Postman Always Rings Twice 1981

David Mamet adapting James M. Cain? Holy hell that sounds like a match made in hardboiled heaven. Unfortunately, Mamet’s take on The Postman Always Rings Twice feels like a cheap update of the 1946 version – with loads of angry sex thrown in. It doesn’t ring like a Mamet script either, which is disappointing. It lacks the punch of his “Chicago style” of screenwriting and instead falls back on dirty crotch rubbing. Not even the star power of Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, nor the directorial prowess of Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) can salvage this hollow production. Of the three adaptations I’ve viewed this week, 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is without a doubt the only washout.

The one great thing about Rafelson’s adaptation is that he’s able to tackle the sexual violence of Cain’s novel. The sheer physical power in the sex scenes between Nicholson and Lange is overwhelming at times. Other than that, there’s a lot lacking in the film’s characterizations. They love screwing in the most savage ways possible, but who cares? After the players are introduced, it just feels like filler scenes in between the sexy bits. It’s really drab stuff, man.

The story is essentially the same – from the two murder attempts to the narcissistic lawyers turning the trial into a pissing contest. One welcome deviation from the novel and the 1946 film is the closing scene on death row, when Frank ruminates on Cora’s death. Mamet and Rafelson’s version ends abruptly with her pushing up daisies, but it’s better than Frank spitting some bullshit behind bars.

One baffling Mamet shift is the other woman. Y’know, after Cora leaves for her mother’s funeral back east, Frank sleeps with another woman. In Ossessione it was a ballerina, in the 1946 Postman Always Rings Twice it was a carhop, but in the Mamet version it’s a LION TAMER PLAYED BY ANGELICA HOUSTON. No offense to the goddess Houston, but it feels like a role ripped from another movie. The character is crucial for deepening the rift between Frank and Cora, no doubt. But to make her a European lion tamer and to have them screw in her circus wagon…honestly it rings like a bad joke.

What Mamet and Rafelson do bring to Cain’s tale is a heavy dose of dusty atmosphere. The interior of the Twin Oaks diner is so palpable as a weathered, roadside dive that it adds much weight to the seediness of the story. The performances are strong across the board, though they do nothing to provide a sense of tragedy or doom that the previous incarnations have. Nicholson is shady as hell and Lange exudes a deadly combination of sensitivity and venom.

I was disappointed by the portrayal of Nick, however. It has nothing to do with John Colicos’ performance and everything to do with Mamet’s characterization. In the 1946 version he’s incredibly sympathetic, making his death feel like a real loss. In this one, he’s a simple minded, drunk oaf who acts as set dressing until he’s offed by Frank and Cora. Some more depth there would have been nice. For example, you could tell in the 1946 adaptation that Nick truly wanted the best for Cora, but his motivations simple got lost along the way to the better life. In this version, he’s as deep as a bird bath. You don’t know if he loves her or hates her, but he sure gets drunk a lot. I expect stronger characterizations from a cat like Mamet (who I’m a huge fan of, by the way. House of Games and Glengarry Glen Ross blow me away every time, so I know what he’s capable of).

And much like Nick, Frank and Cora go through the motions of sex and murder without any emotion to back them up. By its cynical end, I never felt like I knew the characters at all. Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice has production value out the ass, but seriously lacks in the character department.

Having watched Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and now Rafelson’s adaptation, I’m standing in the corner of Visconti. His version is filled with tragedy, loss, passion, and sorrow. It’s an incredibly effective film and hands down my favorite take on Cain’s classic. The 1946 version comes in second, thanks in great part to Garfield and Turner’s powerhouse performances. This 1981 comes up short. It’s shockingly hollow considering the team of Rafelson and Mamet. If you want a heaping portion of the immortal James M. Cain and his classic The Postman Always Rings Twice, stick to the 1943 and ’46 films.

Patrick Cooper


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