Classic American crime films always frame things tightly. The camera locks down on any bad deed, as if the filmmakers feared they’d miss a beat and jeopardize the tone. Early sound directors eyed their gangsters closely, and while noir directors worked with minimal resources, those versatile hands of the trade had all the more concentration on their subject. When Sam Spade or Marlow made a move, the camera showed almost nervy attention to following them: lose sight of the man descending into the underworld, and we may have lost him for good.
The composition of Luchino Visconti’s debut, Ossessione – which also helped debut Italian Neo-Realism – smacks reactionary right away. Here the filmmaker is intent on his subject, though his shaky visuals feel looser, as if another subject wandering into frame could suddenly lead us to a tangential narrative. In the opening scene, the camera shimmers in the point-of-view of an approaching streetcar, but the quakes remain on stable ground when characters appear. The visual style of this classic trend-setter now feels customary, as if the Neo-Realists could anticipate the extensive hand-held docudrama tradition to follow them. Visconti’s long takes accentuate the style all the more; shorter takes would only chip away at the truth.
A truck drags in Gino, a vagabond soon marked to be a chicken thief. We know coming in that Ossessione is James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Italian style, so Gino’s arrival to town plays like an act of fate, as he is to meet Giovanna for the crime-melodrama that helped construct noir style in fiction and film. Gino’s played by Massimo Girotti, who looks much more the matinee idol than does John Garfield, his counterpart in the Tay Garnett’s 1946 American adaptation.
Gino is roughed and ragged from his ride, but his eyes widen when meeting the siren, Giovanna (Clara Calamai), who in Gino sees opportunity approaching (she knows it knocks only once). Lana Turner had the American role in 1946, her platinum-blonde glamor just what Cain had in mind. Yet Visconti opts for a delicate brunette, wholesome enough to tend livestock – a bit of the young Joan Crawford and a touch of Kim Hunter. Realistic for the contemporary audience, she nonetheless channels the spirit of Cain’s Cora: with a new beau, she could book from provincial life.
Gianna slogs like a peasant in her husband’s roadstop. Lana Turner’s Cora was undoubtedly discontent, but enterprising when it came to the business (even crime films could drop a moral boost to wartime ladies in the workforce). By day, Giovanna is sickened by kitchenwork, and moreso by lying with an old man at night. Like all the renditions of Cora, Gianna married for money. Yet her dread of her current life makes her rebel, more than a passion for the new life to come.
She sees way beyond Gino’s sexual potential. She likes how he can wander away from a bad situation, even if she soon learns she’s not built for all that. Her husband, Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), deserves more loathing than Cain’s old happy Greek. Loud and proud as an entrepreneur – Visconti makes him inseparable from his boisterous banter – Giuseppe scolds Gino straight off for hitching a ride. The former see no more than a bum in Gino until he proves handy at mechanic work.
But to be fair to Giuseppe, Gino struts into his kitchen like he owns the joint. Thus, he’s another dominating man walking right into Giovanna’s life, all the more reason that her needs swell at the sight of him. In fact, after Gino heads off alone – for another, more promising joint to crash – she points out to Giuseppe that he didn’t pay for his food only to get him back: she’s knows her crotchety hubby won’t let that slip away.
Gino consummates with Giovanna a la Hollywood. The act transpires off screen – we get only post-coital bedtalk – while Giuseppe is off biking with a priest. The new couple’s talk abandons Cain’s self-destructive passion – the kind of action-cum-repression so pure for Calvinist-rooted American culture – and opts for Gianna’s pathos, her need for Gino’s aid arising. When they take off to hitch to freedom, Gina becomes a fickle femme, so readily used by the classic Hollywood studios: her fears of the road, where she could get continuously “picked up”, are now rising. Removed from her sanctuary-household, she now feels like a target.
The couple’s fleeing flirts with high-concept developments, until Giovanna heads back and Gino moves on alone. He finds himself on a train and still broke, when a man named Spagnolo picks up his fare. The meeting of these two “Strangers on a Train” reveals the Neo-Realist closet opening. Spagnolo tells Gino that the “streets aren’t just for making love”, and his eyebrows raise when finding stockings in Gino’s suitcase. They’re even bedmates in a rooming house, while Spagnolo claims that only a trip with sailors on sea will cure his romantic sickness over Giovanna. (Now there’s a journey for you.)
But this brief bro-mance has other ends: to veer the potential melodrama toward social drama, in which two souls lost in economic crisis must find their way. When these tramps sit dockside, they could very easily start looking for Godot – until Gino is spotted by Giuseppe and Giovanna during a roadside vendor show. Hence, Gino returns to Gianna, and the plot back to the melodrama.
Viewers awaiting the Postman’s ring witness another vile act – Giuseppe’s murder – occurring offscreen. Not even a reaction shot like Barbara Stanwyck’s widening eyes appears in its place. Instead, we get the questioning of Gino after Giuseppe’s road crash, Gino describing the purported accident in an extensive long shot. It plays as if Visconti casually assesses evidence, with time to tally the guilt if we serve as witnesses.
The newly freed couple’s return to the roadstop shows little passion and much deliberation and anxiety. This shop serves as an extension of Giuseppe’s ego, and as a reminder of this, a source of repeated blows to Gino’s. Sitting roadside, Giuseppe’s place keeps the freedom of the road on Gino’s mind. He transfers his regret onto Giovanna, telling her that he’s “keeping guard at a dead man’s house.”
His new fling now a burden, Gino goes chasing for new tail long before Giovanna could have ever gone stale. In a piazza he finds a babe so responsive that she’d be marked for a whore even in a ‘40s story in the New Yorker. She tells Gino she’s a dancer, while a pimp points Gino to the direction of her flat before she’s out of sight. It doesn’t take much for Gino to score, and when Giovanna sees them together, her Joan Crawford brows raise, as if she’s aged in minutes, going from the young doe-ish Joan to the ghoulish Mommie Dearest.
If revenge seems imminent, Giovanna is out for Gino’s security, thus regressing back to marriage. She attempts to lure him back with the promise of an insurance policy payout – as if Gino would want that old fart’s money! – before threatening him with blackmail. His slap to her face is the showoff of a working class man, even if he’s not quite a Stanley Kowalski.
He’s back to his fresh tail – for her johns must be out fishing – when Giovanna returns with her last-ditch effort: she’s carrying Gino’s bambino. The pride of fatherhood – or of machismo now that he’s planted his seed – wins over Gino. But the source here is Cain, and fate will rule out hope. The only pleasure in having kids – for Gino, at least – was making them.
We have little sympathy for Gino, and we don’t hate him enough to revel in his defeat. Fate tosses him into a journey that dances around the swift descent of Cain’s novel. In something beyond drama and melodrama, diluted American mythos makes for Euro cine refined.
Ossessioneis available as a bare-bones disc from Image Entertainment. Let’s hope that the postman soon rings with the Criterion-level treatment.