The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, then twice again in 1981, with this 4th version of James M. Cain’s classic bad-love-gone-worse story. Cain’s compact 1934 novel was first filmed in France as 1939s Le dernier tournant/The Last Turning; the second, Ossessione, from Italy in 1943, is rated highly; #3 was the 1946 hit with Lana Turner and John Garfield.  Each version has its boosters. This time around Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange are the dogs who get down & dirty, and stay that way, in a script by David Mamet (his first screenplay), directed by 6-time Nicholson co-pilot Bob Rafelson.

I’m getting tired of what’s right and wrong.”

Hard times in the 30s. Rumpled drifter ‘Frank Chambers’ (Nicholson) washes up at a run-down roadside diner in rural California. It doesn’t take him too long to, first, grasp that the genial owner’s younger wife—the cook & waitress—is waiting to be cooked, and second, to stop musing and get with the grasping. Bored and voracious, ‘Cora’ (Jessica Lange) has more than just a hay-roll in mind to free her from being pawed by her loving but clueless husband ‘Nick Papadakis’ (John Colicos), and brutally frank Frank is the right guy in the wrong hands. Made for each other, they also deserve each other.

Not well received by critics at the time, and despite a lot of publicity over some raunchy sex scenes, the $12,000,000 production wasn’t embraced by the public; domestically it came in 55th for the year with a weak gross of $15,600,000. It did make twice as much abroad. The rep’s risen since, but it’s still a qualified acceptance, with kudos for Lange and others in the cast countered by complaints over inconsistency, sluggish pacing and a truncated finish.

Sven Nykvist’s earth-toned cinematography makes good use of the California locations around Santa Barbara and the town of Goleta, and in conveying a seamy aura befitting the amoral activity. Lange steam-heats it as the iron-hot but steel-cold Cora, Colicos is superb as her tragically content clod of a spouse, and Michael Lerner is marvelously oily as an attorney. Nicholson is good as always, but even though the character is supposed to be a lowlife and patsy he’s such a scuzz here it’s hard to see how his Frank could arouse anything in Cora other than a desire to get out. The much-ballyhooed sex scenes, more like s&m wrestling matches, are so over-the-top they come off nearly comic. The ending arrives with a is-that-it? thump. Flaws aside, an interesting movie, if not particularly enjoyable.

With John P. Ryan, William Traylor and brief appearances from Anjelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd. 122 minutes.

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