Back in 1946, when the original film version of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' first premiered, stringent censorship rules tamed the erotic content of James M. Cain's incendiary novel. (The book was so hot, in fact, the city of Boston banned it upon its release in 1934.) The animalistic and sadomasochistic desire that consumes the two lead characters is replaced by unrequited romantic longing, which slightly changes the story's tone. Yes, the lovers still conspire to commit murder, but they don't have sex in front of the corpse or lustily copulate after a series of violent confrontations.
In Bob Rafelson's 1981 remake, however, stars Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange do all that...and more. The movie's most famous sequence finds the two actors biting and clawing each other in a brutally antagonistic form of foreplay, before Nicholson picks Lange up and deposits her on a kitchen table littered with baking paraphernalia. With a few wild swipes, Lange clears off the clutter, pushing freshly baked loaves, a wad of dough, and a sizeable knife onto the floor. Then, with venom in her voice and flour caking her face, she turns from victim to predator by issuing the challenge: "Come on. Come onnnnnn. COME ON!!" And so begins one of the most torrid and uninhibited fornications outside of a XXX movie - and yet there's no nudity. Few films exude such raw sexual heat and unbridled passion as this 'Postman,' which pushes the envelope of acceptable behavior and good taste over and over again to tell a sordid tale of two people consumed by their base instincts who snatch love from the jaws of sex and plan a despicable crime out of mad desperation and insatiable greed - for flesh, acceptance, and money.
Cain was America's chronicler of love's underbelly. With terse, clipped prose, he depicts dirty, tainted relationships in such books as 'Double Indemnity' and 'Mildred Pierce.' His working class characters graduated from the school of hard knocks and always pined for a better life, yet their dead-end existences often inspired them to forego the straight and narrow in favor of a corrupt and dangerous path that often led to a premature demise. Screenwriter David Mamet brilliantly captures Cain's tone, as well as the bleak, hopeless aura that surrounds his characters, and the impulsivity that drives their poor decisions and sends them hurtling headlong toward destruction. Though the murderous couple never gains our affection, Mamet makes sure we understand them, and by the end, they receive a measure of our sympathy.
Frank Chambers (Nicholson) is an aimless Depression-era drifter who one day hustles a free meal at the Twin Oaks Diner and gets the Greek owner, Nick Papadakis (John Colicos), to give him a job, room, and board. Almost instantly, though, he also covets Nick's wife, the comely Cora (Lange), who cooks the food and quickly inflames Frank's loins. Cora can't stand her greasy, swarthy husband and soon plants a seed in Frank's brain that bumping him off might pave the way for a brighter future for them both. After one botched attempt, the pair hatch what they hope will be a fool-proof plan, but when it comes to murder, anything can happen, and in this case, it does. Suspicion, double-crosses, resentment, fear, and insecurity - not to mention the long arm of the law - conspire against Frank and Cora, continually turning their lives upside down. Just when they think they're free and clear, another obstacle blocks their path.
The 1946 version of 'Postman' remains a classic film noir, with black and white imagery abounding at every turn. With her platinum blonde hair providing a stark contrast to her bronzed skin, Lana Turner's Cora dresses in either all white (representing a seductive angel of death) or all black (exposing her true hardened personality). Rafelson's take, however, is much grayer. He foregoes noir conventions in favor of bleak, gritty realism that emphasizes the characters' desperate nature and voracious appetites. Deliberate and brooding, this 'Postman' zeroes in on the actions of Frank and Cora, which speak louder than their words. Sex brings them together, murder almost rips them apart, yet amid such squalor they strive to build a "normal" relationship.
Plot drives the original 'Postman,' while character fuels the remake, which is why Rafelson's film tends to drag a bit at times. My main gripe with the 1981 version, however, concerns its revised ending, which tosses out the book's ironic twist. The abrupt, ambiguous conclusion dulls the impact of the film's title and leaves the viewer unsatisfied. If you've seen the 1946 version, you feel cheated, and if you haven't, you feel left in the lurch. Rafelson explains and defends his decision on the accompanying audio commentary, but it still doesn't make much sense.
'Postman' stands as the first movie to really show off Lange's acting ability; her previous three films - the Dino De Laurentiis remake of 'King Kong,' 'All That Jazz,' and 'How to Beat the High Co$t of Living' - merely used her as window dressing, but her next two - 'Tootsie' and 'Frances' - would earn her two Academy Award nominations and one Oscar. Lange lends Cora dimension and complexity, and her fearless and ferocious commitment to the part is impressive. Nicholson, in his first movie after 'The Shining,' tones himself down and underplays well, which helps set the film's ominous tone. Together they make a terrific team, working as a cohesive unit and supplying the necessary sparks to lend the picture its essential bite.
Is there room enough in this world for two solid versions of this classic hardboiled tale? Absolutely! Both possess notable merits, and while I will always feel the 1946 version better captures the story's essence and Cain's message, the 1981 remake provides a more accurate picture of the environment that produced these magnetic characters and the desires that possess and torment them. Both are compelling entities, especially when watched in tandem. The ending of this one sells it a bit short, but the inherent power and sexual heat of Rafelson's film can't be denied.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 1981 version of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Warner possesses a beautiful film-like appearance, thanks to a natural grain structure that supplies this period, noir-ish tale with essential texture. A warm glow often bathes the image, which sports fine contrast and clarity. Colors are muted, but still flaunt a fair degree of vibrancy, and deep black levels lend the picture good weight. At times, a bit of crush creeps into the frame, but shadow delineation is generally quite good. Fleshtones look natural and remain stable throughout, and background elements are always easy to discern.
Close-ups show off facial features well, but lack the razor sharpness that distinguish the best transfers. No nicks, marks, scratches, or other age-related defects dot the pristine print, and no edge enhancement or noise reduction seem to have been applied. 'Postman' looks awfully nice for a three-decade-old movie, and captures Nicholson's magnetism and Lange's alluring beauty exceptionally well.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies solid if unspectacular sound that's well balanced, clean, and bright. Michael Small's music score fills the room with ease, complementing the on-screen action without overwhelming it, and more nuanced elements, such as rain and wind, make a distinct impression. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without any hint of distortion, and no pops, crackles, hiss, or other imperfections rear their ugly heads. Dialogue, of course, is a critical aspect of this film, and all conversations are clear and comprehendible, even those featuring John Colicos' thick Greek accent.
While this mono track won't bowl anyone over, it gets the job done and provides a fine audio framework for this engrossing film.
Just a couple of extras adorn this catalogue release.
The 1981 remake of 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' remains one of Hollywood's most erotic thrillers, paving the way for such blockbusters as 'Fatal Attraction' and 'Basic Instinct.' Though I still prefer the 1946 original, this version more fully embraces the novel's sexy, hard-boiled tone and bleak outlook, thanks to Bob Rafelson's insightful direction and the incendiary chemistry between Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, both of whom file searing, memorable performances. Warner's Blu-ray presentation skimps on supplements, but contains pleasing video and audio transfers that immerse us in the haze of lust, violence, and unrequited longing that swirls about the characters. Possibly too raw and salacious for some viewers, this faithful adaptation nevertheless celebrates the unique artistry of author James M. Cain and earns a solid recommendation.