Here, like In the Mouth of Madness, is another film which perhaps doesn’t quite qualify as ‘underrated’ as such. But still, although it has developed something of a lofty film-buff appreciation (I'm not sure 'fondness' is quite the right word), The Postman Always Rings Twice, Bob Rafelson’s grubby 1981 remake of the much loved 1946 noir touchstone, remains a hard sell.
Set amid the torrid rustlands of Depression-era California, Jack Nicholson plays Frank, a drifter who stops at a backwater diner run by the miserable Cora (Jessica Lange) and Nick, her ebullient but controlling older husband (a scenery-chomping John Colicos). Almost immediately Frank and Cora embark on a charged, physical affair which swiftly escalates into a scheme to murder Nick.
Postman is one of those films which is far from perfect but it’s a challenge to find fault with any single aspect of what’s onscreen. As well as beguiling performances from Lange and Nicholson, there is a spare script by David Mamet (his first for the screen), and stifling photography from Ingmar Bergman favourite Sven Nykvist. The film serves as an interesting companion piece to Five Easy Pieces, perhaps the best of Rafelson’s six collaborations with Nicholson, the actor’s first starring role and another examination of the emotional and existential dynamics of blue-collar down-and-outs.
The initial response to Postman was underwhelming. Roger Ebert found the explicitness and sheer abundance of sexual encounters between the two central characters overbearing, draining them of any nuanced interiority, their motives reduced to little beyond the animal. With a degree of hindsight, however, this is precisely what gives Postman its edge, the protagonists’ nihilistic primal urges, played out amid an atmosphere of stifling desperation, as compelling as they are repellent.
Hollywood in the 1980’s and early 90's would come to be littered with erotic thrillers, but few are possessed of the grime, squalour and authenticity which assails the viewer here.