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Visconti’s ‘Ossessione’: Neo-Realism’s Triumph Over Film Noir

Cinema in the 1940s had a complicated relationship with crime stories. Whilst deemed dramatic enough to be acceptable subject matter, they were not generally taken seriously enough to be used for anything more than B-movies, the less respected, lower half of the cinema double bill. On the other hand, the moral codes of the day, both socially and cinematically, would not allow into such films the inclusion of the more salacious unsavoury and violent details from the hard-boiled literature they were cannibalising from.

Out of such circumstances came the Film Noir genre, emblematic of the paranoia and anxieties deep within the American psyche. Strange then that the first film adaption of one of the key American hard-boiled texts, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, was made in Italy. Even stranger that the resulting film was not a film noir at all, instead being arguably the first example of the Italian Neorealist genre, and the directorial debut of the art cinema Grand Master, Luchino Visconti.

This was Ossessione.

A Moral Authority

Prior to Ossessione, Visconti, a member of a prominent noble family of Milan, had worked as the assistant director on a couple of Jean Renoir pictures, a connection having been made through mutual friend Coco Chanel.

The move to directing his own movies was a natural progression. Yet it would not be without its challenges, namely the interventions of the fascist authorities at the head of the country. They had made deep investments into Italy’s film industry but in return (or even in spite of it) they insisted on vetting all potential film projects, censoring those that did not conform to their strict, right-wing moral code.

Like Pasolini after him, Visconti was well known to be a homosexual and communist (he joined the party during the Second World War). While no means as provocative in his work as Pasolini, Visconti couldn’t help but find himself caught in the gaze of the fascist’s watchful eyes.

Case in point: Visconti’s original plan to adapt a Giovanni Verga story about bandits, L’amante di Graminga, was turned down point-blank by the authorities on the grounds that it wasn’t suitable subject matter. Apparently acceptable to the authorities, however, was the story of an adulterous couple driven to murder so that they could be together without secret or intervention.

Perhaps it was because they thought the source material, a hard-boiled crime novel, was slight and so unartistic as to be not a real blight or influencer on an observer’s moral sensibility. As if a creative work’s worthiness and therefore its ability to be propaganda depended on its artistic stature. A potboiler? How could something of such little artistic merit be taken seriously enough to compromise anyone?

As we shall see, the authorities would get a lot more than they bargained for.

Filming The Real

The cover of James M. Cain's 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', the basis for Ossessione

Visconti first came across The Postman Always Rings Twice when Renoir give him a French translation of the book. It has been said that “the project united his aesthetic, ideological and stylistic ambitions with concrete melodramatic foundations, all within a solidly recognisable socio-cultural context.” Knowing Visconti’s predilection for melodrama and dramas of human intimacy and legacy, we can also assume that the intricacies of a love triangle fought between and amongst society’s poor and desperate people had its appeal.

As such, Ossessione does not dwell on the shadows, the plotting, the crime, the blood so much as it focuses on the passions and all-consuming obsessions of its central pairing. This cultural difference applies to everything, even the film’s visual aesthetic. Because this isn’t film noir. This, arguably, is the birth of Neo-Realism.

Film Noir is recognisable stylistically in the way it embodies the dark, labyrinth entrapment of its characters in its visual form. Its heavy use of chiaroscuro lighting, isolating through framing, trapping its character in prison ‘bars’ of light (using things like venetian blinds to create the effect) and silhouetting project the inner anxiety of its characters onto the outside world.

Not so in Ossessione. If anything, there is a pronounced lack of style (in the sense that style is an exaggeration or a directed presentation of a version of the world). With Neo-Realism, the visuals follow the politics. As Sight & Sound magazine stressed, “the proponents of this politically committed reaction to the glossy, studio-bound, Hollywood-influenced productions approved by Mussolini’s regime were determined to take their cameras to the streets, to neglected communities and their surroundings, to show the ‘real Italy’ in all its diversity. Here was a new kind of cinema, one that returned to its roots, a people’s cinema that chronicled the struggle against Nazism but also highlighted the hardship and upheaval of the post-war period.”

To really show the lives of everyday people in their communities, with their struggles and their own speech and their own ways of existing, it was not enough to have actors ‘pretending’ to be such people. They had to show the people themselves. Not on sets but in their homes, on the streets and fields where they lived, loved, struggled with boredom and poverty and tried to find themselves within a whirlpool of sexuality, morality, eccentricity and political philosophy. Commitment must be authentic in its presentation, or not at all.

At the same time, the films of Neo-Realism are not strictly documentaries either. They are stories, plotted out and acted from scripts. If the fiction film is a manipulating of a world via a story, whether to entertain, make a point or both, then Neo-Realism uses the world around it to make a point about that world as authentically as it can. In its way then, Neo-Realism is the point where fiction and reality, story and documentary, become blurred.

To support this, the visual aesthetic of Neo-Realism was uncluttered and to the point, free of over-stylised lighting, editing, and soundtrack. By no means dull or basic, the Neo-Realistic style pared down its cinema to its essentials, allowing the focus to be on its characters and their environment. An over-stylised aesthetic would distract from the commitment to show ‘real people’ otherwise, meaning a film noir approach was out of the question. Ossessione is not a film —not to look at and, as we’ll see now, not in the way it treated its characters.

Men, Women & Crimes of Passion

The typical Film Noir protagonist was typically male, at odds with the world, at a low ebb but with a curiously righteous moral code that exerts itself sometimes against his will. Author Raymond Chandler described his great creation private detective Philip Marlowe as a “shop-soiled Sir Galahad” [1] and that seems about right.

Women, on the other hand, were condemned to the role of ‘Femme Fatale,’ black widow spider women out for their own personal gain at the expense of whoever enters their orbit, usually men – especially men, dumb, useless men with no other ideas in their head other than a trophy wife and a ‘head of the gentleman’s club’ existence. Deceptive, manipulative and sexual, they were usually punished for these qualities by the end of the film and in hindsight, you wonder if Femme Fatales were so prevalent in Film Noir because the writers and directors, possibly shop-soiled men themselves, were doling out their revenge against strong, independent women who had slighted them, intentionally or otherwise.

These are not concerns or roles that are prevalent in Ossessione. Instead, it is a study of class, work, home, the female role in society and raises questions about love and obsession, not necessarily the typical Film Noir fare.

Gino and Giovanna driving

Gino Costa is a drifter, a man who hitches rides across the country and takes jobs wherever he can. He is perpetually poor but seems happy, free to travel and free to move on when he wants to, travelling the land with his harmonica. Not for him, toiling in the fields or a factory, just to come back to a shack in the slums that feels more like a prison than a home. In a strange parallel to anti-Brexit arguments, it is stasis that saps the soul; movement is freedom.

Gino’s freewheeling lifestyle is contrasted with the domestic doldrums of Giovanna. She is married to Giuseppe, owner of a roadside tavern and petrol station in an isolated rural area. Her only contact with the outside world is via delivery men or customers. It’s in this way she meets Gino for the first time; he’s discovered sleeping on the back of the delivery truck.

Giuseppe makes his opinion of ‘bums’ known: “they’re likely to carry off the whole hen house.” He then addresses Gino directly. “It can’t be very comfortable travelling rough, eh, fella?” he says. Here is the crux of the film laid out in a single sentence: what is truly the happier, more satisfying form of living, in comfort or roughly? (By the by, I don’t believe the film is trying to make a virtue out of homelessness. Rather, its main drive is to show that comfort in and of itself does not necessarily bring happiness).

Gino has clearly learned a few tricks over time to claim an advantage when entering new surroundings. He snatches a meal from the kitchen, checking out Giovanna who we find out is feigning disgust and, when faced with a demand to pay for the food by Giuseppe, offers to fix Giuseppe’s car but instead sneakily removes a part, sending Giuseppe away to the nearest town, Codigoro, an hour’s bicycle ride away, to get a replacement. And while the cat’s away…

It turns out Giovanna was not very good at disguising her attraction to Gino. And in their post-coital embrace it seems to me that it might not be Gino himself she is attracted to but attributes he possesses that contrast him to her husband. Gino is virile, active, young and handsome, everything Giuseppe is not. But he doesn’t have Giuseppe’s money and success and herein lies the rub.

Life with Giuseppe has made Giovanna lonely, desperate and anxious, which goes some way towards explaining why she would cling to a stranger and demand he never leaves her, just after meeting him and sleeping with him. More revealing his her response when she’s asked why she married Giuseppe in the first place:

“I don’t know,” she wearily sighs, “but when I met him with his gold fob watch…I didn’t even have a job and I used to get myself invited to dinner by all and sundry. If you only knew what it was like to be penniless and homeless…” Of course, he does know what it’s like, but he doesn’t know it from a woman’s point of view. “But you know what a dinner invitation from a man means,” she says, referring to the awful assumption that if a man is paying for dinner, he must be paid back in turn with the intimacy of a woman’s body. With Giuseppe, she assumed life would be different. “I thought he’d save me from all that,” she laments, “but I was worse off than before.”

Giuseppe, Giovanna claims, is false, filthy, impossible to live with. “What use is his money if I’m still working in the kitchen?” This raises two issues; firstly, that women in Italy at the time were treated like second class citizens and had to play up to their stereotype of sex objects to achieve any kind of progression and success; secondly, that Giovanna believes she should not have to work, that she should be taken care of.

Do the two points contradict each other? Possibly. We can assume from what she says that Giovanna had some awful experiences with men, possibly abusive although we cannot say for definite. It’s understandable that she would want a happier life than that and that she would want to be protected from it even. Yet is it right that she expects that she should not have to work? In an ideal world, we would probably all choose not to work, not at anything menial or less than worthwhile anyway. But the majority of us are not so lucky and have to sing for our supper, so to speak.

That Giovanna actively resents that she has to work at all suggests an unrealistic expectation of the world. She needs excitement, passion, and she needs comfort, security. And as she can’t seem to find both in the same man, she will keep the two men together, refusing to leave with Gino and forcing him to stay in the house as her secretive live-in lover. As this flies in the face of the life Gino chooses to live, we know this will not end well.

It is Giovanna’s disproportionate sense of need that will force her to stay and Gino to leave, unable to live on her narrow terms.

It is her loneliness that will drive her to reconnect with Gino when they cross paths again – even as she laughs at him for the threadbare existence he has lived since he left.

It is the tension between her needs and the knowledge of a lucrative will that will drive her to plot.

It is the plot that will lead her to murder.

A close up of Giovanna's face, looking distressed

Death, And Right Away

Whereas a Film Noir (quite rightfully for the genre) would revel and wallow in the dirty details of the scheming and the execution, Ossessione is much more subtle in its execution, as if the murder is more just the by-product of the complex power relationships between the protagonists, rather than a living, breathing entity in itself.

There is no great speech, no pleading or convincing. Just a covert embrace and a quick command: “Right away. Do you understand? Right away!” we can assume they may have had the discussion off-screen at some point, or it may be that in their mutual obsession they to have achieved a kind of mental synchronicity where a simple abstract phrase is enough to unlock a wealth of meaning.

In any case, Giovanni is drunk and driving and stops for a quick break. “Take the wheel, quickly,” implores Giovanna. “Are we close to the river?” Gino asks. “About 500 minutes.” All quick, concise, brusque phrases that say so much with just a little. Giovanni gets in the passenger seat and with a dramatic musical sting they drive away and we fade out, just as we assume Giovanni’s life will do. There is no violent confrontation, no sight of blood spilled. Rather it is left to our imagination what is to occur. Or maybe it’s because Giovanni is not the real focus, but the relationship between Gino and Giovanna is.

When we fade back in, it is day and Gino and he is leading a group of suited detectives down a grass verge to the scene of—what? The camera does not let us see at first. It focuses on Gino deflecting the detective’s questions as if the sight of the crime itself is not important. When the camera does eventually pan to the left and we see the crashed car, Giovanni’s body stays in the background, still. We don’t see any visible wounds or damage, there are no close-ups of the body to dramatize it. The camera stays focused on Gino and Giovanna as they stay cool under the glare of the detectives and their onslaught of questions. The camera even follows them all as they go back up the hill, almost forgetting the body until we follow the ambulance men semi-down the hill with a stretcher. This is the only real concession to the audience that there has been a tragedy: a life has been taken.

The coolness and conciseness of this moment, with its focus on Gino and Giovanni and their ability to be cool under scrutiny, is at odds with the Film Noir approach, which undoubtedly would have shown us the crash as an intense, vital interruption, and would have shown the anxieties and drives of the characters as they began to cover up its intentionality. One of them would have wobbled, if only a little bit but noticeably, during the interrogation and no doubt it would have taken place back at the tavern, to stress what has been gained and what is at stake by their actions. Or it would have been in the police station, the threat of prison hanging obviously over their heads.

That Ossessione kept its focus on the psychological relationship between Gino and Giovanna and their singular approach to the cover-up is fascinating and shows that a crime film doesn’t have to over-indulge us in the crime itself to engage our interest.

The Opening of Doors

Two great film genres, two different cinematic approaches. But what Ossessione proves is not only the worthiness of the hard-boiled, pulp crime novel as a template for complex, psychologically driven explorations of human relationships, but that such explorations did not and do not have to conform to the standard generic conventions of the typical crime film; the sharp suits and wisecracks of the gangster genre; the Femme Fatales and chiaroscuro lighting of Film Noir. There are more implications to a crime than just blazing guns and sprawling bodies and as such there is more cinema has to offer the topic than simple rote exercises in genre.

They are not clones, but without the innovations of Ossessione, we may not have had the cross-examination of heroes and villains that is Heat, the existential, mature comic book exploration of being a role model in The Dark Knight and the everyday hip talk and narrative loops of Pulp Fiction. Osessione blew open the doors that others experiment through. For that reason (one of many), the film must be considered pioneering and one of the important works in the development of cinema.

This article is not an attack on Film Noir, far from it. It’s a genre I love dearly, but outside the canon of the classics (The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Murder My Sweet, to name a few) and a few innovators (Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place), the ‘lesser’ films can fall victim to plots-and-visuals-by-numbers. While Neo-Realism as a genre undoubtedly had its own pitfalls, as an indicator of what could be done with the crime genre, Ossessione stands as a testament to invention. A film worth celebrating, then.

 

[1] Chandler, Raymond. The High Window. London : Penguin, 2011.

Chris Flackett

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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