I’m not sure why, but James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is a great novel that SHOULD be simple to transfer to the screen, but has been bungled twice by Hollywood. The basic idea–two horny people turn to murder to be with each other–has been stolen a thousand times. Cain didn’t come up with that idea, of course, but his particular variation on it boiled it down to the basics. Young, footloose man–one of those drifters so attractive in pulp fiction, so creepy in reality–meets hot, unappreciated and married woman. Sparks fly. Must have each other, because the sex is great. Plot to murder husband, plot fails, lovers end up dead and/or caught. Cain’s setting is what made his novel so powerful–these two aren’t big Hollywood types, they’re not rich, they’re working-class slobs, one of them in a bleak marriage to a pig.
What’s not to like?
The John Grafield/Lana Turner version has some kind of rep, apparently among people who haven’t read the book or don’t like good movies. Turner seems like such a delicate thing who’d blow away under the kind of passion that tortures the book’s Cora. Garfield just seems so earnest all the time that you don’t get the sense he’d be swept away by this or any other woman. Horrible casting. (Who would’ve been better? I dunno; Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth?)
Bob Rafelson was a surprising and good choice for this, but the material seems to have knocked him off his stride. I wish he’d kept in FIVE EASY PIECES mode–I don’t mean in terms of content, but style, loose and amused at the self-destructive hero. The one scene everyone agrees could be axed from this–I agree–is the meeting between Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, who has really rotten dialogue to work with. But that scene is also playful and critical of Frank (Nicholson). If that tone had been used throughout, I think this could have been an excellent adaptation.
Instead, the approach is very straightforward. Frank is a drifter who gets a job for Cora’s husband, Nick. Frank and Cora can’t stop doing the nasty.
This is David Mamet’s first produced screenplay, and he does a great job for the first half or so. Once the trial and acquittals happen, though, the movie loses steam. What was most startling to me was that this was the point where the book gets better. Frank and Cora believe they’re plotting their own course, but the reader can see they’re just being led around by their privates. Once they get off (legally), they are wounded but we can see they’ll stay together…right? That’s what THEY think.
The novel has a trap door waiting for the reader. See, everyone knows Cora and Frank did it, but their getting off was just a game by their attorney and the D.A. The revelation of the bet between the lawyers is a real cold shower for the reader, and for Frank. He and Cora ‘got away with it,’ probably because Nick was just some Greek immigrant, so who cares? The lovers didn’t fool anyone, and now they’re stuck with each other.
While the book’s last section increases in tension, the movie loses momentum. The last half hour is adequate in showing that all that hot sex can only get you so far. I think the problem is that Frank isn’t all that different from Nick, especially played by Nicholson. He’s good in the part, but it’s the wrong part for him–he was over forty, when the book’s character was in his twenties. He’s going to be Nick soon. Cain makes it very clear why Cora wants to be free of Nick, but the movie doesn’t show us why he’s such an ogre–he actually seems like a decent guy. We need to see that Cora really wants to be free of him, and we don’t.
POSTMAN is a revisionist noir, ala CHINATOWN, which popped up in the seventies, using the new freedom to show the stuff classic noir movies couldn’t. But as in most cases, it deflates the tension of the genre without giving much back. OK, you can show two Hollywood stars almost getting it on–so what? (I’m with Mamet, who says sex scenes pull you out of the movie because you can’t get past that these are two famous people faking it, and you wonder how far they went.) It tries to be an eighties movie that’s going to show those dumb old noirs how to do sex and violence, and it doesn’t work. That the first hour or so DOES work shows that when the source material is taken straightforwardly, as a crime/sex story, you can get something decent out of it, even in the more permissive eighties. But that last 40 minutes or so wanders, as the movie makers try to find something edgier than what Cain came up with. Except what he came up with was already pretty awesome. The only ‘modern’ touch is that we see Frank crying, and we don’t see his ultimate fate as we do in the book (which is where the title comes from).
Sven Nykvist’s photography is of course fine. Michael Small, who did such a great score for KLUTE earlier in the decade, treats the movie as if it’s being a straightforward, sincere noir, instead of a hipper spin.
If Rafelson had taken a cue from the Huston scene (even if he cut the scene itself) and pushed the mockery of these little people by fate, he might have cooked up something as good as CHINATOWN. Instead, it’s kind of a failed mashup.
TPART is worth seeing if only for the first part, and for Jessica Lange’s real breakout performance. (After KING KONG she’d been in a lame comedy and ALL THAT JAZZ, where her good part is spoiled by the costuming.) Nicholson is always entertaining. It’s also fascinating to see how such a great story keeps getting messed up.