The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981): Nicholson’s Navy Striped Murder Suit
Jack Nicholson as Frank Chambers, dangerous drifter
Southern California, Spring 1934
Film: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Release Date: March 20, 1981
Director: Bob Rafelson
Costume Designer: Dorothy Jeakins
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
After posting about John Cassavetes in the 1964 remake of The Killers last week, I wanted to focus on another color remake of classic film noir: the 1981 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, reuniting Nicholson with director Bob Rafelson following their earlier collaborations in Head (1968), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972).
The most prominent adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel had been released in 1946 starring John Garfield and Lana Turner and remains a quintessential noir for its shadowy black-and-white cinematography, innuendo-laced dialogue, and stock characters like the cynical anti-hero and femme fatale. Rafelson’s remake was produced considerably after the restrictive Production Code, allowing more blatantly savage and sensuous depictions of what could have only been hinted at decades earlier. (Lana Turner reportedly refused to see the remake that she deemed “pornographic trash.”)
I may be among the minority who actually prefers watching this adaptation to the famous 1946 production—which isn’t necessarily to say it’s better, but I do appreciate the more literal presentations of the stark, sweaty duplicity present in Cain’s novel, an exploration in human weakness, presented here in full color and with an intense verisimilitude from the set decoration to the animalistic passion between Nicholson and Lange… as well as Nicholson and his then-girlfriend Anjelica Huston, who appears in a small but welcome part as a seductive lion tamer.
“The movie is a triumph of atmosphere,” commented Roger Ebert in his contemporary review, which was otherwise less than complimentary. “Every last weathered Coke sign, every old auto and old overcoat and old cliché have been put in with loving care.”
Set in 1934, the same year Cain’s novel was published, conniving drifter Frank Chambers (Nicholson) has rooked his way into a job as a mechanic at a rural roadside diner/gas station owned by the proudly Greek and gregarious Nick Papadakis (John Colicos) and his gorgeous but bored wife, Cora (Lange). Another strength of this adaptation is a clearer understanding of why the toxic Frank and Cora are drawn to each other—and away from decency—at every opportunity, physically unable to keep their hands (and then some) off of each other.
This being a James M. Cain story, it isn’t long before the romance evolves into a murderous partnership with Frank and Cora plotting Nick’s demise. The two amateurs fail at their first attempt, landing Nick in the hospital and the two lovers scratching their heads. At a party celebrating Nick’s release from the hospital, he ironically thanks Frank for saving his life, resulting in a round of applause from Nick’s extended family for his attempted killer! The conflicted Cora attempts to call off her affair with Frank during the party, only to later tearfully refuse to let him go, and the two resume their lethal scheming to kill Nick… this time in a staged car accident.
What’d He Wear?
Frank spends the first act cycling through dirty clothes apropos his vagabond days of drifting that led to his taking his job at the Twin Oaks Tavern. Befitting the depths of his criminal plotting with Cora, Frank begins dressing more like a gangster than a mechanic in his striped suit and silky blood-red shirt.
Frank’s suit is a rich navy-blue flannel with stripes alternating in a gray chalk-stripe and muted sets of three narrow burgundy stripes. Styled consistently with the double-breasted tailoring fashionable through the 1930s, the jacket has broad peak lapels that point sharply at each wide, padded shoulder, wrapping across the torso in the traditional 6×2-button configuration, though Frank rarely wears it buttoned. The ventless jacket has three-button cuffs, straight jetted hip pockets, and a welted breast pocket.
The double reverse-pleated trousers appear to be worn a little lower than was conventional through the ’30s, perhaps reflective of how a laidback drifter like Frank Chambers would dress while also making Nicholson’s character a little more contemporary to early ’80s audiences. (Let’s hope the height of his trouser waistband was all that most men in the audience could relate to!)
The trousers have side pockets, jetted back pockets, and era-informed turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms. Belt loops were increasingly common on men’s suit trousers by this time, and Frank holds his up with a well-worn brown leather belt with a squared silver-toned enclosed buckle, though the belt is so long that he has to wrap the tail around itself to the left of the buckle.
One gets the impression Frank isn’t used to dressing well, reinforced by his ignoring the wisdom to avoid redundant “belt and braces” as he also holds up his trousers with a set of white suspenders with white leather double-ears, connected to buttons along the inside of the trouser waistband.
Frank debuts his suit at the Papadakis family celebration to welcome Nick home from the hospital, worn with a red silk sport shirt we’re also seeing for the first time. While the Papadakis family revelers may interpret the shirt as festive, the blood-red cloth suggests that Frank even more dedicated to killing the garrulous man standing in the way of a lifetime with Cora.
The long-sleeved shirt has gold-threaded stitching contrasting along all edges, including the camp collar, cuffs, and the flaps covering the top of both chest pockets. The shirt has a plain (French) front, sans placket, with flat red sew-through buttons in addition to a mixed brown four-hole button under the right collar leaf that fastens through a loop on the left side when Frank buttons to the neck in order to wear his solid dark navy tie.
For the evening car trip, Frank dons his usual shabby brown felt fedora, a lower-crowned style with a pinched front, self-edged brim, and a dirty brown grosgrain silk band.
Despite the rest of his new wardrobe, Frank appears to still be wearing his usual worn-in dark brown leather wingtip shoes with their broguing detail and five-eyelet derby-style lacing. His pale gray socks provide a sharp—and unsightly—contrast against the trouser bottoms and shoes.
How to Get the Look
The famous idiom says to dress for the job you want, so Frank sartorially shifts from mechanic to murderer in his silky blood-red camp shirt, worn with a dark striped double-breasted suit and—for the climactic murder—a dark tie and broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes.
- Navy alternating-stripe flannel double-breasted suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Red silk long-sleeved sport shirt with camp collar (with loop), plain front, two flapped chest pockets, button cuffs, and contrasting gold-thread edge stitching
- Dark navy tie
- White suspenders with white leather double-ears
- Brown leather belt with rectangular steel enclosed buckle
- Dark brown leather 5-eyelet wingtip derby brogues
- Pale-gray socks
- Brown felt fedora with brown grosgrain band
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Wearing a double breasted suit with a camp collar shirt? Interesting. I bet that partially inspired Tubbs’ wardrobe for Miami Vice.
This movie is so damn underrated. I’m a huge fan of the original novel, and I read that first. Then I watched the two adaptations in order. I love all three, but this film somehow manages to be my favorite over both the novel (which almost never happens with me) and the original film (which is still great and I acknowledge has the best ending).