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 first American adaptation of Cain’s 1934 lurid classic is the 1946 Tay Garnett directorial effort The Postman Always Rings Twice. The funny thing is, in the novel, there’s no postman and he never rings twice. It’s never alluded to, nor is the line ever spoken by any of the characters. Many have speculated on Cain’s reasoning for the title, though the author himself explained that it came out of a conversation with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who would become relieved when he would hear the postman ringing twice because he was eager to know the results of a submitted manuscript. Cain figured it would well as a metaphor, so he used it.
In Garnett’s film, the character of Frank gives a totally ridiculous and superfluous dialogue about “ringing twice” right before his execution. I suppose they didn’t want to confuse audiences with the title, so they threw that in there. Anyways, The 1946 Postman Rings Twice is a dark and claustrophobic film that lacks the tragic punch of Visconti’s Ossessione three years earlier, but packs its own steamy noir wallop that’s got sexual chemistry to spare between its two stars, John Garfield and Lana Turner.
I’ve reviewed two Luchino Visconti films in the past: the impossibly devastating La Terra Trema and the wildly prophetic Bellissima (about a mother obsessed with making her baby girl a star). By no means does that make me some kind of authority on Italian neorealism, I just know I really dig the tragedy inherit in these stories. They’re so effective in translating misfortune through visuals and mise-en-scene as well, to the point that it makes dialogue almost seem unnecessary. Simply put, those two films really tickle my bummer bone the right way. That’s why I was excited to learn that Visconti’s first film is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s seedy masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice. For his screen version, Visconti managed to wipe away the hardboiled-ness of the original story in place of his signature sense of tragedy. The result is Ossessione, an exceptional debut and wholly unique take on a roman noir classic.