The Postman Always
Rings Twice November 8, 2019
John P. Ryan
hat’s good about 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice as opposed to the otherwise superior 1946 adaptation is that it’s grimier and morally murkier. Narratively the movies are mostly the same (both find their source material in the namesake James Cain novel), but unshared are their approaches. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the 1946 movie, but I’ve watched it enough times to have its
gist embedded in my mind. From my memory banks, I remember it being something akin to 1944’s Double Indemnity: at its core, it's a morality tale — a drama about a hot romance turned cold. But there’s a prettiness to it. It’s engaging in all the ways a stereotypically romanticized suspense-over-reality Hollywood thriller might be. At times it’s like a soap opera. Terrible things are happening, but we can’t deny that we’re having a lot of fun. There's a sexiness to the danger.
The story is classic. A young man and a married (to an old man she doesn't love) woman plot to kill her husband so she and her new love can remain together, stay put, and inherit the old man’s business. They almost get into legal trouble, but, through some loopholes, they get away with it. But then, per the title of the book and movie, karma hasn’t thought about backing down just because justice wasn’t served. Most elements of the 1946 movie are still effective, if a little rusty. But if anything bothers me now, it's mostly the characterization of the red-hot female lead, Cora (Lana Turner). The movie, though sympathetic with her to a fault, has an underlying a-beautiful-woman-can-ruin-a-good-man energy. It’s as if we’re supposed to surely blame her guy for in part some of the trouble caused down the line. But tacitly the film tells us that, had he not gotten involved with her, this all would have never happened. This is true in some ways, but the blaming game unevenly leans. In the 1946 feature, the guy, Frank, was played by the pugilistic and darkly good-looking John Garfield, whom we could never much be led to detest. Our dismay was often directed, I think unfairly, to Cora. The film’s misogyny was subtle, and as such we were able to enjoy it the majority of the time as a frequently sexy exercise in scheming gone haywire.
The 1981 adaptation, written unsentimentally by David Mamet and gloomily directed by Bob Rafelson, trades the glossiness and melodrama of its 1946 predecessor for strict naturalism, and a kind that particularly emphasizes the brutality at the nucleus of the material. Frank, here played by the facially elastic Jack Nicholson, unequivocally has a fiendish streak. And Cora, as portrayed by Jessica Lange, is emotionally compelling and easy to commiserate with. Her desperation was clear in the 1946 version, but in the 1981 counterpart it’s so pronounced that in certain moments (ones mostly coming at the beginning of the feature) I almost wanted to hug her.
The inevitable happens in the movie. Frank stops by the diner run by Cora and her much-older Greek husband, Nick (John Colicos). Then Frank and Cora fall in with each other once the former gets hired to work there. But the circumstances are bleaker. Nick has in the past been portrayed as something as a harmless oaf to get out of the way. But here he tends to be even more inconsiderate and piggish, so as such it isn’t so bad when he’s gone.
But we’re not necessarily all cool with Cora being with Frank, either. Their affair begins, essentially, with him raping her. He lunges at her one evening while they're alone in the diner's kitchen, and after a long-winded struggle that finds her incessantly pleading that he stop, she relents, and they I guess have sex over some flour and bread scraps on the counter. It’s uncomfortable — a blurring of consent that seems meant to be iconically carnal but now seems like a glossing over of textbook assault. This moment sets the stage for the relationship. It’s one where Frank is almost always in control and Cora more often than not is submissive. There are several reasons for this, but I surmise the main one has to do with the fact that she wants out of her domestic situation so badly. I appreciated the movie’s commitment to cynicism, and how it reverses the familiar good-guy-gone-rotten characterization of Frank. Less clear, though, is how exactly we're meant to view this romance, and that creates a problem.
Anyone familiar with prior adaptations of The Postman Always Rings Twice — including the underappreciated 1943 rendition Ossessione — won’t find themselves confronted with any other real surprises here. So in the long run the lack of surprises for the acquainted, paired with the staunch realism Mamet and Rafelson employ, makes this redux interesting in a lot of respects but ultimately inessential. We eke nothing especially new from this material except for a newfound ability to more directly watch it from a bleaker angle. Even if that bleakness didn’t always come to the fore quite so obviously in previous adaptations, though, we could still detect it, then imbue it in our own preceding interpretations. The 1981 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice is well-made and acted, but that can't obscure the truth that it's also gratuitous. C+