This movie can be considered a neo-noir but it needs to be pointed out that Cain’s greatest novels, this one and Double Indemnity, don’t strictly follow noir conventions. We don’t have a reasonably OK but slightly morally compromised protagonist led astray by a femme fatale. Both stories include a femme fatale (and Phyllis Dietrichson and Cora Papadakis are memorable femmes fatales) but in both cases Cain offers us two people, a man and a woman, who are both equally morally corrupt and rotten. They lead each other even further along the path of corruption but the moral corruption and rottenness are there from the beginning.
The 1981 version offered an opportunity to create the authentic James M,. Cain atmosphere of desperation, lust, greed, sleaze, sweatiness and general scuzziness. For the most part it succeeds in doing that. It certainly had the right leads in Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Jack Nicholson was born to play this role.
One potential problem was the the combination of a period setting and colour cinematography would result in a movie that was much too pretty. For the first half of the movie the subdued earthtone-based colour palette helps to avert that danger and it looks every bit as seedy as it should look.
Frank Chambers (Nicholson) is a drifter and small-time con artist. If he can con his way into a free meal he thinks he’s a winner. When he arrives at Nick Papadakis’s isolated roadside diner and gas station he manages to do just that. Instead of getting mad Nick offers him a job as a mechanic. Frank doesn’t want the job, until he spots Nick’s wife Cora (Jessica Lange).
Frank and Cora develop quite a sexual obsession. Frank is a loser and a sleazebag and there’s an edge of violence and cruelty to him. This turns Cora on a lot. Cora isn’t glamorous but she has an earthy animal sexuality and she’s a bit of a tramp. This turns Frank on a lot.
Eventually the idea was going to occur to them that if Nick wasn’t around they’d be able to have rough dirty sex on the kitchen table whenever they felt like it. You know where this is going to lead.
We get to the dramatic climax of the movie, which is fine and quite clever. But then it just keeps going. And going on and on and on, with totally irrelevant subplots being thrown in as the movie self-destructs.
Worse still, the two lead characters become totally different people. This means we no longer believe in the characters and consequently we no longer care about them.
And the contrived ending is the final nail in the movie’s coffin.
There are things like a great deal about the first half of the movie. Nicholson and Lange smoulder with lust and greed. The sex scenes are incredibly sleazy and dirty as they should be in a James M. Cain story. Nicholson and Lange are superb in those scenes. The production design is excellent. This is the 1930s totally stripped of glamour.
One gets the impression of a movie made by a director and screenwriter (David Mamet) who had an idea of what they wanted to do but their idea was ill-judged and unworkable and inevitably resulted in a movie that loses its way completely.
This movie represents a spectacular missed opportunity. The production designer and cinematographer give it the perfect visual style. It has a dream cast. It should have worked. It does work superbly for the first hour. Then it falls apart.
Is Rafelson’s 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice worth seeing? In some ways yes, but it’s a very deeply flawed movie. The 1943 Italian version and the 1946 Hollywood version have problems as well. No-one has yet made the definitive film adaptation of this novel.