Jessica Lange Propels Postman to the Heights of Neo Noir

By Kieran Mulvaney

Controversial at the time of its 1981 release, its murderous twists feel straight out of a Coen brothers movie.


On the face of it, the plotline of The Postman Always Rings Twice is straight from the femme fatale playbook: boy meets girl, boy has affair with girl, girl persuades boy to murder her husband. The relationship between Cora and Depression-era drifter Frank is, unlike others in the genre, one of genuine passion rather than premeditation. But it is not obviously one of affection; not until the very end is there a sense that the two might genuinely fall in love with each other, which only serves to accentuate the tragedy of what’s to come.

We first meet Frank (Jack Nicholson) when he hitches a ride from blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Christopher Lloyd to a truck stop run by friendly Greek immigrant Nick Papadakis (John Colicos). His intent is to carry out a simple grift, to load up on steak and eggs and leave without paying. But a sight of Nick’s much younger wife Cora (Jessica Lange) in the kitchen brings yet baser instincts to the fore, leading swiftly to an affair and thoughts that turn first to flight and then to murder.

Nearly 40 years on, certain elements of Bob Rafelson’s remake of the 1946 Lana Turner vehicle have inevitably aged better than others. Frank and Cora’s multiple plans to send Nick to the grave frankly suggest a Coen brothers plot, complete with a cameo from a reproachful Frances McDormand. And it is now hard to fathom the furor that swirled around the movie’s sex scenes, considered at the time to be so raw, Lana Turner condemned the remake as “pornographic trash.” To a modern audience they seem wholly unremarkable, and absent their shock value, the rest of the movie is forced to work harder to convey the visceral nature of Cora and Frank’s passion, a relationship that seems to thrive as much on pain as on pleasure. That it ultimately succeeds is testament to Nicholson and Lange’s ability to express amity and enmity in equal measure, as we come to realize that once Cora and Frank have set out on the path they have chosen, they are simply unable to find the off-ramp.

The look and feel of the movie, however, have held up strongly. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography remains beautiful and timeless. The screenplay — the first by acclaimed playwright David Mamet — is crisp, benefiting greatly from the decision to eschew the approach of the 1946 version and the source novel, in which the plot was narrated with a flashback voice-over by Frank.

Nicholson casually inhabits Frank, in a perfect thread-the-needle performance that emphasizes Frank’s insouciance. This is a character destined to drift through life without ever experiencing any great depth of connection with those he encounters.

The star, however, is Lange, exuding a knowing sensuality at every turn. She conveys innocence one moment and seductiveness the next with the faintest tweak to her facial expression. Having already enchanted a giant gorilla in a 1976 remake of King Kong, and entranced Roy Scheider as the Angel of Death in All That Jazz, Lange would, within months of Postman’s release, become the first performer in four decades to receive two Oscar nominations in the same year (for Frances and Tootsie). For all its plot twists and controversies, The Postman Always Rings Twice is most worth watching all these years later to luxuriate in a talented performer truly hitting her stride.