*. The contemporary reviews of The Postman Always Rings Twice were almost universal in praise. Critics thought it a very good movie. But . . .
*. But, they’d go on to say, it wasn’t a classic. Meaning it didn’t measure up to the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner. Such a judgment is worth thinking about.
*. The first thing we might say is that this film isn’t a remake of the 1946 movie. There are some ways that the novel was first adapted that have been retained just because they were practical at the time and still are (for example the scene where Cora dictates her confession is played in both movies with Frank in a wheelchair, whereas in the novel he’s strapped onto a stretcher). Instead it’s more a return to the original source, James M. Cain’s 1934 novel. We may think of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which wasn’t a remake of The Thing from Another World but a more faithful adaptation of their shared source, the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell.
*. The second thing to consider is that this is, in just about every objective way you can think of, a better movie than the earlier version. Jack Nicholson is well cast as the seedy loser Frank. David Mamet handled the script. Bob Rafelson directed and Sven Nykvist shot it. That’s a lot of talent.
*. Then there’s Cora. I said in my notes on the 1946 version how it was really Lana Turner’s movie. But Jessica Lange is a much better actress, and can more than hold her own in the sexy department as well. She was actually making a kind of comeback here after, in her own estimation, her debut in King Kong set her career back about four years. I think she’s sensational.
*. So then, a very good movie. A much better movie in almost every way. But. But. But was it too good for its own good?
*. I think it was. Here’s Pauline Kael’s take, and I think she got it: “Taste and craftsmanship have gone into this Bob Rafelson version of James M. Cain’s hot tabloid novel, but Rafelson’s detached, meditative tone is about as far from Cain’s American tough-guy vernacular as you can get. The impulsiveness and raw flamboyance that make the book exciting are missing, and the cool, elegant visuals (Sven Nykvist is the cinematographer) outclass the characters right from the start.”
*. Put another way, Cain’s novel was trash. Classic trash, but trash. The 1946 movie rolled with this. Lana Turner was trash. Classic trash. She belonged in that movie. Cain thought she was perfect. This Postman is better made and more authentic, but misses this. Instead it’s more of a love story, and even where they try to stick closer to the novel they land in trouble. Why bother bringing the lion-tamer woman (Anjelica Huston) back in? She just doesn’t fit in a movie like this. Kael found her appearance “a highly expendable episode,” and again I think that’s right.
*. But then something always struck me as being off with the structure of Cain’s story in the first place. It’s curiously shapeless. It doesn’t even matter that the movie ends here with the car accident, skipping over the legal proceedings in the final act. Because the story could really end at any point. That’s just the way it feels.
*. So, oddly enough, this is a movie that I think lasts for the same reason as the first did. We remember Lange in what was a terrific star turn — in the eyes of David Thomson “still, arguably, her most complete and disturbing performance.” The rest of it is very good too. But.