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Underrated, but still not entirely realized
on July 10, 2002
This remake of the 1946 film which starred Lana Turner and John Garfield is significantly better than its reputation. The script, adapted from James M. Cain's first novel, is by the award-winning playwright David Mamet, while the interesting and focused cinematography is by Sven Nykvist, who did so much exquisite work for Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. An excellent cast is led by Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, whose cute animal magnetism is well displayed. Bob Rafelson, who has to his directorial credit the acclaimed Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), both also starring Jack Nicholson, captures the raw animal sex that made Cain's novel so appealing (and shocking) to a depression-era readership and brings it up to date. Hollywood movies have gotten more violent and scatological since 1981, but they haven't gotten any sexier. This phenomenon is in part due to fears occasioned by the rise of AIDS encouraged by the usual blue stocking people. Don't see this movie if sex offends you.
Lange is indeed sexy and more closely fits the part of a lower-middle class woman who married an older man, a café owner, for security than the stunning blonde bombshell Lana Turner, who was frankly a little too gorgeous for the part. John Colicos plays the café owner, Nick Papadakis, with clear fidelity to Cain's conception. In the 1946 production, the part was played by Cecil Kellaway, who was decidedly English; indeed they changed the character's name to Smith. Also changed in that production was the name of the lawyer Katz (to Keats). One wonders why. My guess is that in those days they were afraid of offending Greeks, on the one hand, and Jews on the other. Here Katz is played by Michael Lerner who really brings the character to life.
Jack Nicholson's interpretation of Cain's antihero, an ex-con who beat up on the hated railway dicks while chasing any skirt that came his way, the kind of guy who acts out his basic desires in an amoral, animalistic way, was not entirely convincing, perhaps because Nicholson seems a little too sophisticated for the part. Yet, his performance may be the sort better judged by a later generation. I have seen him in so many films that I don't feel I can trust my judgment. My sense is that he's done better work, particularly in the two films mentioned above and also in Chinatown (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and such later works as The Shining (1980) and Terms of Endearment (1983).
The problem with bringing Postman successfully to the screen is two-fold. One, the underlying psychology, which so strongly appealed to Cain's depression-era readership, is not merely animalistic. More than that it reflects the economic conflict between the established haves, as represented by the greedy lawyers, the well-heeled insurance companies, the implacable court system and the simple-minded cops, and to a lesser degree by property owner Nick Papadakis himself, and the out of work victims of the depression, the have-nots, represented by Frank and Cora (who had to marry for security). Two--and this is where both cinematic productions failed--the film must be extremely fast-paced, almost exaggeratedly so, to properly capture the spirit and sense of the Cain novel. Frank and Cora are rushing headlong into tragedy and oblivion, and the pace of the film must reflect that. A true to the spirit adaptation would require a terse, stream-lined directorial style with an emphasis on blind passions unconsciously acted out, something novelist Cormac McCarthy might accomplish if he directed film. I think that Christopher Nolan, who directed the strikingly original Memento (2000) could do it.
For further background on the novel and some speculation on why it was called "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (Cain's original, apt title was "Bar-B-Que") see my review at Amazon.com.