Ossessione (1943)

LUCHINO VISCONTI

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.  Italy, 1943.  Industrie Cinematografiche Italiane.  Screenplay by Luchino Visconti, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis, Gianni Puccini, based on the novel The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.  Cinematography by Domenico Scala, Aldo Tonti.  Produced by Libero Solaroli.  Music by Giuseppe Rosati.  Production Design by Gino Franzi.  Costume Design by Maria De Matteis.  Film Editing by Mario Serandrei.

Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai in Ossessione.

Luchino Visconti makes his directorial debut combining Hollywood film noir with Italian neorealism before either became an  established genre, adapting James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years ahead of the iconic Lana Turner versionMassimo Girotti is the gorgeous hunk who is drifting through the barren countryside, stopping at a roadside gas station where he begs for work from the gregarious, portly owner.  He immediately feels the sexual heat coming at him from the man’s wife (Clara Calamai), who clearly longs to get away from the middle of nowhere, the two of them striking up a lusty affair that up eventually leads to some pretty nasty plans for getting rid of the husband.   While the film is far too long and doesn’t bear the exquisite polish that would be the trademark of Visconti’s future masterpieces, it is interesting as a contrast to the 1946 film adaptation, more sexually honest (so much so that Catholic priests performed exorcisms on Italian movie theatres that screened it) and more interested in judging fickle human desires than condemning sexual immorality.  The fallout that the couple experience after their selfish criminal act isn’t God or society’s rules keeping them in check, it’s the inescapable reality that a fantasy once fulfilled becomes banal, and in Girotti’s case the road to easy street leads straight into what he feels is a cage.  Comparisons are irresistible with its film counterparts (which also include Double Indemnity and the Bob Rafelson adaptation of Postman), the most curious of them an examination of the traditional male gaze, which in Visconti’s case emphasizes the beauty of the male lead while downplaying his female counterpart (Calamai is beautiful and, at 34, not too old for the role, but she’s not what a Hollywood studio producer would choose); having a gay director adapt a famous tale of heterosexual lust really makes us realize the traditions of cinematic exploitation that we take for granted.  The gritty details of neorealism that would turn Rossellini into an auteur are here softened by the director’s clear adoration of aesthetic control, there’s a sense of beauty in even the filthiest kitchens, but thanks to Visconti’s great skill as storyteller the eventual mix of crime melodrama and harsh depictions of war-era Italy turn out to make for a comfortable blend.

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