Frank and Cora, the sordid, volatile lovers of James M. Cain's hard-boiled classic, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," sniff and stalk each other like lustful mutts for two terse chapters.
This brief mating dance ends with the famous erotic blackout of Chapter Two, when a lucky accident sends Cora's unsuspecting husband, Nick Papadakis, the proprietor of a gas station and diner on the outskirts of Glendale, into Los Angeles for the day. Frank, the Depression-era drifter hired by Nick as a mechanic and handyman, corners Cora in the kitchen: "I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers . . . 'Bite me! Bite me!' I bit her. I sunk my teeth in to her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs."
A movie version of Cain's novel -- a vivid and scandalous sensation in 1934, banned in Boston and elsewhere -- doesn't necessarily require a literal depiction of this vampirish embrace. But a version that fails to duplicate the spirit of raw, perilous sexual release uniting Frank and Cora dooms itself to infidelity and irrelevance.
The new edition of "Postman," opening today at area theaters, stands guilty on both counts, despite a handsome production, fitfully effective portrayals of the mismated Papadakises by Jessica Lange and John Colicos, and relaxed standards of screen morality. One's mild surprise at the absence of "Bite me!," and understandable casualty of the 1946 production with John Garfield and Lana Turner in the roles now played by Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, evolves into weary regret when it becomes apparent that director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter David Mamet haven't invented encounters of comparable tawdry impact and resonance, even when exercising the contemporary option of graphic eroticism.
The substitute for "Bite me!" is a strenuously "hot" sequence. Nicholson subdues Lange, the scuffle ending as they feverishly grope and gallop to climax on the kitchen table where Cora has been baking. Right from the start, there's a curious distortion of Cain's implications, with Lange fighting off Nicholson for a considerable period before deciding to cooperate. Nicholson looks severly overmatched against Lange but the basic problem is that the filmmakers miss the mutuality of the obsession envisioned by Cain -- an attraction that enslaves Frank and Cora, inspiring murder and betrayal in the wake of adulterous passion.
Similar oversights and miscalculations persist throughout the movie, blunting and unraveling situations that were once tautly, if luridly, expressive. It's not that Rafelson and Mamet are above lurid touches. They just apply them in tedious, disillusioning ways.
The picture begins slipping away all too soon after a splendidly visualized opening sequence, in which distant lights loom like cat's eyes on a hillside and the presence of Nicholson as Frank, hitchhiking at night, is disclosed first by the brief glow of a cigarette and then by the headlights of an approaching car. As the dubious embellishments profilerate and the pace settles into a plot, the realization sets in that it may take another generation before Hollywood does it right by Cain's novel.
Garfield and Turner actually smoldered more effectively than Nicholson and Lange pretent to ignite. The soggy sexual component in the remake is Nicholson, looking at least a decade too old to generate the approporiate sparks. His Frank suggests an aging derelict more than an insinuating, amoral young brute. The further disillusioning irony is that John Colicos cuts a more forceful and exotic masculine figure as Nick, who is supposed to leave sultry Cora so hatefully cold that she conspires to murder him.
The hatred itself is obscured to some extent by another curious oversight: the failure to be as appalling specific about Cora's feelings as Cain was. In the novel it's Cora who first suggests murdering Nick. When Frank says, "He never did anything to me. He's all right," she snaps, "The hell he's all right. He stinks, I tell you. He's greasy and he stinks."
That greasy remark reverberated in an eerie way. Jessica Lange's animosity never seems as intense or so bluntly articulated. Depsite the sexual workouts, she's a softened adaptation of Cain's antiheroine, and Lange reveals a flair for pathos that's surprising and attractive.
Although a self-condemned "hellcat," Cain's Cora was endowed with curious contradictions. The homicidal lust coexisted with strong desires for stability and security and with strong stirrings of shame and remorse. The incongruous humane tendencies seem to bring out the best in Lange, a situation that may benefit her career while making something vaguely incomprehensible out of Cora.
Lange creates an enticing, mock-slatternly impression, especially when given a good vamp bit, like tossing curly tresses out of her eyes while murmering, "I guess you can call me Cora." Her teeth, gleaming and slightly protruding behind seductively parted, bowed and swollen lips, are the most suggestive erotic emblem in the picture. Given this feature, Nicholson should probably be pleading "Bite me!"
But imposing as Lange appears next to Nicholson, she isn't big enough to carry a defused sex bomb of a crime movie.It also seems unlikely that she could give Colicos a clout behind the ear with a sackful of ball bearings while he was standing in the shower. This is one of many occasions when you're utterly baffled by the filmmakers' insistence of altering details from the novel. Cain's Nick was in the tub when sapped by his unloving Cora. What's the point of complicating this little detail?
Rafelson and Mamet reduce Cain's chilling denouement to an absentminded throwaway, devoid of urgency, suspense and barque morbidiy. They've ditched the haunting epilogue, in which Frank endeavored to sum everything up from Death Row, but under the muddled cricumstances, it's probably a blessing in disguise. This version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" goes off course long before Frank and Cora take their last fateful ride.