Thursday, December 03, 2009

511 - The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) review

The second official version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” includes a lot of the good stuff at the expense of what made the novel work. Director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter David Mamet take advantage of the freedom to show its characters in the throes of passion, except they forget to note what made them passionate in the first place. They know that sex can be explicit, but forget why.

It was illicit passion and the characters awareness of it that brought so much heat to the pages of James M. Cain’s celebrated 1934 thriller about a drifter (played here by Jack Nicholson) and a trophy wife (Jessica Lange, who falls far short of predecessor Lana Turner) who spill into a lurid affair behind the back of her dimwitted dope of a husband. Of course the old man must go, which leads to a series of brutal missteps and some courtroom drama that speaks very ill of the morals of an insurance corporation.

The sex scenes are among the most graphic I’ve seen in a mainstream film, though they left out the novel’s shocking sadomasochism, which with a bite could have injected a sorely needed shot of character development. What Nicholson's hands are doing in one shot might generate minor heat, it's a matchstick flame compared to the forest fire of John Garfield and Lana Turner in the 1946 version, which laid their frustrations and insecurities bare for searing effect.

Mamet’s script is faithful to the plot but nearly indifferent to the story of Cain’s novel. The events unfold dutifully but free of purpose other than that they were willed by a writer. Cain’s characters were moral degenerates, but they had their reasons, and that we can relate to. By this incarnation’s tragic ending, I wasn’t entirely sure why certain characters were distraught, and by then, nor did I care.

2.5 out of 5

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