When auditions for this movie were taking place, Director Bob Rafelson wrote the name of the actress he thought should be cast as Cora Papadakis and put it inside a sealed envelope. Several months later, Rafelson gave the letter to Jessica Lange, whose name was inside.
This is the fourth adaptation of the novel. The first was French, Le dernier tournant (1939), the second was Italian, Ossessione (1943), and the third in English, and American, was The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). As such, this film was the second English language version, but was the first version in color, as all three earlier versions were in black and white.
This movie is arguably the first of the 1980s and 1990s erotic adult thrillers. The picture was soon followed about six months later by Body Heat (1981), then Fatal Attraction (1987), The Grifters (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992).
When plotting the characterization for the role of Cora, Jessica Lange decided the young woman had first tried to make it as a movie actress in Hollywood, struck out, and eventually married. When Jack Nicholson learned this, he gave her the autobiography of trashy, blonde, B-movie actress Barbara Payton ("I Am Not Ashamed", published in 1963.) Lange based her character's history partly on Payton, who, like her, was born in Cloquet, Minnesota.
Irish film censorship in the early 1980s was known for its strict application of censorship of screen sex (as depicted in this film) and its strict defense of family values. This film set a major precedent, as it was passed uncut by the Irish film censor for theatrical release in Ireland in 1981.
After the success of this movie, Butterfly (1982), another filmed adaptation of a novel by James M. Cain was made and released. Also released was Body Heat (1981), which though not technically a remake of Double Indemnity (1944) (also from the novel by James M. Cain), did reference it considerably. The story and characters closely parallel the earlier film. Ned, Matty, and Oscar are Walter, Phyllis, and Keyes respectively.
Apparently, James M. Cain's publishers kept Ossessione (1943), the second version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice", off American screens until 1976, which was only five years before this movie was released.
This is one of two film versions of Cain's novel that is now owned by Warner Brothers Entertainment, which acquired the film through its 1989 purchase of Lorimar. Warner Brothers also owns the 1946 MGM version, which was part of the pre-1986 MGM library acquired by Turner Entertainment in 1986 (which merged with Warner Brothers in 1996). MGM was responsible for the first video release of the 1981 version, through its joint venture with CBS, MGM/CBS Home Video, which held the video rights to Lorimar's library at the time. When CBS left the MGM joint venture (reorganized as MGM/UA Home Video) to team up with 20th Century Fox, it took the Lorimar video rights with them.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The film is notable for its on the kitchen table sex scene between Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. The scene was so realistic, that many audiences believed that it was real, and not simulated sex, a notion denied by Nicholson and Lange. When the scene was shot, the set was cleared. Only Director Bob Rafelson and Cinematographer Sven Nykvist were present alongside Nicholson and Lange.