Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Vancity Noir: Jerichow, The Postman Always Rings Twice

Jerichow, which starts its run tomorrow at the Vancity Theatre, is a chilly European adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. It's been some 20 years since I've read that book, but I have it filed in my mind as an intense bit of hard-boiled crime that you're almost compelled to burn through in one sitting, as it feeds the thrill of transgression like nothing short of Bataille has done for me, otherwise; even Jim Thompson's creepy, misanthropic novels don't make being bad so appealing as this slim book, which works the Oedipal angle much more effectively than anything I've seen Thompson do (...and God knows he tried to work the Oedipal angle into his stories whenever he could; but always, it seemed, as an outsider, looking in on his bad men and theorizing about where they went wrong, judging them slightly and inviting you to do the same; he constructs their dilemmas like he's been consulting a textbook on psychoanalysis down in Lou Ford's basement. Cain strives in a much more straightforward way to invoke the desire of the male reader to fuck his mother and kill and replace his father - simple as that. It works so much better when the comfort of perspective is not granted). The story: you are an ambitious, broke younger man, with a controlling older "boss," who trusts you; but you're very aware of your boss' sexy, unhappy wife. He beats her sometimes, and you can see her making eyes at you. Your mission: seduce the wife, fuck her, take on her problems, "rescue" her from your boss by killing him, and replace him; you and his wife can live off his life insurance (or run his diner or snack food distribution business or whatever - the payday varies from adaptation to adaptation, I believe). Sin, crime, sex, murder: transgression. But will you get away with it? (I make it sound like a subplot to Grand Theft Auto).

The book has been adapted several times before, and I've seen, I believe, both American versions; the first, though a classic noir, has completely faded from my memory, while Jack Nicholson's enthusiastic muff-dive onto sultry Jessica Lange in the 1980 Bob Rafelson film dominates my memory of the remake, almost to the exclusion of all else. It's one of the most shockingly sexy moments in a mainstream American film, and bits of it even appear on celebrity porn sites. Having viewed it, I think, during its theatrical run as a boy - because by age 12, I was going to the movie theatre in Maple Ridge to see films like this, having decided that I liked dramas - I was curious to see if it would seem as shocking when I revisited the film some 20 years later (during my brief "Rafelson period," you understand), when the idea of cunnilingus (let alone star-on-star big-screen cunnilingus, however briefly depicted) wasn't quite so new to me (because at 12, I was completely stunned that such things even happened: the man puts his mouth where?). To my surprise, the scene still packed a punch in my 30's: maybe I just have a thing - okay, I do have a thing - for Jessica Lange... I don't know how well the film holds up, otherwise; Nicholson aside, it doesn't have much in common with the Rafelson that made Five Easy Pieces (or The King of Marvin Gardens or even the Nicholson-less Stay Hungry), seeming, as I recall, more like an exercise in nostalgia for films noir than a treatise on alienated upper class young men, but it might just bear looking at again, and I might just go see it tomorrow at the Vancity Theatre, depending on my mood. (Audience reactions to the mufffdive will be fun to observe, at the very least). Starting at 6:30, it should finish just in time for people to make it over to Richards on Richards for the Art Bergmann show. The film is a late addition to the Vancity's schedule, added to the bill with the initial screening of Christian Petzold's Jerichow, the new German adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice .

Whatever else one might say about Jerichow, it certainly isn't an exercise in nostalgia for classic American noir. For one, it's shot mostly outdoors, in bright sunlight, in semi-rural Germany, with none of the visual markings of the genre (strong black and white contrasts, urban landscapes, dark shadows, etc). The hero/antihero, too (Benno Fürmann) is hardly the archetypal noir transgressor, seeming, with his fit physique and close-cropped hair, more like some Euro soccer star than a man scheming on murder. He's almost too good-looking, in a very mainstream, "beefcake" kind of way, for me to quite buy into him being desperate for money, let alone being able to harbour sinful desires; "attractive" signfies "virtuous" in so many films that it's a hard thing to shake. These are not faults, though - a noir doesn't have to look any particular way, subverting genre constraints is always welcome, and the fact that Cain's text can survive transposition from 1930's America to 21st century Germany is a testament to its archetypal power. Thomas, our "drifter," is here a down-on-his luck soldier, returned from Afghanistan (where he learned skills that come in handy at various points in the film, but also earned a dishonorable discharge). Ali (Hilmi Sözer), the concession stand distributor who hires him to drive, is a Turkish immigrant, and simultaneously likable and somewhat pathetic; you sympathize with him, as a basically decent outsider who really is being screwed over by everyone, and at the same time feel a certain contempt for him, as he uses money, force, and cunning to control the people around him. Ali's wife, Laura, played by (I'm told) Petzold regular Nina Hoss, has a certain pale wounded fury to her, mostly restrained; she exudes a vague Lange-ishness, though there is little of the heat beween Hoss and Fürmann that Nicholson and Lange generated in the 1980's film. Your sympathies shift in interesting ways between characters; probably the most interesting moments are between Ali and Thomas, as they befriend each other even while the younger man is betraying his employer.

Don't want to say much more about Jerichow - it's an interesting variant on the story, and I greatly admired the ending, which, despite my familiarity with the book and having seen two other film adaptations (one twice), still managed to surprise me. Noir fans, first year psych students, and those familiar with Cain's novel will find more than enough to hold their interest here.
Of course, you can't really go see it tomorrow without running the risk of missing some of Art's performance, but it runs til April 2nd.

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