20/06/2013

Ossessione (1943)


Just as F.W. Murnau did not have the blessing of the Stoker estate when he used Dracula (1897) as the basis for Nosferatu in 1922, Luchino Visconti had no legal right to make a film of James M. Cain's 1934 hard-boiled pulp The Postman Always Rings Twice but did so anyway. The young Italian aristocrat was presented with the idea when Jean Renoir hurriedly shoved a copy of the book and an abandoned early draft of a screenplay into his hands before fleeing Europe for American as Nazi tanks began to make serious inroads into France. Wartime restrictions prevented Visconti obtaining the necessary permissions but he had other problems to contend with. He knew that no treatment of Cain's steamy novella would get past Mussolini's censors so he and his Milanese anti-fascist co-writers Mario Alicata, Antonio Pietrangeli, Gianni Puccini and Guiseppe de Santis packaged their unofficial adaptation as a light murder mystery bearing a cautionary moral against extramarital relations, which, unbelievably, was enough to see it rubber stamped.


The relocation of this timeless yarn from California to a trattoria in the swampy marshes of the Delta Ferrarese presents no problems whatsoever and the sweltering climate actually provides a highly appropriate backdrop for the lovers' desperate crime of passion. In what is often cited as the first neo-realist film, Visconti captures the poverty and hopelessness of these environs but remains equally interested in the emotional ordeals of his protagonists. Gino (Massimo Girotti) is a lost soul drifting from one lowly blue collar job to another, forever restless and unfulfilled, while Giovanna (Clara Calamai) found herself forced to choose at a young age between taking a blustering older man (Juan de Landa) for a husband or a life of prostitution and is reluctant to be exposed again. The world is bleak, dusty and unforgiving for these hardened survivors and their animal lust for one another is as much about shared pain as it is stolen pleasure. It's beautifully played.


Visconti's completed film succeeded in outraging both church and state, with an archbishop called in to sprinkle holy water in one cinema auditorium and Il Duce's son Vittorio Mussolini walking out of a preview screening exclaiming furiously, "This is not Italy!" All copies were subsequently destroyed by the Fascist authorities except for Visconti's own negatives, from which all remaining prints are derived. This hostile reaction meant that Ossessione was suppressed until 1959, when an abridged cut was finally presented in Paris, and not seen in its entirety until 1976. This was also the fault of MGM in Hollywood, which had produced its own (approved) adaptation of Cain's book in 1946, famously pairing Lana Turner and John Garfield, and had subsequently busily set about attempting to bury Visconti's rival work. However, both versions offer something entirely different and deserve to co-exist in harmony.

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