Clara Calamai in Ossessione (1943)

OSSESSIONE (Obsession)

(director/writer: Luchino Visconti; screenwriter: Mario Alicata/Antonio Pietrangeli/Gianni Puccini/Giuseppe De Santis/from the novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain; cinematographers: Domenico Scala/ Aldo Tonti; editor: Mario Serandrei; music: Giuseppe Rosati; cast: Clara Calamai (Giovanna Bragana), Massimo Girotti (Gino Costa), Dhia Cristiani (Anita), Elio Marcuzzo (Lo Spagnolo), Vittorio Duse (The detective), Michele Riccardini (Don Remigio), Juan de Landa (Giuseppe Bragana); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Libero Solaroli; Ajay Film Company/ICI Roma; 1943-Italy, in Italian with English subtitles)
“The first feature film directed by Luchino Visconti is a beaut and holds up well today as a slice-of-life drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first feature film directed by Luchino Visconti is a beaut and holds up well today as a slice-of-life drama. It rings in the new style of filmmaking started in Italy called neo-realism; later that school was best known for reflecting the filmmaking styles of Rossellini, De Sica, and many others. Neo-realism films tell stories about the poor and disenfranchised, and it uses natural lights and features mostly amateur actors. This B/W film transposes James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” to the Ferrara region of Fascist Italy. It was also filmed twice in the US, first in the glossy classic film noir 1946 version with Lana Turner and John Garfield and then in the less successful 1981 version with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Visconti got the idea of using that novel from French filmmaker Jean Renoir when he was his apprentice, but Cain never gave permission to use his story. As a result the film couldn’t be shown outside of Italy until the mid-1970s because MGM owned the rights, and even in Italy it suffered from a limited showing due to censorship. It was reedited after the war and that abridged version was shown. Anna Magnani wanted the lead part, but was turned down because she was four months pregnant. She saw this as an opportunity to break into films with a steamy role, as she was at the time working solely as a theater actress. In 1951 she got a chance to star in the Visconti film Bellissima.

Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti) is a disheveled and broke drifter-laborer who sneaked a ride on the back of a truck that stops at a rundown restaurant in the outskirts of Ferrara, along the Po. The fat and aging and oafish restaurant owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), is married to a beautiful but unhappy Giovanna (Clara Calamai), who serves as the cook. There’s an immediate sexual attraction between the hunkish bum and the slinky wife, who married for security and because she was frightened to be alone and poor. The drifter, at first treated with disrespect by the boss, proves of value when he passes himself off as an auto mechanic and convinces the boss he can repair his broken-down truck. Gino steals the rotor, which forces the boss to bike into town to pick one up. When the boss leaves Gino beds down with Giovanna, who tells him she can’t stand her hubby even touching her and she would do anything to be free of him. When hubby returns he warms up to Gino seeing how the truck is fixed and that they were in the same army regiment, and invites him to stay on. After a few days the boss wears on Gino’s nerves, and he talks her into hitting the road with him. But once on the road, Giovanna becomes fearful of being poor again and turns back. The hot-tempered Gino leaves alone, and while on the train a passenger named Spagnolo-The Spaniard – (Marcuzzo) springs for his train ticket when he tells the conductor he has no money. The two end up living together in a seaport town called Ancona, in a working partnership and a possible homosexual arrangement. Spagnolo works the crowd panhandling while doing tricks, as Gino carries on his back a large poster to draw a crowd.

After a few months go by, by chance Giuseppe and Giovanna come to nearby Ancona for him to enter a singing contest. When he wins, they celebrate and he gets drunk. Invited back with them, the unlucky duo seize the moment and spontaneously kill Giuseppe by making it look like a car accident. The police are suspicious but have no evidence, so call it an accident. But when the lovers are alone and she inherits the restaurant and a huge sum of money from a life insurance, Gino freaks out. He’s guilt-ridden about the murder and his head becomes twisted with doubts about her love, as she reacts so greedily about getting the money that he thinks she used him to only get the dough. Gino begs her to leave this haunted place with him, but she wants to expand the business and is not worried about the rumors circulating about the two.

The handsome Gino picks up another lost soul in the park, Anita, a dancer and prostitute. When Giovanna spots them together leaving her apartment, she threatens to go to the police unless he returns. The uneducated Gino becomes very confused and when he catches an undercover policeman tailing him, he panics thinking she ratted him out.

In the Visconti’s doomed love affair there were several plot points changed, though the ending was almost similar to the American versions. Ossessione becomes more intensified as a bleak view of sexual passion that steps begrudgingly away from neo-realism into film noir territory. Screenwriter Giuseppe De Santis’ description of the steamy story as “in the air of death and sperm,” is the best I heard.