Fading into the background wasn’t Lana Turner’s forte. It’s not her fault. Her ability to wear a (tight) sweater well directly contributed to her success; in fact, Turner found early fame as ‘The Sweater Girl’ thanks to the particularly form-fitting number she donned as Mary Clay (They Won’t Forget, 1937) in one of her earliest film roles. Too-tight sweaters were the Hervé Lége bandage dresses of their day, albeit less revealing. The sweater – short sleeved, usually finished with a prim collar and a button closure – was worn a size too small. The sexiness of this everyday garment was in the promise and the suggestion, traits that Turner herself possessed by the bucketload. If it’s an overstatement to say that knitwear made Lana, it’s certainly not a stretch to say that it was wool that got her noticed.
In The Postman Always Rings Twice (released in 1946), director Tay Garnett played on Turner’s star credentials, choosing to make her the highlight of every scene. Unusually for a femme fatale in a black and white film noir, Lana (playing Cora Smith) is dressed almost exclusively in white – or at least in pale shades, a tinted studio shot suggests one costume was in pale mint green. The costumes, and Turner’s distinctive platinum blonde hair, combine to make her the focus of every scene and make her seem a lot less threatening. White is of course associated with innocence and purity and, although Cora Smith is neither, the audience is able to forgive her scheming and indiscretions.
According to Garnett, “the white clothing was something that Carey [Wilson, the writer and producer] and I thought of. At that time there was a great problem of getting a story with that much sex past the censors. We figured that dressing Lana in white somehow made everything she did seem less sensuous. It was also attractive as hell. And it somehow took a little of the stigma off everything that she did.”
Costume designer Irene, tasked with fulfilling the director’s vision, created a series of simple yet effective costumes that represented a designer at the peak of her career. Before MGM, Irene had her own salon in Bullocks Wilshire, a department store in Los Angeles, where women could buy tailored suits that were constructed to flatter the feminine form. Designing for real ‘women’ – Irene was often in the salon, offering advice on how to wear each ‘Irene’ piece – undoubtedly gave her the skills for costuming, an understanding of the subtle nuances that help create and shape a character. Irene designed costumes for more than 50 films, including Meet Me in St. Louis, Midnight Lace and B.F’s Daughter (both of which were nominated for an Oscar), but her designs for Postman are her most effective.
Standout designs for the movie include a lightweight keyhole dress with a narrow collar and a tie at the neckline, and a beautiful off-shoulder top with broderie anglaise trim that’s worn with a fitted pencil skirt. These borderline romantic designs make it impossible to believe that Cora is inherently evil, she’s just desperately unhappy; surely that’s not a crime? She must be the best-dressed diner waitress for miles, but focussing on her stylish credentials misses the point; instead her costumes speak volumes about what she wants from life. Aspirational, she married Nick Smith for security not love, and has plenty of ideas about how to improve and enhance his business “(I want to make something of this place, I want to make it into an honest-to-goodness…”). In her own words, she wants very to be a ‘somebody’.
Turner’s entrance in the film is probably one of the most spectacular celluloid appearances, accentuated by technique and costume. First, a lipstick rolls across the floor, alerting Frank Chambers (John Garfield) that a pin-up worthy goddess is in the vicinity. It’s the legs we see first, slim ankles and feet, fitted into mid-heeled, peep-toe court shoes. The camera pans back to Chambers, then switches back to a full length shot of Turner, who’s wearing a crop top with a deep V-neckline, high-waisted shorts and a turban. The ensemble perfectly framed the actresses’ face and figure, which was further emphasized by Sidney Wagner cinematography. It’s hard for anyone – in the film or in the audience – to take their eyes off her.
For the first 20 minutes, Postman plays as a romance. Frank, a self-confessed drifter with itchy feet, finds himself the ‘Man Wanted’ at Nick Smith’s (Cecil Kellaway) small roadside diner, Twin Oaks. He takes the job at Nick’s insistence, only to find himself entranced by Nick’s beautiful wife Cora. Inevitably, the two fall in love, and Frank persuades Cora to run away with him. As the leave, Cora realises that they’ve left without a concrete plan, and she’s unwilling to give up what she’s achieved – “Oh, I love you, Frank, and I want you, but not this way. Not starting out like a couple of tramps”. The duo return to the diner, and it’s then that begin to hatch a plan to murder Nick.
Adapted from a novel by James M. Cain (who also wrote Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce), Postman is often heralded as a breakthrough in the battle against screen censorship. MGM secured the rights to the novel in 1934, but it took almost 12 years for the finished film to make it onto the big screen. The passionate relationship between Cora and Frank was toned down considerably to appease the Hayes Code and the censorship boards, although some moviegoers were still scandalised by the two ‘romping’ on the beach, she dressed in just a bikini. Despite the adaptations, the film remains true to the ethos of Cain’s original novel, apparently the author was so impressed with Turner’s portrayal of Cora that he presented her with a signed leather bound copy of the book.
In addition to Garfield and Turner there are some great performances from Leon Ames and Hume Cronyon who, as the smarmy defence attorney Arthur Keats, almost steals the show. The success of Postman rests in its moral ambiguity. Is it acceptable to want Cora and Frank’s murder plot to succeed? Sympathising with characters who plot to do wrong was almost unheard of in the 1940s, when movie audiences were not naturally given to cynicism. Frank’s speech, about how sins will always catch up with you – even if it’s second time round – is redemptive, but as a ‘moral of the story’ comes a little late. Watching Postman from a contemporary viewpoint, the main takeaway is that good costumes stand the test of time, and wearing white can always get you off the hook, temporarily if not indefinitely. Shallow, yes, but films with longevity have been marked by a lot less.