I’d heard–read, actually, but maybe heard as well–the 1981 Postman Always Rings Twice was terrible. If I knew Rafelson directed it, I’d forgotten. I did remember David Mamet wrote it. For some reason, I always thought it was an in name only remake, not at all based on the Cain novel.
The film opens with a loud title sequence. It’s the titles themselves, the font. It’s puffed-up. Only when the headlights enter the black (the titles are white text on black) do the titles start to imply there might be something going on, in terms of good filmmaking. Michael Small’s music, which I’ll get around to describing as disastrous in a little while, is good during the opening titles. Then Nicholson appears, a hitchhiker finding a ride.
The next sequence, which introduces Nicholson, Jessica Lange and her husband, played by John Colicos, is concise. But the film’s problem–Mamet’s script has its problems, but it’s not bad–becomes clear in this scene. Nicholson’s giving a terrible performance. I wouldn’t even describe it as phoning it in, because phoning it in suggests he had the active presence to pick up a telephone and dial it. His performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice is more like someone called Nicholson’s assistant, who held the phone to Nicholson’s ear and mouth while he talked. And had to keep waking him up.
Obviously, Nicholson and Rafelson were the permanent parts of this package, but Nicholson’s presence is constantly dubious. He looks way too old for the part as written–maybe if it had been written for his age, it’d work better, but Nicholson’s somehow both weary and sharp. Doesn’t work. But none of the clothes don’t fit him either. Sure, he’s supposed to be wearing some guy named Phil’s leftover coveralls, but not even his clothes fit him. It’s like the costume department was expecting someone else to show up for the part and then Nicholson arrived on set.
The shame–the near tragedy–of The Postman Always Rings Twice is Jessica Lange. She’s fantastic. Lange’s got one of those hairstyles, the cover one of the eyes kind, lots of directors use to try to avert the viewer’s attention from the actress’s lack of ability (Nicole Kidman’s career is based on her hair’s performing ability) and for a second I was worried–but then Lange starts giving this wonderful, nuanced, textured performance and it’s clear why everyone recognized her talent so quickly. She’s just wonderful. It’s awful such a fine performance was in such a turkey.
A couple more things. First, the music. Small’s score is okay most of the time, but then the explicit sex scene has this romantic music. It’s like Howard Hanson or something. It’s idiotic, doesn’t fit, and makes the scene funny. Unfortunately, I don’t think the whole project was just a joke Rafelson and Nicholson were playing on everyone (if it were, I imagine they would have put in a Head reference).
Second, the setting. The film’s got a beautiful production values, just wonderful 1930s Great Depression stuff. Gorgeous. Except that skyscraper in the background for a second, but whatever. Except… The Postman Always Rings Twice doesn’t work when they’re trying to add all this realism to it. It’s pulp. Reality concerns need to be… sorry… pulped.
Maybe Mamet, who’d only been writing plays until this film, wanted to break free of the fixed set, but it was a bad idea. Except it was nowhere near as bad an idea as letting Nicholson give this performance.
Directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by David Mamet, based on the novel by James M. Cain; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Graeme Clifford; music by Michael Small; production designer, George Jenkins; produced by Charles Mulvehill and Rafelson; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Jack Nicholson (Frank Chambers), Jessica Lange (Cora Papadakis), John Colicos (Nick Papadakis), Michael Lerner (Mr. Katz), John P. Ryan (Kennedy), Anjelica Huston (Madge), William Traylor (Sackett) and Thomas Hill (Barlow).