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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 15.38%
Average: 23.08%
Pretty Bad: 15.38%
Total Crap46.15%

1 review, 7 user ratings

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Postman Always Rings Twice, The (1981)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Neurasthenic Noir"
1 stars

It came out the same year as "Body Heat," and while I have no love for that pretentious botch, it's at least preferable to this plodding waste of time.

The unsuccessful The Postman Always Rings Twice gets somewhat better in the second half, but even that isn't saying much because the overall view of the material is generally off. Taken from the classic 1934 crime novel by James M. Cain, which was adapted into a 1946 film version, the screenplay is by acclaimed playwright David Mamet, whose first screenplay this is, which by and large misses practically all the sultry kick of the source material. And with the overdeliberate direction by Bob Rafelson it's an unusually somber production for an attempt at a throwback to a film-noir -- swanky and sexy, no; stuffy and stultified, yes. After modestly budgeted cinematic endeavors Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and Stay Hungry, Rafelson is working in a bigger league this time around, and it seems to have frozen up his instincts, which, taking into account the dubiousness of his past pictures, weren't that stellar to begin with; it's handsome-enough-looking, I guess, what with an expert like cinematographer Sven Nykvist pulling duty, but in its entire two-hour running time there isn't a single expressive image or fully rounded scene that brings something genuine out of Cain's work. Everything's been fussed over to the point where nothing really breaks loose and plays -- you can't imagine the filmmakers going ahead with the project if they knew something this stodgy were the end result: it's like something that came out of a dusty can from the back of the cupboard; which isn't a bad way to describe Jack Nicholson's appearance, one of many miscalculations. In the book the anti-hero drifter/grifter Frank Chambers is a mesmerizing, handsome twenty-four-year-old roaming around the country partaking in small scams just to get by; but Nicholson, looking at least twenty years older, is seedy-looking and unappealing -- you can't see what women are drawn to, especially Nora (Jessica Lange), the sexually-unsatisfied young wife of Greek restaurant/gas-station owner Nick Papadakos (John Colicos), who gives a reluctant-to-commit Frank a job as a mechanic with room and board thrown in, and who Frank and Nora eventually plot to kill and make his death look like the result of a car accident for financial gain.

For a film that runs two minutes over the two-hour mark, hardly anything in it is satisfyingly developed, and the scenes that should be foolproof (like Frank and Nora furiously copulating on the hard ground outside the car with a dead Nick inside) come up short because Rafelson can't bring himself to install any enjoyable nastiness into the proceedings. The Postman Always Rings Twice is too high-minded to be tawdry, and yet it hasn't the committed intelligence to carry its weight on a contextual basis, either. The screenplay retains some of Cain's built-in ironies (Frank's doomed fate comes right when a newfound moral sense is developing), but they're breezed over with such imprecision that you can practically see the chalk marks not being hit; and though the production and set designs of nineteen-forties decor are accurate enough as far as I can tell, it's puzzling why the filmmakers felt they needed to make it a period piece at all being that murdering for lust and financial gain, and (as the second half shows us) sly defense attorneys and even slier life-insurance-company investigators, are hardly exclusive to a particular decade. Far too much of the time you're aware of the fatuous effort to implant something of a dated sensibility onto story components that would, incredulously enough, somehow make them more telling or significant, and it's this naivety that makes the film downright embarrassing. As for the sex scenes, especially with Frank and Nora going out it with supposed animalistic fury on a kitchen table, the juxtaposing is clunky and fragmented; of course, it doesn't help that Nicholson and Lange fail to work up an iota of either romantic or sexual chemistry. Lange, who, unlike Nicholson, looks her part, does all right, but Nicholson doesn't radiate much in the way of magnetism -- the performance is studied and joyless, as if his joie de vivre were depleted. Again, you can't see what Nora sees in Frank, thus leaving the story absent of a dramatic core. (Much better are Colicos, as the husband, and Michael Lerner, as an attorney.) Badly in need of compression and wit (not to mention a few degrees of extemporization to liven up this cinematic corpse), The Postman Always Rings Twice is the ultimate in neurasthenic-noir.

Read the novel or see the much-better 1946 version instead.

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originally posted: 01/26/13 11:14:31
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User Comments

9/26/15 Jack Oz Jessica Lange's stunning breakthrough! 4 stars
2/21/13 Steve The one improvement is a husband one can imagine murdering (unlike sweet Cecil Kellaway). 2 stars
2/09/05 Ray Decent remake 3 stars
10/07/04 R.W. Welch Falls short of the orginal. Male lead needs to be young and dumb here. 3 stars
9/03/04 T.B. It Alright, but the sex need be exit 3 stars
2/20/04 natasha_theobald why don't we do it in the kitchen.... haven't seen it in a while, but remember that scene 4 stars
2/18/04 Charles Tatum Terrible sequel; as sexy as Ernest Borgnine 2 stars
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  20-Mar-1981 (R)
  DVD: 20-Aug-1997



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