Luchino Visconti knew quality source material when he saw it. OSSESSIONE (1943), his feature debut, was the first screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s peerless tale of love, betrayal and murder The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is as solid a cornerstone of the noir tradition as anything by Chandler or Hammett. Visconti was introduced to Cain by Jean Renoir, who gave him a French translation of Postman during the making of 1935’s TONI, on which Visconti worked as assistant director (a job, incidentally, he landed through his close friend Coco Chanel. Iconic names abound in Visconti’s biography. Born into the Italian nobility he grew up hobnobbing with the likes of Puccini, Arturo Toscanini and Salvador Dali). Unfortunately, both for Visconti and for sophisticated cineasts outside Italy, his grasp of international copyright law didn’t match his nose for a good story.

In failing to obtain the rights to Cain’s novel (which belonged to MGM) he ensured that OSSESSIONE wasn’t seen in the United States until 1976. By then, director Tay Garnett’s 1946 version, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, had firmly established itself in the public consciousness. Even so, Visconti’s illicit take on Postman caused quite a stir. “Comparing the Visconti OSSESSIONE with the Garnett Postman,” wrote reliably bumptious NY Times critic Vincent Canby, “is to stand a production of La Traviata next to a McDonald’s television commercial.” Despite a lame caveat that he hadn’t meant to “underrate the American film”, Canby was way off the mark. Garnett’s version is generally, and legitimately, regarded as a masterpiece in its own right. Featuring career-best performances from Garfield and Turner – he the handsome drifter, she the child-bride Lolita who ensnares him in a plot to murder her elderly husband –  it’s as erotically charged and as morally troubling as 1940s Hollywood would allow.

Needless to say, stood by anything else at all, it bears very little resemblance to a McDonald’s TV ad. Conversely, Visconti’s superior take on the matter actually does share a slender thematic thread with Verdi’s La Traviata in that it concerns a forbidden, ultimately tragic love affair. Beyond that, OSSESSIONE is anything but operatic, as you’d expect from the film that kicked off the Italian neorealist movement. It has a naturalistic grace, firmly rooted in the day-to-day grind of Italian rural life, worlds away from the grandiosity of Verdi and absent any of the Hollywood gloss applied by Garnett or MGM. The deliberate lack of polish is particularly prevalent in the superb performances by Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti. Both major stars at the time, neither one injects an ounce of glamour into proceedings. In one celebrated scene, Calamai falls asleep over a lonely bowl of soup amid the squalor of her uncleaned kitchen. It wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now, but at the time such grubby reality was shocking – and it’s hard to imagine Lana Turner behaving in such slatternly fashion.

By modern standards too, Visconti’s pacing is, shall we say, on the leisurely side. Yet it has a magnetic power that frantic editing and convoluted plotting seldom achieve – and the longueurs are an excellent excuse from some chilling foreshadowing. The looks exchanged by Girotti and Calamai, marooned in the kitchen while Calamai’s ogreish husband silences the off-screen wailing of cats in heat with a shotgun, say more than tricky camera moves ever could.

Beautifully photographed by neorealist pioneers Domenica Scala and Aldo Tonti (who later shot NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957) for Fellini), OSSESSIONE simmers with sexual tension and barely suppressed desire. But there are deeper reaches to Girotti and Calamai’s relationship than lust and greed. While those are the forces that throw them together, conflicting desires – hers for security and domestic bliss; his for the freedom of the road – are relentlessly tearing them apart. And once the deed is done, the burden of guilt bears down on them with ever greater force; you can almost see the will to escape their fate slowly ebbing away.

Nevertheless, it was the sex, implied or not, that got Visconti in trouble with the censors, and in Mussolini’s Italy they played a lot rougher than the Hays Office. Already on Il Ducci’s shit-list for his Communist sympathies, Visconti brought the full force of the regime down on his neck with OSSESSIONE. Church and state authorities were outraged by the film. It was banned immediately and an attempt was made to destroy it entirely, an attempt that would’ve succeeded had Visconti not managed, at considerable personal risk, to rescue a solitary print. It was from this that all subsequent prints were made, including the one Canby saw when it opened the New York Film Festival in October 1976. Visconti’s actions were even more heroic given that it was not just Mussolini and the priesthood who had it in for him. In 1944 he was imprisoned by the Gestapo, only escaping execution by the timely arrival of liberation forces.

Free from fascist oppression, Visconti enjoyed a long and distinguished career which encompassed a clutch of other masterpieces,1954’s SENSO, 1963’s The Leopard and 1971’s Death in Venice among them. Tragically, having outfoxed Mussolini and his Nazis pals, MGM’s legal department proved a tougher adversary; the international ban on OSSESSIONE outlived him. Visconti died in Rome on 17 March 1976 at the age of 69, six months before the film’s triumphant debut in New York.

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