Luchino Visconti’ first directorial effort “Ossessione” was made in 1942 and released in 1943. That we still have Visconti’s first feature film to watch today is an amazing story in itself. Filmed during World War II while Italy was still under the control of Mussolini’s deteriorating fascist government, Visconti read a copy of James M. Cain’s pulp classic novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” given to him by Jean Renoir. Visconti wrote the script along with Mario Alicata, Guiseppie DeSantis and Gianni Puccini. The repressive government, which controlled the Italian film industry, including Mussolini’s son who was a film executive, was expecting a simple lightweight superficial run of the mill murder mystery. What they got instead was a film now generally considered the first of a new movement called neo-realism.
When the film was shown publicly, it was denounced by the Italian government; it was too realistic, shooting in real locations with natural lighting. The government forced the film to be withdrawn from circulation. Due to the war, Visconti never got the official rights to film Cain’s novel, subsequently, copyright restrictions prevented the film from being shown in the U.S. In 1946 MGM, who owned the official rights, made their version with John Garfield and Lana Turner. In 1981 Bob Rafelson directed Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in a more sexually explicit version.
Due to the copyright infringement, the film would not reach the American shores until October of 1976 when it played at the New York Film Festival. Vincent Canby in his New York Times review said Comparing the Visconti “Ossessione” with the Garnett “Postman” is to stand a production of “Traviata” next to a McDonald’s television commercial, which is not to underrate the American film that is as effectively steamy, tough, and terse as the Hollywood law allowed in those days. “Ossessione” finally had a commercial release in the United States in June 1977 when it premiered in New York at the D.W. Griffith Theater.
Cain’s sweaty, sex filled novel seemed destined to always have a difficult time getting to the screen. MGM tried for years to develop a successful script that would pass the censorship Gods. It was not until after World War II, a somewhat more relaxed board allowed MGM to do a watered down version. Meanwhile, Visconti’s film, now more than three years old, remained ostracized somewhere in a backroom in Visconti’s closet. The original negative was apparently destroyed by the Fascist Italian government though fortunately Visconti had a duplicate negative from which the existing copies we have today are all descendents of.
Visconti’s version follows Cain’s novel closely, Gino (Massimo Girotti), a wanderer, stops by a small diner/gas station in the middle of nowhere. It is run by Giuseppe LaBragana (Juan De Landa) a gruff slimy older man and his younger wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai), an attractive woman with upward mobility on her mind. The husband and wife come to like Gino though for very different reasons. Gino and Giovanna begin an affair behind the husband’s back. Restless, but with no destination in mind Gino takes off with Giovanna, but she soon turns back, reluctant to give up what she has for the unknown. Gino travels on alone meeting a fellow wanderer, Spagnolo, a traveling artist who presents Gino with a more bohemian lifestyle. In the resort town of Ancona, Gino meets up again with Giuseppe and Giovanna who are vacationing. Still attracted to her, he follows them back to their diner. Bound together by lust, the lovers’ murder the husband, as they always knew they would.
Though this was Visconti’s first film, he proved himself a visual master quickly. Particularly impressive is the way Visconti handles the first meeting between Gino and Giovanna. Gino enters the diner, there is no one behind the counter, he walks to the back into the kitchen. There we hear a woman humming, she is sitting on a table, her legs dangling, swinging back and forth, which is all of her we can see. “Can I get something to eat here?” Gino says. At this point, Visconti has not shown us either of their faces. He now cuts to a close up of Giovanna whose head is down as she eats. She looks up at him, a bored look on her face, and as quickly, her head goes back down to her dish of food, then quickly she lifts her head back up, this time with a look of enchantment. Visconti quickly cuts to our first shot of Gino, the camera zooming in from Giovanna’s POV, on a close up of his handsome face. There is an immediate fiery attraction between the two. With this one scene, Visconti draws his doomed lovers in and the audience as well.
Unlike the MGM version, Visconti’s protagonist are unglamorous, Cora (Lana Turner) in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is blonde, wears stylish clothing, Turner never making you forget she is a Hollywood star. On the other hand, Giovanna who is dark haired, just like Cain’s character was originally written, and wears more appropriate clothes you would expect someone in her position to have. Clara Calamai, an attractive actress of her day was forced by Visconti to dress down, wear drab clothes and no makeup. When she first saw herself on screen, she apparently broke down and cried. Lana Turner would have not accepted these terms and the MGM version suffers for it.
Gino is a grimier version of John Garfield’s Frank Chambers with a torn T-shirt and holes in his pants. Both are drifters going nowhere. Gino is restless and indecisive, he cannot see himself working at a diner, while Giovanna, worried more about her self-preservation, does not want to follow Gino’s restless nature and take off with no direction known. After the murder, Gino has another reason for hating the diner; Giovanna’s husband seems to haunt him.
In the MGM film, Cecil Kellaway’s, Nick Smith, is a whitewash of the husband character, known as The Greek in Cain’s novel, he even had a Greek last name which was changed to the more mundane Smith in the film. He is a sweet, kind man compared to Giovanna’s sweaty gross husband. To emphasize the difference between the two men in Giovanna’s life, Visconti had both men at different times take their shirts off showing the obvious dissimilarity between the handsome well built Gino and flabby out of shape husband.
The Italian landscape is also an important factor in this movie capitalizing on the vast wide emptiness, emphasizing the hopelessness of the characters and their eventual fated doom. Here, there is no mystical ending like in the 1946 version of “Postman” with Garfield talking to a priest wondering if he and Cora will reunited in heaven, just a dark and powerful tale.