most potent and whether or not the turn of events are truly probable does not detract from how affecting these sequences turn out to be. And ironically, at the center of it all are Mickey and Ann. The man who has always been the outsider looking in and the youngest sister full of playful precociousness. He is the one who helps her see things as they actually are and she, in turn, continually spruces up his life and to use an inane phrase, she “turns his frown upside down.”

But I think that’s the key to the final act of Four Daughters. It’s dramatic but it loses that almost sickening layer of sugarcoating and shocks everyone within the frame of the film back to the reality of the world with one tragic event or two events depending on what you deem the tragedy to be. This doesn’t simply feel like a mere play for our emotions — though it might be partially this — but it’s really a bit of a representation of what life actually throws our way.

That’s why Mickey is by far the most important character in this picture and he’s so necessary for it to be anything more than typical Hollywood fare because in some sense John Garfield makes that man into a real person. He’s not necessarily a bad fellow. In fact, we kind of like him because he seems a bit sardonic, frank, and he’s not going out trying to be something that he’s not.

True, the Hollywood happy ending is tacked on as we come to expect but perhaps in the closing moments, as the sisters look through the drawing room window and Ann is back to her gate-swinging ways with her beau as before, we can gain some satisfaction in the moment. Not simply because all is right in this little universe but the family went through trials and now are better for it — more attuned to the world. They are no longer simply four daughters or soon to be four wives. They are four women.

The film was dressed up in Technicolor in Young at Heart (1954) with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra and Sinatra elevated that film much as Garfield does here. His tune “All the Way” while having no bearing on the plot is nevertheless a memorable number. I have nothing against Mr. Lemp’s taste in music nor his disdain for the contemporary bilge of his day but I rather like the crooners myself.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Body and Soul (1947)

body_and_soul_1947_movie_posterJohn Garfield was never the most dashing of leading men but nevertheless, he was always thoroughly compelling as ambitious working class stiffs during the 1940s. He had a straightforward tenacity about him like he had to fight his way to the top. At the same time likable and destined for trouble right out of the gates. You can cheer for him and still rue the decisions that he makes. That’s what makes his foray as boxing champ Charlie Davis all the more believable. His aspirations are of a very real nature and they give his character a genuine makeup.

Abraham Polonsky’s (Force of Evil) script for director Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul drops us in the middle of the life of Charlie Davis (Garfield). He’s the big “Champ” of the local boxing world with a fresh bout coming up soon but he doesn’t seem all that happy. He’s restless in sleep, haunted by specters, and everyone from his mother to his girl seems to be distant. We don’t know what it all means and yet in the ensuing unfoldings of the plot we begin to understand the true gravity of the situation.

He comes from a humble background on the seedy side of town where his parents (Anne Revere and Art Smith) run a humble candy shop that barely allows them to get by. He’s handy in the ring and wins an amateur prize. Part of his winnings includes a dance with a pretty gal named Peg (Lilli Palmer). It’s just part of her job but being persistent he looks to get to know her and call on her again. She allows it.

Mrs. Davis wants her son to go to night school, leave boxing behind, and make an honest living. Pool halls and speakeasies are not a place to make a life, much less a boxing ring. And Charlie tries to make an honest go of it for a time, but he’s going nowhere fast.

With the backing of his best bud Shorty, Charlie gets in with a small-time promoter (William Conrad) who still is big potatoes compared to what they’re used to. Soon it’s more wins, larger pots, and then Charlie hits the big leagues when a ruthless promoter named Roberts (Lloyd Gough) comes in his corner. It means heavy payoffs on all accounts. Charlie can put Peg up in a nice place and take better care of his mother. They can sell the family candy store. Even Shorty gets a bigger cut.

But Charlie has finally lost sight of his priorities. When the film establishes itself back in the present, we soon realize that the big time boxer has fallen away, compromising everything that gave him integrity. And as a result, all those close to him resolve to let him find his own path. It’s likely to lose him money or worse yet get him killed but Charlie’s dilemma is far greater than that. This is a fight for his very soul as he struggles to hold onto his morals, grappling with his conscious.

Lilli Palmer is a breath of fresh air as the love interest who is intelligent and refined with a penchant for art and poetry. Her German roots give her a rather unplaceable accent and she’s equal parts beauty and charm. She’s a cut above Charlie but the very fact that he goes for her suggests something about his sensibilities. There’s also a highly sympathetic African American character for that day and age in Charlie’s fellow boxer Ben portrayed with extraordinary grace by Canada Lee.

And you only have to go down the line to notice many interesting performances. The opportunistic Alice (Hazel Brooks) is beguiling as a perfect counter to Peg. Her accomplice and equally sleazy partner Quinn (William Conrad) proves a meaty role for the actor who served as a delightful heavy in many films noir. His visage, build, and voice gives him a leg up on a great deal of the competition. Anne Revere plays the disapproving yet concerned mother with relative ease and Shorty (Joseph Pevney) is surprisingly adequate as Charlie’s best pal, a man who first sees only dollar bills flashed in front of him, yet still has enough gumption to know when to back out.

The Set-Up filmed a couple years later was a fine boxing film along similar lines. But with more to work with and a robust cast, Body and Soul is a fuller study not simply with gritty boxing scenes but also a gripping character analysis indicative of the human condition. It’s precisely the multifaceted drama that its title suggests.  Cinematographer James Wong Howe’s sequences in the boxing ring are especially dynamic supposedly created by racing around the ring on roller skates. The film is also covered by the foreboding clouds of the blacklist that claimed the careers of many of those involved including John Garfield, Anne Revere, Canada Lee, Art Smith, and numerous others. But despite the unforgivable blot of the blacklist, Body and Soul still stands as a marvelous example of the potent capabilities of film noir. That remains untarnished.

4/5 Stars

Review: Rocky (1976)

rocky2The original installment of the popular franchise, Rocky was the pinnacle, and despite innumerable remakes, it still has never been eclipsed.  World Champion heavyweight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) even outlines why Rocky is, in fact, so popular. There’s nothing more American than an underdog story. A bum, an Italian Stallion, duking it out with the big boys and getting a shot to prove himself. From Creed’s point of view it’s all part of the act, a fine publicity stunt to bring in the public, but the film Rocky works on a similar principle. Most people relate to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), and maybe at the very least, they can find it within themselves to root for his character even if he’s different then them. The beauty of this film is that Stallone and his creation were unknowns. They were nobodies. By the time all the sequels came out he certainly had garnered a following, but some of the intrigue of this whole narrative was lost in the process. He no longer felt like a long shot.

Furthermore, this film could have easily been a run-of-the-mill boxing movie. We’ve seen acclaimed performances in them before from people like Brando or even Kirk Douglas and John Garfield. But the character of Rocky makes all the difference, allowing the old standard to work once more. He’s a bum like most of the film boxers we ever became acquainted with, and he’s a little short in the brains department, but perhaps without even knowing it he good-naturedly embodies the spirit of his native Philadelphia. We cannot understand what he grunts half the time, but his actions reflect “The City of Brotherly Love.”

rocky1He cares about others on a level that some people don’t dare, and it even creeps into his work as an enforcer when his boxing prospects aren’t good. He doesn’t like being hurt or made fun off, but at his core, he’s a gentle spirit. He can’t bring himself to break a man’s fingers, he wants the kids to get off the streets and uphold their reputations. Above, all he constantly cracks jokes to the younger sister of his best friend Paulie (Burt Young). Her own brother won’t give Adrian (Talia Shire) the time of day, but despite her timidity, Rocky pops in on her everyday holding one-sided conversations at the pet shop. It doesn’t feel like simple common courtesy. He really likes her and grows to care about her. So really if this movie was just about boxing it would probably have faded away with so many other like-minded movies.

In the narrative, Rocky goes through all the hoops and finally reconciles with veteran trainer Micky Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), who looks to live vicariously through Balboa. He also deals with Paulie, who is prone to drinking which leads to volatile outbursts. And he even grapples with the media attention that comes courtesy of a bout with Creed. The montage of his training has become a thing of legend, hands outstretched with Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” ringing out over the steps below him.

Then there’s the showdown that the whole film culminates to and it’s nothing unusual, nothing we wouldn’t expect, but that’s the beauty of it because we want it anyway. We finally see everything on the line. Everything that Rocky has been working for is either to be realized or dashed to pieces. Well, the ending is a bit of a cop out, but you need some way to start the next sequel, right? This storyline is simple, almost naive in a way, but sometimes films like that are enjoyable and necessary. Every once and awhile we need a good underdog story to lift our spirits.

Sylvester Stallone burst onto the scene in lovable fashion and just like the film itself, I’m not sure he ever topped his original characterization of Rocky. He might be a broken coconut upstairs, but he certainly has a lot of heart. Humor me for just one moment because I have to say it at least once, “Yo Adrian!”

4.5/5 Stars

Force of Evil (1948)

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This is Wall Street… and today was important because tomorrow – July Fourth – I intended to make my first million dollars. An exciting day in any man’s life. Temporarily, the enterprise was slightly illegal. You see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket”  ~ Joe Morse

Not in recent memory has a film left such a different taste in my mouth. Force of Evil has all the trappings of a thoroughly engrossing noir crime film. There’s the crooked lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield), looking to get ahead by helping a top level gangster named Tucker take over the numbers racket in New York. There’s his estranged older brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) wanting nothing to do with his brother’s dirty money. It’s a classic Cain and Able type conflict. Add realistic location shooting inter-cut with voice-over, and a David Raksin score to make a real winner.

Yet Force of Evil is a dangerous film to take at face value because on that level alone it is highly entertaining. However, director and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky created something special here at only 78 minutes in length. His film has a certain rhythm that is hard to pinpoint. John Garfield especially delivers his lines impeccably, drifting in and out of common everyday jargon and moral convictions. It’s a slightly higher level of dialogue that deserves more digestion and thought. He even gives a taxi cab soliloquy that gives On the Waterfront a run for its money.

As a big picture, the plot makes sense for the most part. Joe is on the verge of making millions on the Fourth of July, and he wants to cut his brother in on it. But his brother works one of the smaller rackets which is bound to be pushed out. He has his own sense of morality, where he can bear what he does but not what Joe will hand him.

Leo reluctantly agrees to join the big operation out of necessity until things get way too involved, and this time Joe is in a place where he has to get out himself, with no way of protecting his brother. His resolve to watch over his brother is to no avail when the Ficco Gang tries to push their way into the racket. Meanwhile, Joe still finds time to flirt with the innocent and proper Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson), the former secretary of Leo, who is in complete juxtaposition with Mrs. Tucker (Marie Windsor), who Morse keeps company with initially.

However, this whole mess is constantly being complicated. There is “Freddie” Bauer (Howland Chamberlain), the nervous fellow who used to work with Leo and now, with the big takeover, is looking to blow the whistle on whoever he can to stay out of the fray. There’s the police who seem intent on getting their hands on everybody they can and not showing favoritism towards anyone. There’s Leo who is righteously indignant while also taking his brother’s offer of a better position begrudgingly. There’s Doris who is in all ways sensible and yet still falls for Joe, not in your typical passionate way, but it still happens nonetheless. There’s the line between legitimate business and criminal activity that is constantly be zig-zagged.

Finally, there is Joe who deserves the greatest amount of scrutiny. John Garfield apparently could not pinpoint his character’s deal initially either, but he must have figured it out because he nailed it. It’s probably his greatest performance. He’s the kind of guy who blows the whistle on his own brother in order to help him in his own way. It doesn’t quite make sense, and he seems so often blinded, but he keeps pushing forward in a vain attempt towards success. All the caustic words and aggressive come-ons don’t work. Ultimately, he has to come to reality. When Joe does, that’s when he realizes what he has started and what he has done to Leo. By that point, it’s nearly too late for him, and it’s most definitely too late for Leo.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Lana_Turner_in_The_Postman_Always_Rings_TwiceThe first time I saw this gripping noir, my least favorite part of the film probably was the title, and it still is. That’s saying a lot, and the film is adapted from the James M. Cain crime novel anyways, with the title included free of charge. Otherwise, Postman is a wonderful example of the film noir canon, and yet it lacks the elements of your more typical private eye mystery.

It trades dark streets of crime for a small roadside burger joint owned by a shrewd man and his noticeably younger wife. Bring a drifter searching for a quick buck and you have everything set for the deadliest of love triangles. At the tips are John Garfield as the rambling man Frank who initially couldn’t care less for his boss’s pretty wife. Then there’s Cora, the alluring girl who seems out of place in her life. Then you have the money-grubbing Nick (Cecil Kellaway) who seems naively oblivious to the whole situation.

At first, nothing seems to be afoot, and Cora is adamant about not getting involved with the new hand. However, ultimately things evolve. That’s not necessarily the exciting part. We expect the rapid and lurid love affair that soon besets Frank and Cora.  We expect, more likely than not, that Nick will either catch them or they will knock him off first. They choose the latter and its far from preferable. Soon the district attorney is down their throats with his own suspicions about the forbidden couple. He’s pretty smart too.

Sackett plays Frank and Cora off of each other. They’re both scared. Neither one wants jail or worst the gas chamber. Nora ends up being the only one prosecuted, but her sly lawyer (Hume Cronyn) is able to call his opponents bluff and get Cora off with hardly a hitch. The only problem is that Frank and Cora hate each other guts now. They are positively poisoned to each other.

The story could end there and it would be ironic enough, but it doesn’t. It has yet another act where Frank and Cora make up following the illness of her mother, the flourishing of her establishment after the trial, and a bout with blackmail. All seems to be better than it ever was, but fate can have a cruel sense of humor.

On one out of the ordinary car ride, Frank crashes and in the aftermath, Cora is left dead with Frank on the fast track to the gas chamber. And that’s where the title comes in. The Postman Always Rings Twice. In other words, if you don’t pay for your crimes the first time around, you always end paying up one way or another. Cora was killed and Frank faced execution. Neither one got off in the end.

Putting aside the Hay’s Codes need for justice to be dealt, this is a wonderfully sardonic tale and ultimately sensual noir for the 1940s. Lana Turner was never better dancing with relative ease between amorous sweetness and acidic intentions. And the moment she first shows up on the screen is one of the most eye-catching entrances by a femme fatale period. Although not the greatest of leading men, John Garfield is surprisingly credible opposite, Turner. He plays the hard-working everyman incredibly well. Hume Cronyn, for his part, plays his wily prosecutor wonderfully with a sly smile all the while. I cannot quite put a finger on it, but I like him.

4.5/5 Stars

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – Film-Noir

Starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, the film begins with a drifter taking a job at a roadside diner for a jolly older man with a beautiful young wife (Turner). After initial conflict, Frank and Cora fall passionately in love. They try one disastrous attempt to take the husband’s life, and in desperation they try again, this time succeeding in getting rid of him. Soon they are in court fighting the murder rap. Miraculously the two of them get out of it but ironically by the time the trial is over they hate each others guts. They live in constant loathing of each other but after thwarting a blackmail scheme their wild love is rekindled. In an equally cruel twist of fate, they both end up paying for their actions the second time around. With the voice-over, femme fatale, cinematography, and twisting plot, this is a quintessential film-noir that I really enjoyed. I would consider it the landmark performance for Lana Turner and maybe John Garfield as well. They learn the hard way that the postman does always ring twice and there is nothing you can do about it.

4.5/5 Stars