Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Luchino Visconti's reputation
began with this unacknowledged film version of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.
After gaining some notoriety in wartime Italy, it was kept off American screens until the
1970s. The story has been made twice in America, with big budgets and big stars, but Ossessione
is easily the best of the three. Lust, frustration, murder and guilt follow one another like road
signs in a tale that's far too naturalistic to glamorize its subject, and too compassionate to be
Intinerant laborer Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti) begins an affair with Giovanna
Bragana (Clara Calamai), the unhappy wife of an older man, Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), who owns a
thriving cafe on the main road. Giuseppe likes having the young man around to mend things, but
the young mechanic can't take the tension and humiliation of carrying on behind Giuseppe's back.
Gino scrapes along some more in the city on his own, until he hooks up again with the Braganas.
On the way back, with Giuseppe drunk, Gino and Giovanna go through with the murder they've both
known was going to happen ... but their troubles are just beginning.
Visconti's version of Postman succeeds where the Hollywood versions fail, almost by definition.
Dressed up in lush production values and starring big name actors, both American attempts are
overglamorized. The Tay Garnett version has its adherents, but seems more concerned with
the chemistry between its sexy stars, Lana Turner and John Garfield. It's has four moral
sermons going at once, against adultery, murder, crooked lawyers and the harshness of the law
itself. What there is of James M. Cain has to peek in when it can get a chance. Not that it's
anyone's fault, but with the slick MGM production gloss and the familiar name actors in main roles
(especially loveable Cecil Kellaway) there's little chance of the audience forgetting they're
watching a Hollywood product, and engaging with Cain's rough subject matter.
Some critics point to Ossessione as the first Neo-Realist film. Its actors were all
known faces to Italian audiences, and the film is just as melodramatic as its American cousins.
What's different is Visconti's direction, which is geared to the natural behavior and reactions of
people. The camera is used to express the state of mind of the characters, not to stylize them. Case
in point is the introduction of Lana Turner, as opposed to Visconti's Clara Calamai. Turner comes
on like a special effect, a bonbon with sexy legs, assembled by the camera for John Garfield's
approval like he was a wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. The first meeting of Calamai and Girotti is just
as powerful, with Calamai introduced as two lazy legs dangling from a table. But it's not two top
stars scoring points off one another in glamour lighting - their eyes meet and it's like two deer caught in the
headlights - the right woman and the right man meeting at the wrong time.
The odds are stacked against Gino and Giovanna. They're given ample opportunity to start a romance,
and too much encouragement from her bluff, slow-witted husband. He's certainly not a bad guy, but
he hasn't a clue as to what's going on, and his personality doesn't allow a woman like Giovanna much
room to breathe. She's with him out of economic necessity, plain and simple. Giovanna would like
nothing better than to follow Gino's pleas and simply run away, but her self-preservation instinct
is too strong. As for Gino, he's a good enough sort, but he lacks the will-power to resist.
The decision to kill Giuseppe grows naturally, and we never get a Double Indemnity moment of
mutual decision. When we realize the murder will take place, it seems already to have been decided.
Destiny isn't some outside force; the couple here have so little faith in their own will, that they
summon Fate from within themselves.
It's in the wake of the crime that Gino and Giovanni
take radical dips into despair and depression, lash out at one another, and for a time become
emotionally unstable. But they discover who they are, and Gino eventually learns he can go on living
and loving his hard-won woman. But such is not to be. The law does close in, in simple ways that
the couple never suspect, as they accuse each other of betrayal. Ironically, they spill the beans
several times - Gino even blabs the whole story to an endearingly trusting prostitute, Anita (Dhia
Cristiani). Their downfall has nothing to do with their foolish behavior or emotional breakdowns.
It's as if they were meant to be caught all along.
A very interesting subplot circles around Gino's involvement with a travelling barker who calls himself
The Spaniard (Elio Marcuzzo). The Spaniard pays Gino's fare when he's caught on a train without a
ticket, and takes a liking to him immediately. Later, they're buddies, with Gino helping the street
salesman by carrying around an advertising sign. Part of The Spaniard's act is telling fortunes, and
he shows up later, after the murder, to try and get Gino to come back on the road with him. He knows
what's happened without having to be told, and we wonder if he's going to figure in yet more sordid
doings. There are definite signals of The Spaniard being attracted to Gino, but neither that
undercurrent or anything else about The Spaniard resolves itself, as it might in a Hollywood screenplay.
Ossessione has that kind of random, vague reality about it. Gino and Giovanni never catch on,
but he audience is made very aware of the everpresent police detectives who hover like vultures
awaiting their opportunity.
The two leads are terrific, giving natural performances that haven't dated. Clara Calamai is well
known by horror fans for her appearance in Dario Argento's 1975 Deep Red; she's also
in Visconti's The Witches from 1966. The resemblance is just superficial, but I can't help
but think of her as a more human Joan Crawford, especially in some of her emotional closeups.
While admiring Visconti's achievement, one has to realize that his movie predates Double
Indemnity which in 1944 inaugurated this particular homicidal subgenre in America. Not only
that, but because of the war, it can be assumed (I hope) that Italian audiences at the time weren't
seeing American movies. Visconti's film has to be considered as springing separate from Hollywood
influence. But not entirely, as the law courts quickly halted exhibition of the movie as an
unauthorized version of the Cain novel.
The credited editor Mario Serendrai's name sounded so familiar, Savant had to look him up. He has quite a
track record in his later career, as not only an editor, but as a screenwriter as well - particularly
on some top Mario Bava films.
Speaking of Bava, Image's DVD of Ossessione comes from Alfredo Leone, who's been the DVD-producing
source for many of the Image Mario Bava Collection releases. Savant's read only second-hand the
information that Ossessione was a film destroyed by the Italian Fascists, and that only
secondary source materials now exist, and was expecting a print as ragged and gloomy as what showed
on Los Angeles' Z Channel twenty years ago. This copy is much better. It's no bed of
roses, but it looks darn good, given the dire history of the title. The image does lack good
contrast or fine detail, yet there are few breaks or damage marks. The sound is quite adequate.
There's hiss, and an opera contest section has some strangely muted levels. It would appear to come
from the best surviving copy, as opposed to the dupes of dupes that circulated previously.
The English subs are removable, for you who parlare la Italiana. There aren't any extras; The
cover illustration is derived from original ad art, except I wonder if Luchino Visconti's credit
would have been first, or so large ...?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Fair +
Sound: Fair +
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 28, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson