Sunday 1 August 2010

Movie Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

During the Great Depression of the 1930's, drifter Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson) enters the life of Nick (John Colicos) and his much younger wife Cora (Jessica Lange). Nick and Cora run a restaurant / gas station in rural California. Nick is a hard-working Greek immigrant; Cora is very bored; very trapped in a dead-end life; and very over-sexed. She meets her match in Frank, a small-time hustler with suitably small-time intelligence.

As soon as Nick turns his back, Cora and Frank are doing the horizontal mambo with animalistic passion on the kitchen table, after sweeping away some good-looking fresh bread and dough. Their uncontrolled lust soon drives them to thoughts of murdering Nick. They need two cracks at it, the first very botched and the second almost botched. When they do succeed in eliminating Nick, the law is quickly onto them. A legal battle, betrayal, acquittal, death in the family, pregnancy, another betrayal and a blackmail plot follow in rapid succession, before Frank learns that no matter what he does, his life will always be miserable.

This second Hollywood adaptation of James M. Cain's depression-era novel is most famous for its steamy sex scenes between Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. It does have a few other good points: the movie creates an excellent mood of poverty, drift and a desperate society scraping-by; the dialogue in David Mamet's screenplay is sharp; and Jessica Lange delivers a stunning performance of simmering passion knocking the lid off what is supposed to be the traditional wife's role. Michael Lerner as the lawyer Katz and Anjelica Huston as Frank's brief fling have fun and are entertaining with smallish roles.

But The Postman Always Rings Twice is also deeply flawed. The final third of the movie, after Nick is finally eliminated, careens out of control. This may be an intentional metaphor for the life of the illicit lovers, but from the trial of Cora to the ending, too many events are crammed into 45 minutes, and none are provided adequate time to breathe.

In contrast to the earlier, appreciatively slower development of the relationship between Nick, Frank and Cora, seemingly critical characters suddenly emerge out of nowhere and have a huge influence on the story: a complicated insurance company deal is given a quick hard boil; a mysterious stranger arrives unannounced and prompts Cora to leave Frank and visit her previously not mentioned but critically sick mother; Frank betrays Cora twice yet we don't understand why she forgives him; and a blackmail plot is scrambled together and resolved in a matter of minutes.

The timing of the movie goes off, leaving behind a lingering "what now" mood that reduces our level of caring for Frank and Cora, and urges an end - any end - to the ordeal.

The postman may always ring twice; but he would have been more welcome had he carried a less clumsy mailbag.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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