Tay Garnett | One Way Passage
| Seven Sinners | The Postman Always Rings Twice
| Cause for Alarm
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Tay Garnett was a Hollywood film director.
One Way Passage
One Way Passage (1932) is a romantic drama. It has links to the approaches
of later Garnett movies:
Links are especially numerous to Cause for Alarm:
- It opens in a tough-but-exotic tropical saloon, and moves on to a ship;
both locales recur in Seven Sinners.
- It deals with lovers who have to struggle in hidden ways against
powerful male authority figures, like The Postman Always Rings Twice.
- The man is a criminal in One Way Passage; both lovers are criminals in
The Postman Always Rings Twice.
- The characters often engage in desperate activities, as in Cause for Alarm.
The hero of One Way Passage tries to get the key to the handcuffs; the heroine of
Cause for Alarm tries to recover the letter.
- The characters in One Way Passage are confined to the ship; the heroine of
Cause for Alarm is mainly restricted to her house.
- Illness is a major issue for a character in both One Way Passage and Cause for Alarm.
Seven Sinners (1940) is a Marlene Dietrich vehicle. It
is clearly designed to build on the surprise success of her sleeper
hit of the year before, George Marshall's
Destry Rides Again (1939). In both films, Marlene enters
a rough, tough community, here a South Seas island, in Destry,
a crook ridden Western town. In both films Marlene plays a saloon
singer; in both she has a French name, here Bijou, which means
'jewel' in French. In both films there are a lot of bar room brawls
at the saloon, along with some more serious attacks by crooks.
In both, the saloon is comically rowdy, filled with roughnecks
and raffish types of all descriptions. In both Marlene is a somewhat
shady lady, in both she has a romance with a squeaky clean visitor
to the community, here US Naval Lieutenant John Wayne. Both films
are mixtures of comedy and drama, in which Marlene gets to sing
a lot of glamorous songs.
Visual Style: In the Tradition of Sternberg
The film's settings are a lot more glamorous and visually elaborate
than those of Destry, however. In some ways Seven Sinners
seems to be an imitation or fake Josef von Sternberg
vehicle. It is full of complexly designed sets, with elaborate
windows, complex staircases, and bric a brac on every part of
the walls. The film has very elaborate lighting by the great Rudolph
Maté. His complex patterns of bright light and elaborate
shadows combine with the ornate design of the sets to make wonderfully
pretty, richly structured compositions, in the Sternberg tradition.
Sternberg was Dietrich's first and greatest director, and the
filmmakers are plainly doing this sort of Sternbergian design
because they think it is appropriate for a Dietrich vehicle. Also,
one clearly suspects that they loved the challenge, and welcomed
the opportunity to make such a film. There are also genre considerations.
Both most Sternberg movies, and Seven Sinners, fall into
the once popular genre of "exotic adventure", in which
characters found romance and adventure in some remote locale.
Such films often have elaborate set designs. However, most such
"exotic" films are less Sternbergian in look and feel
than Seven Sinners. Seven Sinners is not only elaborately
designed; its visual style specifically recalls elements of Sternberg's
One beautiful scene shows Marlene preparing to sing on ship. She
emerges from a series of draped flags. These are fluttering in
the breeze, adding motion to the visuals. Each flag has a different
visual pattern on it, helping extend the visual complexity of
the scene. Later, after her song, Marlene will walk along these
same flags. The multitudinous black and white patterns on the
flags recall the sections of Dietrich's umbrella in Sternberg's
The Devil is a Woman (1935). Sternberg films, as well as
those of his disciple Mizoguchi Kenji,
often included murals and drawings on the walls, against which
the characters move; such flags can be seen as related to that
Marlene often stands next a large gargoyle while she is singing
in the club. This recalls the huge statues in Sternberg's The
Scarlet Empress (1934). She is loaded down with flowers twice
in the film, once when Wayne gives her orchids, and once when
the kids keep giving her roses. This recalls the flowers she received
in Sternberg's Morocco (1930). Dietrich's dressing in male
clothes during her songs also recalls Morocco, as well
as Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932). The Chinese scenes
in the town recalls Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932).
As in Sternberg films, Marlene is often in constant motion. She
has paths she follows while singing her songs. Some of these paths
involve going downstairs and across the stage; others involve
her circulating among the night club patrons. Such well constructed
paths are part of the Sternberg tradition. Garnett does not equal
Sternberg's remarkable camera movements during these paths; he
lacks Sternberg's great gifts for camera movement. The paths are
also rarely filled with the sort of foreground objects familiar
from Sternberg. Nor does he reach Sternberg's heights as a pictorialist.
What he does achieve here is outstanding, however, and indicates
that it is always best to aim high.
Women Struggling for Acceptance
In Seven Sinners, Dietrich plays a woman who is not accepted
by the respectable elements of the community, such as the Governor
or the Naval officers and their wives. Women struggling for social
acceptance were a common theme in Garnett's films:
The struggle of women for acceptance seems to be a personal Garnett
- In Mrs. Parkington (1944), Greer Garson wages an
unsuccessful struggle to be accepted by New York Society.
- In The Valley of Decision
(1945), Greer Garson plays a poor maid who falls in love with
the scion of a wealthy family, Gregory Peck.
- In The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Lana Turner is
just treated as hired help at the restaurant, after she marries its owner.
Bonding with Navy Officers
For both the Dietrich and John Wayne characters, being "in
the Navy" means more than anything else. In both cases, this
means bonding with a bunch of friendly young officers, all of
which greatly admire the protagonist. John Wayne is literally
their commanding officer; Marlene Dietrich dresses as their officer,
in a series of naval uniforms. The film repeatedly expresses the
idea that this bonding is the ultimate experience. This too seems
like a personal Tay Garnett theme. In his autobiography, Garnett
tells about his own experiences in the Navy in the World War I
era. So this material has an autobiographical feel. Also, Garnett's
autobiography repeatedly explains how his own experiences male
bonding were the most important ones in his life.
The visual style
underscores this. The officers are always dressed to the teeth
in white uniforms, which Maté's camera depicts as glowing
with light. They are always seen as a group, and often performing
some function of military etiquette, such as giving a salute,
or standing in a receiving line. They have a special area reserved
for them at the club, in which they are often playing pool. They
always seem to be friendly, smiling and laughing. It is an idealized
image. They themselves seem to be enjoying their naval experience
Nice young men who are friendly and who are dressed
in fancy clothes pop up in other Garnett films: see the Hugh Beaumont
character in Mrs. Parkington (1944), one of the few people
to befriend the heroine.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Throughout The Postman Always Rings Twice, we see everything from the viewpoint of the
two lovers. They awake considerable audience sympathy and identification.
This is true even when they commit crimes. The film is different
from many other film noirs in being essentially supportive of
Before I saw this film, I'd always assumed that its plot consisted
of Lana Turner being an evil femme fatale who lures her boyfriend
John Garfield into murdering her well to do husband. After all,
this is the plot of Cain's Double Indemnity. However, the
film is actually much more sympathetic to Turner and Garfield
than this. In fact, it is not clear that they are actually considered
evil people here. Perhaps what they are doing has some extenuating
Exploited Workers - and Economic Revolt
Much of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) centers around
economics. Her middle aged husband owns the restaurant, the car,
and all the other assets. Meanwhile, he expects Turner to work
like a dog as cook and waitress without any financial compensation,
which she does. Turner appears for most of the movie in her white
cook's uniform, one marked with the name of the restaurant on
the sleeves. She looks like the hired help. However, even working
women seem to get paid more than she does. She apparently has
no other dresses. At one point, the dialogue points out that she
has not even left the restaurant for thirty days.
This film is linked to themes of economic revolt. Lana Turner
can be seen as an exploited worker, whereas her husband can be
viewed as a business owner. There are also feminist themes:
the exploitation of female labor by male bosses. Women had just
lost their war time jobs to returning male servicemen, and the
issue of woman's work was probably an open wound in American society
at the time.
Tay Garnett had dealt with related themes in the past:
In all of these films, the exploited workers eventually
stand up and get a better deal.
- His previous film, The Valley of Decision (1945), dealt with
labor-management disputes in a mining community around 1900. Labor here
was represented by Greer Garson, another woman.
- Stand-In (1937) concluded with employees buying their own
Hollywood studio, an unusual look at worker-owned cooperatives with
a background of Hollywood screwball comedy.
- The Joy of Living (1938) stars a very hard working
actress (Irene Dunne) who is supporting a lot of sponging, non-working
relatives, just as Lana Turner's hard work is supporting her husband
Most of the articles on Postman suggest that all the changes
between the book and the film were designed to accommodate the
movie censorship of the era. This is undoubtedly partly true.
However, one suspects that other factors were operating. The film
tries to make the heroine more sympathetic. Also, it constantly
makes her motives for the crimes more economic. This strengthens
the film's theme of woman's economic revolt.
Initially Mysterious Characters
The lawyer played by Hume Cronyn here reminds one a bit of the
financial expert (Leslie Howard) in Stand-In. Both are
outsiders who enter a complex situation, both are technical experts
who ultimately exert a lot of leverage, both are mysterious in
their goals and what their ultimate impact will be on the characters
around them. Both characters are explicitly lacking in conventional
machismo. Both are very business like in their dress and demeanor.
The Writers - and Their Themes
The two screen writers can each be linked to other themes of their
careers. Harry Ruskin had written many of the Dr. Kildare and
Dr. Gillespie movies, as well as a few Andy Hardy pictures. Postman
seems like a medical drama at times. There are detailed medical
aftermaths to each murder attempt. All of the murders in the film
also involve complex planning, just like a major operation; each
seems unusually oriented towards the human body, unlike the typical
gun killings of the film noir.
Niven Busch had written many novels dealing with duels to the
death between a man and woman who are lovers; they were filmed
as such works as Pursued and Duel in the Sun. The
furious fights, betrayals and spectacular reconciliations of the
latter half of Postman are in this tradition. However,
it seems to me that the hero and heroine of Postman are
basically allies. They fight with each other, but mainly they
stand with each other against the world.
Cause for Alarm
Cause for Alarm (1951) is a mixture of suspense thriller and melodrama.
The heroine has no television set. Even by 1951, there are digs at TV in movies.
The early flashback recalls previous Tay Garnett films:
The flashback is cheerful and sexy; the rest of the film is much more grim.
The bulk of the film can seem like a variation or dark parody of the flashback:
- The men are in uniform, giving them glamour and sexiness, as in Seven Sinners.
- A romantic triangle adds to a spicy situation, as in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
- A scene at the beach adds to the sexiness, as in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
- The triangle in the flashback is sexy and light-hearted; it becomes a source of murderous rage in the main film.
- The husband pretends to be bedridden as a joke in the flashback; he is really ill in bed in the rest of the film.
- The heroine writes letters for injured sailors in the flashback, spreading good cheer;
the husband writes a sinister letter for himself in the main story.