Luchino Visconti’s first feature, Ossessione, also stands as the first Italian neo-realist film, spearheading a movement created as much by circumstance (World War II) as it was by the ideologies of directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Giuseppe De Santis (one of the writers of Ossessione as well as an assistant director). Exemplified by their non-professional casts, location shooting and hard-hitting storylines, many of the neo-realist films of the forties still stand up today as immensely powerful pieces of cinema. What makes this particular work an interesting work is not so much its status as a starting point, but rather its (in this context) unusual source material, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Cain, of course, was a writer of pulp fictions, many of which were translated onto the big screen, prompting at least three classics: Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford and another adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, this one made in 1946 and starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. Yet it would be wrong to compare Ossessione to these film noirs or any others as it fails almost entirely as a thriller. Certainly, the novel’s plot remains intact - a drifter stops at a roadside restaurant and begins an affair with the owner’s wife, an event which leads to the husband’s death - but Visconti is clearly interested in other things. If the picture were edited down to a brisker 80 minute duration then perhaps it could operate at this level, but at a roomier two hour plus running time the characters are able to breathe a little easier and develop a little more, seemingly less tied down by the next plot twist. Indeed, it is only when the terrific doom-laden score by Giuseppe Rosati burst onto the screen that we remember that this is, in part, genre cinema and that somebody has been, or is about to be, murdered.
The intentions behind the piece then are more characteristically “Visconti” that the Cain connection would suggest. It would appear that the author’s potboiler is merely serving a framework upon which the director can build the first of the many character studies that would largely make up his filmography. For much of the first half the focus is squarely on the two men: Gino the drifter (played by Massimo Girotti) and Bragana the restaurant’s owner (Juan de Landa). Both are seen through their reactions to the woman, Giovanna (Clara Calamai), ably allowing both the contrasts and similarities of their personalities to be laid bare. Gino, on the one hand, is young, slim and seductive, whereas Bragana is mostly a source of ridicule; repulsive to his wife (who only married to improve her status) and referred to as “the fat man” before we can learn his name. Indeed, Visconti grants both men a shirtless moment just to underline their respective levels of appeal. And yet, neither is quite so easy to categorise. Gino also comes across as a bit simple and naive, plus his initial motives for beginning the affair are never clear and certainly don’t appear to be honourable - it is highly unlikely that he wishes to save Giovanna from her loveless marriage. Bragana also has another side to his personality despite the threats of domestic violence - his major scene sees him competing in and winning a singing competition, reciting an aria from Verdi’s La Traviata and gaining a hefty round of applause.
Following his demise, however, the film undergoes a series a shifts, most notably one towards melodramatic territory (prompting comparisons with Visconti’s later works just as the complicated, incomplete relationship between the men prefigures elements found in Death in Venice and Conversation Piece). Elements of the thriller still remain - with a number of ambiguous police procedural scenes, their uncertain nature perhaps hinting at Visconti’s indifference to this aspect - but the Cain template becomes a much looser one allowing the murder’s effects on Gino and Giovanna to take centre stage. As if to emphasise this Visconti adds further depth to Gino, thereby removing any traces of him being a simple film noir stooge. He now assumes what has been Giovanna’s role as the put-upon member of the relationship, trapped in the restaurant trade lest the truth be revealed and rapidly turning to drink. With the role reversal in place, Giovanna becomes a much prominent figure, even if Gino is granted the greater amount of screen time. Up until this point she has been largely treated as an object by both the two men and Visconti, the audience’s introduction being a shot of her legs - her face and any characteristics being obscured. Yet as she becomes a weightier prospect, her motives also become more obscure. There are traces of the traditional femme fatale, but also that of a human being. Indeed, what holds the audience’s attention during the second half is the fact that these people seem real, and as such so do their tribulations however far removed from everyday life they may be.
This also points towards the reason why Ossessione still remains important to this day: its neo-realism. Belying his aristocratic background Visconti has a genuine feel for these people and the places they inhabit. The film’s power builds through the details - the tears in Gino’s vest, the difficulty he has signing his signature - details which in any other director‘s hands would become highlighted to such an absurd degree their magic would be lost entirely. If, that is, they would be considered for inclusion at all, for Ossessione is a film that never refrains from being dirty or from hinting at the darker underbelly of forties’ Italian society (prostitution, homosexuality). Indeed, of the two Hollywood remakes, it is the 1981 version by Bob Rafelson and starring Jack Nicholson which has a far greater affinity. In fact, Ossessione could be remade today shot by shot with actors imitating Girotti, et al exactly and modern audiences would hardly pick up on a single anachronism.
Unfortunately, Ossessione’s print quality is of very poor quality. Admittedly, the problems encountered differ from scene to scene, but they do include a huge amount of scratching and other blemishes, plus a softness/milkiness to the image. Thankfully, the latter is less common and the film does remain reasonably watchable, but surely a film of Ossessione’s stature should exist and be available in better condition. That this print is identical to the one used in Martin Scorsese’s 2001 documentary My Voyage to Italy, however, suggests that this may not be the case. Sadly, the sound doesn’t fare much better. The original mono has been preserved, but the various crackles match the damage seen on-screen. Certainly, the dialogue remains audible, but the film deserves better. (The English subtitles provided are burnt into the print, which may provoke further disappointment.)
As a concession, there is a commentary included amongst the special features (the others being a brief biography for Visconti and a link to the BFI’s website). Academics Lesley Caldwell and David Forgacs effectively operate as a tag team, taking turns to discuss, primarily, the mise en scene whilst touching on the political dimensions of the neo-realist approach as well as the influence Cain’s novel (the film was never officially released as an adaptation, by the way, and even successfully defended a plagiarism lawsuit). Most impressively, however, the pair have access to the original screenplay allowing them to clear up some of the ambiguities of the second half, plus their knowledge of the more Italian aspects of the film - the significance of the music, most notably the operas - proves especially welcome. However, the two do struggle to maintain their early momentum as the film progresses and the latter stages are marked by the huge periods of silence. In an attempt to cover these moments there is also a little too much description of what is occurring on-screen rather than analysis, but nonetheless the difficulties are far outweighed by plus points. Please note, however, that the dryness of tone may prompt the viewer to enjoy the commentary over a couple of listens rather than in one sitting.