ROYAL PALMS ALWAYS look mangy in Los Angeles--like furry, drooping tarantulas. They are hugely out of place. There's never been anything tropical about L.A., and no matter how many improbable pastels they slap down on the stucco bungalows, it will always remain a splayed, urban steamvat.
There are those who would have us believe that L.A. is the happy zenith of our Westward Ho, but the truth of the matter remains that the city stands as positive proof that William Bradford was right when he suspected we were bound for horror from the moment we hit Plymouth. Some fundamental hideousness has always festered in the American mind, and as it rolled west it seemed to snowball, until, three thousand miles later, it had become an entire metropolis filled with ragged vegetation and arthropodal people. L.A. siphons off the nation's psychoceramics the same way it siphons off water from the Great Divide.
Of course, it took a while for the realization to sink in. Up until the Second World War, L.A. managed to hide itself behind its silver screens, and the news from the Coast was usually good. People were dancing out there. And singing. And repenting. During the war, though, a whole new style of movie started skulking out of the Coast. The French labelled it film noir, but coining the phrase was about as close as Gallic sensibilities could ever get to it. No Frenchman could truly understand a city like L.A., and that, metaphorically at least, was what film noir was all about. The term was used to describe a slew of films, the likes of Double Indemnity or The Killers. which were stepchildren of earlier gangster movies but which now had a peculiarly fetid air to them--a heedless, languishing cynicism. Noir heroes always talked like they'd been to hell and back and found it was nothing compared to Southern. California. Noir's creed was that we were all small-time punks scheming our way to the top of a garbage pile. L.A. was the setting for a lot of these films--it seemed the logical place of culmination. It was as if we'd pushed the scum in front of us all the way across the continent, and then we ran into the Pacific and it all started piling in on top of us.
It's probably apocryphal, but they say that the original version of The Postman Always Rings Twice inspired Camus to write The Stranger. It's pretty difficult to imagine old Albert sitting in a movie theater, watching a movie that oozes of sex and murder, and coming up with the notion of nobility in the face of the Abyss. It's easier to picture Mickey Spillane sitting there with a bunch of his corporate-thugs and coming up with the idea for a whole series of pulp thrillers. Maybe there's some meaning lurking in the fact that we were gushing over Sinatra while the French were building the Maginot Line. It doesn't really matter much. If Camus had seen Bob Rafelson's latest version of Postman, it would have inspired him to join the merchant marine.
BOB RAFELSON has a reputation for being another of those Hollywood renegades led by his own vision who refuses to take any stock in the more pervasive trends in the business. He's probably more a choreographer than a director, since he claims he likes to set up situations in which the acting evolves spontaneously. Maybe he really does know what he's doing--maybe his vision is unfailing--but somehow there's always this nagging incompleteness in his movies. The confidence of a genuine masterwork seems to seep out of Five Easy Pieces, but it's almost impossible to tell why. He has an obsession with isolated, emotionally-distant characters, and he shows them with remarkable clarity. One wonders, though, if he's really exploring them. The King of Marvin Gardens might have been his best movie, but it was hell to sit through even though Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern were clearly doing something extraordinary. He's a maker of strange hybrids, this Rafelson, and with The Postman Always Rings Twice he has made another of his mutant masterpieces.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (no one knows what the title alludes to), like the scripts to practically all the noir classics, is a treatise on lust and betrayal. Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson), is a small-time drifter with a record of petty crimes, who is being drawn into L.A.'s vortex out of sheer statis. As James Cain conceived him in the 1934 novel. Chambers is a sardonic son of a bitch with no past to speak of, and no future worth mentioning. On his way to the city, Chambers drops off at a roadside diner to scam a meal off the owner. The owner is a sleazy, belching Horatio Algier-type from Greece named Nick Papadakis. Chambers wants nothing to do with him until suddenly he spots Papadakis's wife, Cora. As Cain wrote:
Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for her shape, she wasn't any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made you want to mash them in for her.
The existential hero has drifted into a genuine sinkhole. He hates Papadakis, with his affinity for cheap wine and Caruso records, but he suddenly finds himself wanting this woman, so badly that he can't even keep anything in his stomach. It's obvious that Chambers and Cora are on some cutting edge that Papadakis will never know Papadakis loves America. He goes out to get a twenty-foot neon sign which shows an American flag shaking hands with a Greek flag. Chambers is nowhere near that state of mind. While Papadakis is gone. Chambers and Cora go after each other like demons. Cora begs Chambers to bite her. When he kisses her he says he can feel the blood spurt into his mouth. Papadakis hires Chambers to run his gas station.
Nicholson always has an aura of unnatural tension around him--he seems to wait a split second too long before reacting, and even then all of this extremes, violent or boyish, flash out of those same, perpetually half-shut eyes. With his hairline receding and the lines of his face hardening now into some sort of death mask. Nicholson doesn't try to play Chambers as the twenty-three year old punk Cain envisioned. Instead he slouches around like a bored satyr. He seems to revel in his decay, in his unnerving ability to play an utterly reptilian Don Juan.
Rafelson clearly knows the depth of Nicholson's talent because the camera is constantly moving in for those tiny flashes of expression that probably would have been lost with another director. This is one of the elements that makes the movie feel so masterful--Rafelson wants you to notice the facial ticks and pulsing veins in his quick close-ups. He is no less indulgent of Jessica Lange as she goes through her role of the petulant hellcat. Again and again. Rafelson sets up scenes that point to her vicious, fatal beauty, to give the sense that it is doomed from the start. His camera lingers, constantly circling Nicholson and Lange and they creep around each other in their American dance macabre.
In some respects, this extraordinary care is fatal to Rafelson. The movie could have been shot through cobwebs, with its muted, overcast tones. Every surface seems decayed, and he hovers over the details in his sets until the smallest of them seem laden with meaning. He approaches each seene as if they were miniatures in and of themselves, and they are often brilliant. The colors are all diffused to give the stylistic impression of the earlier noir films. But he seems to construct his films like a mosaic, and it results in a completely discordant sense of pace.
Melodrama, after all, is what Postman is all about. Chambers and Cora plot to kill her husband so they can be together, and after one botched attempt, they succeed in murdering him in a staged car accident. This gets them in trouble with the law, but with the aid of a serpentine lawyer, they manage to get off. Cain wrote his novel in the mucous-ridden voice of the truly paranoid chain-smoker, and his hard-boiled story was really a then-shocking morality play where morality loses all together. Everyone turns on everyone else; Cora turns on Chambers in court, Chambers cheats on Cora, and eventually Fate turns on both of them.
Rafelson, however, refuses to let these betrayals unwind in their own frenetic fashion. Scenes of furious violence are undercut by his reluctance to leave the action before every angle has been explored. The result is a collection of brilliant scenes which don't seem to be related in time. Playwright David Mamet has taken most of the xenophobia and complication out of Cain's novel, and left in their places huge gaps for Rafelson to muse over. But one suspects Rafelson didn't even notice.
IT IS PROBABLY impossible to recreate film noir since it is essentially a process of style. The luscious black and whites, the jutting angles, the rainy nights--they're all television staple now and can no longer bear the burden, as they once did, of being some outward reflection of the nation's inner soul.
Even worse, the passions which drove noir seem almost charming today. When Roman Polanski made the mock-noir Chinatown, he had to slice open Nicholson's nostril to get the same effect that was once accomplished by showing a couple of thugs lurking outside the window. Leave it to the Reader's Digest to mourn our passing national innocence--but the real problem is we've lost our faith in passion. Murder and passion seem almost antithetical at the present, and adultery--well, adultery is for adolescents in the 80s.
What Rafelson ends up with, then, is a period piece, haunting in its intensity, but ultimately, distant and emotionless. We end up watching it like clinicians. Maybe disgust and rage really are apt subjects for nostalgia--and a lot would probably say that it's a good thing. But maybe that's what they really meant by the Big Sleep.