If you had to sum up the achievement of The Postman Always Rings Twice in a single sentence, you might say that it is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, rather than the 1946 film of the same name. At a time when filtering film noir through the nostalgic lens of neo-noir was all the rage, it might have been expected that Bob Rafelson would offer up a pastiche of every previous film adaptation – this was the fifth – and adopt a plastic irrealism more in keeping with the operatic adaptation – the first neo-noir opera – that was released the following year. Instead, what ensues is probably the most faithful adaptation of Cain’s novel filmed to date, and a kind of riposte to neo-noir in the brutality with which it throws noir’s peculiar sexual politics into relief. Like Cain’s novel, most of the action unfolds at a rural Californian service station, manned by Nick Papadakis (John Colicos), a Greek immigrant, and his much younger wife, Cora Smith (Jessica Lange), who manages the diner while Nick works as a mechanic. When a drifter, Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson), gets work at the diner, he quickly strikes up a liasion with Cora, which just as quickly leads to them planning to murder Nick and make it look like an accident. With the exception of a few necessary bit characters – a policeman, a lawyer, a couple of customers – there’s really nobody else in the film, which could quite plausibly work as a stage play for four parts, with three in the main roles and one as a rotating extra.
In another context, that might make for a slightly stagey atmosphere, but there’s something about the way in which the story taps into the service station as a quintessential noir space that makes the action feel much more expansive and inclusive than it actually is. For, although noir is often thought of as an inextricably urban genre, it perhaps makes more sense as an exurban genre, insofar as the continual movement between pedestrian and automotive perception that drives the greatest noir movies is predicated on a fluid sprawl between exclusively pedestrian and exclusively automotive zones – city centre and highway – that, among other things, explains why noir is such a quintessentially Los Angeles genre, although New York noir was also fascinated by this moment where the sidewalk ends and perception becomes purely automotive. As a spectacle that is designed to be experienced at the speed and scale of mass automobile transit, the service station was understandably a privileged place within this noir sprawl, a stopover for characters driving, fleeing or simply living by night that often became a pressure-point or pivotal moment in their stories as well. If noir finally envisaged a city without limits – or a city limit that could only come with the end of night, and noir, itself – then the service station often felt like the relic of a limit, outskirt or boundary that once existed, only to be swallowed in a nightsprawl in which exurbanity and gloom were one and the same. In Cartographies of the Absolute, Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano speculate that efforts to map our social, political and economic reality are often most convincing when framed in terms of thwarted maps, and in many ways the service station played this kind of role within noir, testament to a sustained refusal or inability to map the limits of urban life that made it sometimes feel like a synecdoche for the entire noir project.
In some ways, Tay Garnett’s 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of the greatest elaborations of the service station as a noir space – and, to his credit, Rafelson doesn’t try to replicate Garnett’s lurid, hallucinatory, visionary sense of place, which easily outweighs John Garfield and even Lana Turner as the most charismatic presence in the 1946 film. Instead, the service station of the 1981 adaptation is considerably more banal, often shot by day, and cloaked in drab, dull, forgettable tones – neither noir nor Technicolor – that adopt a less existential and more pragmatic approach to the sprawl, with various pieces of infrastructure – especially advertising billboards – suggesting that it’s only a matter of time before this rural outpost is integrated into the Los Angeles catchment area. At first glance, that might seem a somewhat unlikely canvas for Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, but one of the key ways in which The Postman Always Rings Twice improves upon the 1946 version is in the way it frames the neon sign – an advertisement for the service station – that is erected by Nick at Frank’s recommendation, in order to drum up business. Although this may sound like a fairly nondescript event, it plays an extraordinarily important role in the film, both narratively, since its construction interrupts Frank and Cora’s first attempt to murder Nick – the attempt they might actually have got away with – and stylistically, since it provides a kind of beacon around which the drab banality of the rest of the film revolves, a signpost for a better life that none of the characters, in true noir spirit, seem able to attain in any lasting way. On top of all that, any renovation of such a restricted dramatic space is going to be an event of note, let alone when it is as incongruous and flamboyant as this sign, which seems to cement the service station’s transition from a rural-pedestrian to an incipient urban-automotive landscape, tall enough to be just glimpsed from wherever the limits of Los Angeles happen to be at this exact moment in time.
Of course, the sign also played a critical role in the 1946 adaptation, as well as in Cain’s novel itself. However, the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of Garnett’s version already feels quite close to neon – as does so much noir – with the result that the sign itself doesn’t stand out quite as emphatically as it does in Rafelson’s version. At the same time, neon had a considerably different meaning in the 80s than it did in the 40s, at least as far as cinematic depictions were concerned. First introduced to the United States in the 1920s and only reaching widespread usage and appeal by the 1930s, this “liquid fire” was a demotic language by the 1940s, even if continual developments in colours, tints and glasswork still gave it an exotic sheen as well. By the 1980s, it was old, even old-fashioned, and yet neon signage has come to define that decade more emphatically in the popular imagination than any of the decades during which it was introduced, refined and cemented as the great visual symbol of American urban nightlife. I’ve often wondered about why that might be – there aren’t many books on the history of neon signage! – and I’ve come up with a couple of speculative possibilities from talking to people about the period and watching films that make particular use of neon in their palettes. Firstly – and perhaps most importantly – the 80s witnessed some of the first restorations of decrepit urban centres as sanitised simulacra of their former selves, during which process neon signage itself was presumably also refurbished, remediated and rehabilitated of its older, seedier, more demotic connotations. Secondly, the anti-naturalism of neon was a perfect synecdoche for the pulsing, fluorescent, hyperreal luminosity of the 80s boom, just as a certain kind of washed-out, low-key, ambient naturalism was attuned to the recession backdrops of the 70s. Thirdly – and most speculatively – the development of MTV as a kind of apotheosis of colour television meant that most families had a kind of ersatz neon vocabulary – bright lines, fluorescent palettes, color anchors – in their home at all times, with the result that neon signage became aligned with televisual as much as cinematic spectacle in ways that hadn’t been possible in earlier decades. Whatever the reasons might be, however, it suffices to say that the demotic and aspirational power of neon was somehow revived in the 80s but with more of a focus on the aspiration – and the aspirational nostalgia – that also typified neo-noir.
Part of what makes Rafelson’s version of The Postman Always Rings Twice so compelling, then, is that this neon aspirationalism is isolated and somewhat reified as an anachronism, something that simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the mise-en-scene. Of course, there is already something comically incongruous about this giant service station sign paired with such a modest establishment and overseeing such a small backroad – it’s almost a sexual joke – but there’s also somethinng striking about the kind of dramatic shift it effects in Nykvist’s cinematography as well. Before and after the erection and display of the sign – which only occurs in a short scene halfway through – Nykvist puts in one of the most self-effacing efforts in his career, effectively erasing any trace of his distinctive cinematographic signature from the mise-en-scene to create something like a well-shot, well-framed and well-lit telemovie. With the sign, however, we are back in the realm of the chilly luminosity that made him such a precious collaborator with Bergman, and there is something about that movement between banality and sublimity – and the suddenness with which Nykvist announces his credentials as cinematographic auteur only to almost immediately subsume them again – that ruptures the kernel of noir stylistics more emphatically than Garnett’s version. It is as if all the stylistic consolations of noir as a genre were condensed to one spectacle that is peremptorily discarded as soon as it has served its spectacular purpose.
However, while both Rafelson and Nykvist may play their parts in this brutal implosion of noir, it’s undoubtedly David Mamet’s script that drives the film, offering Nicholson and Lange the opportunity to put in two of the darkest, bleakest and most unsympathetic performances of their careers, which is really saying something. Given the plosive staginess of Mamet’s theatrical style, you’d think there’d be something of an epiphany in seeing him paired with a writer like Cain, as well as a register like noir, but in fact the overlap is so natural that Mamet simply seems to inhabit and expand noir from the inside, like a 1930s or 1940s screenwriter writing outside the censorship boundaries operating at the time. At its strongest, the film actually doesn’t feel like an adaptation of Cain’s work so much as a direct continuation of Mamet’s plays of the the 1970s, and especially those plays like The Woods and Sexual Perversity in Chicago that were about exploring the brutalist limits of heterosexual coupledom, plays in which heterosexuality itself was offered up as the most disturbing, degrading and debilitating perversion imaginable. In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that this is Mamet’s single vilest and most misogynist vision of heterosexuality ever committed to screen – it far outdoes Oleanna – which is all the more startling in that it takes place amidst the kinds of period trappings and carefully cultivated mise-en-scenes that usually signify tasteful restraint and aestheticist detachment.
Granted, it would be inaccurate to say that the film is not restrained, since a great deal of it plays out in the kinds of brooding, ponderous, heavy silences that make noir such a claustrophobically compelling experience to watch. But, at the end of the day, these more contemplative sections feel like so many cushioning reprieves between the sex scenes, which are what really define the film, and are closer to the most extreme moments in Sam Peckinpah than anything putatively associated with the neo-noir lineage. In the most frank and explicit way, every sex scene between Frank and Cora takes place as rape, while the film goes beyond even that to present domestic violence as a necessary part of the sexual momentum that keeps them together, with one of the most disturbing sex scenes prefaced by Frank coming home and simply punching Cora in the buttocks with all his might in an – apparent – attempt to get her to go to bed with him. For all that the murder initially seems like a dangerous but necessary inconvenience standing between Frank and Cora living together, it quickly comes to feel like a critical libidinal ingredient in their relationship, although not in the morbidly exotic manner of, say, Basic Instinct, but as a part of a franker association of pleasure with pain that is enormously confronting to watch, and was presumably one of the inspirations behind casting Jack Nicholson in Burton’s Batman, with his expressions here often recalling those of Jack Napier just before he was transformed into the Joker. I’ve always found those to be Nicholson’s most eerie moments in Batman, just because they draw on everything about his face that is already hyperbolic, hyperreal and somewhat prosthetic, and there’s more than a touch of that here as well, with most of the critical capitulations in Frank and Cora’s pre-sex struggles resolved in and around cunnilingus – as if, in the noir imagination, this were somehow the best way to force a woman’s will – which imbues Nicholson’s expressions with something crazily cunninlingual as well, as if his face were always on the verge of morphing into an agent of subjugation in the most brutal, visceral and intrusive manner.
In that sense, the key scene in the film is the murder itself, which takes place as a staged car crash that requires Nick and Cora to beat each other up in order to make it appear as if they sustained serious injuries in the accident. According to the logic of the film, Cora has to cop a bigger beating than Nick, and it’s inevitably only a matter of time before this stylised, staged domestic violence segues into yet another brutal sex scene, in possibly the most disturbing couple of minutes in the film. Watching it, I was horrified, and yet there is also something quite striking about the mercilessness with which Mamet, Rafelson and Nykvist throw the sexual politics of noir into stark relief instead of glossing them over with the stylistic sheen of neo-noir. There’s a total, brutal bleakness at the the heart of noir, and in some ways the subject of this version of The Postman Always Rings Twice is the sheer perversity of turning that bleakness into an object of nostalgic veneration and stylistic aspiration in the first place. If, as Fredric Jameson suggests, it was Nicholson’s performance in Chinatown that started that neo-noir craze, then The Postman Always Rings Twice is the anti-Chinatown, an attempt to undo the entire neo-noir lineage – a lineage that would just start to really gain traction with Body Heat six months later – in a single film, and the most disturbing and impressive thing about that destructive project is how absolutely it succeeds.