Thursday, December 15, 2022

Raising Cain: 1981’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice”

Watching 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice set me off on a path you might call obsessive. First I checked out the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, notorious in its day for its frank sexuality. Then, to better understand the source of it all, I read James M. Cain’s pulp novella from 1934. 

 To be honest, the 1981 remake didn’t do much for me. Yes, that initial sex scene is startling in its brutal power, but it gave me far more than I needed in setting the scene for what was to follow. There’s only so much of a sexually voracious Jack Nicholson that someone like me can take. His nearly devouring Jessica Lange in his brutal embrace just made me squirmy (and certainly made me wonder about her character’s basic intelligence, since she seems to welcome it).  Maybe, I figured, sado-masochism works better on the page than on the screen. The great Sven Nykvist’s cinematography was a marvel, though, in keeping the couple’s private parts completely hidden even while clothes were ripped away.

 Along with Nykvist, who was Ingmar Bergman’s longtime cinematographer, the remake attracted a host of top-grade professionals. The director was Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces), and none other than playwright David Mamet adapted Cain’s work for the screen. Part of the hype at the time of the film’s release was that it was far closer to Cain’s original work that the sanitized Production Code version of 1946.  That’s why I wanted to understand what Cain was up to.

 No question: Cain in this work closely aligns sex with death. The novella contains at least three major scenes of erotic connection between the narrator, Frank, and his boss’s wife, Cora. In the first, coming onto Cora in the kitchen of her husband’s roadside lunchroom, he says. “I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers.”  She’s the one who pleads for him to bite her . . .  and he does: “I sank my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down my neck when I carried her upstairs.” 

 The second big scene of passion occurs immediately after they manage to maneuver her soused immigrant husband (scornfully referred to as The Greek) over the side of a California cliff. To suggest that the car crash is pure accident, Frank roughs up Cora by punching her in the eye. Next thing you know, they are locked in each other’s arms. And Frank admits that “Hell could have opened for me then, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I had to have her, if I hung for it.” Then he adds, “I had her.”

 For all that the film remake tries to capture Cain’s tone, it just doesn’t pull us along in the way that Frank’s on-the-page narration does. Yes, there are the same plot twists and turns, including some sneaky legal wranglings that briefly have the lovers at each other’s throat. And the remake also includes the novella’s bizarre interlude in which Frank, separated from Cora, takes up with a dame who raises pumas and other exotic jungle cats. (The original film had him tempted by a much more commonplace lady.) On screen this cat-woman is played, apparently in the buff, by Anjelica Huston, Nicholson’s real-life main squeeze at the time.

 One more thing the remake doesn’t have is the novella’s powerful ending, in which we learn for the first time just where Frank is as he tells us his tale. It’s the capper we need to understand everything.


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