Tay Garnett | One Way Passage | Seven Sinners | The Postman Always Rings Twice | Cause for Alarm

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Tay Garnett

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:

Seven Sinners

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 approach.

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 tradition.

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 theme.

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 intensely.

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 the criminals.

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 circumstances.

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.

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 Flashback

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: