DVD review of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

The 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice was recently released on Blu-Ray. (Warner Bros. Home Video / January 29, 2014)

James M. Cain's 1934 novel of passion, murder, and (just maybe) love — one of the progenitors of the noir attitude — has been filmed roughly a dozen times, often without attribution, in France, Italy, Japan, Germany, Hungary, and — I kid you not — Bhutan.

The first official version was the 1946 MGM film with John Garfield and Lana Turner. Unsurprisingly, given the period, the sexual heat that drives the whole thing is toned down to almost nothing. Even Garfield's raw sexuality and Turner's va-va-voom looks couldn't rescue it. This omission is the main justification for Bob Rafelson's 1981 remake. Of course, there's also Jack Nicholson (coming off “The Shining”) and Jessica Lange (in her first major film role since her debut in the 1976 “King Kong”).

Some aspects of the film have dated badly: the first “love” scene is essentially Nicholson raping Lange, until her resistance melts, because, you know, she really wanted it all along. The moral seems to be that skill at giving pleasure trumps being a bum, an ex-con, and an altogether rotten guy. For all that, Nicholson's sleazy charm gives the character a certain degree of perverse oomph.

The film has never been available on video in a decent transfer or the correct aspect ratio, deficiencies that make the new Blu-ray a very welcome upgrade.

The release's other big draw is its one substantial extra — a commentary track by Nicholson, Rafelson, and screenwriter David Mamet, each apparently recorded alone and then edited together. Since the resulting compilation track doesn't cover every scene in the film, the commentary isn't presented as just a second English audio track. Rather, it's paired with its own video track, comprising just the scenes being discussed, which total about two-thirds of the running time. The downside, of course, is that you can't just switch between dialogue and commentary on the fly — a major inconvenience.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Warner Home Video, Blu-ray, $19.98)

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ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).