“That isn’t Italy!” screamed Vittorio Mussolini, the editor of the prolific Italian film journal Cinema and son to Il Duce, as he stormed out after an initial private screening of Luchino Visconti’s first film Ossessione back in 1943. In May of that year, the film was seized and whatever mild distribution it got was in a form cut and torn apart from its dirty, scandalous whole. But at the final moments of the total fascist illusion, only months before the Allies would land in Sicily, Ossessione showed something completely antithetical to the fascist illusion that had been built in the last 20 years: it was un-mythic, un-heroic, un-patriotic. Visconti biographer Laurence Schifano said the film turned Visconti into one of the “arch symbols of rebellion and anti-Fascism.” Soon the budding filmmaker would be sentenced to death by firing squad, all because his mentor handed him an American crime novel one day.
In the 1930s, Visconti had left the stagnating art world of Mussolini’s Milan, a place where he was royalty, for the blossoming, and much less censored art scene of Paris. His fascist inclinations soon withered away as he started to mingle with the upper crust of French intellectuals during their rather optimistic Popular Front years. It didn’t take long before he was introduced to Jean Renoir (by Coco Chanel, no less), who’d take the young count under his wing at a moment when he was pushing his own boundaries of cinematic possibility. After finishing Toni, a film largely shot on location in the south of France and incorporating hosts of non-actors, Renoir embarked on his ill-fated production A Day in the Country, a film about the sun and for whom the sun rarely shown during their location shoot. It was this “French-style naturalistic rhetoric” that Visconti would take from Renoir, along with a French translation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, when he embarked on his own debut feature, Ossessione, taking the camera out of that cinema city built by the Party in Rome, and onto the backwater highways of the country’s industrial heartland.
A truck rolls off the road to some gas station, a drifter, Gino (Massimo Girotti), gets off and heads into the osteria looking for a bite. He walks into the kitchen to find Giovanna (Clara Calamai), who’s immediately stricken with his presence—the camera dollies on his face like he’s John Wayne. Their fiery first meeting ends with him trying to walk out on his tab and being convinced to stay to work it off. Giovanna also sees him as a reprieve, or perhaps a dream, to get out of her marriage with her brutish husband Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), the restaurant owner.
Perhaps what makes Postman such an adaptable work is its malleability—it’s formula of a drifter wandering into the path the most petit member of the petit bourgeois and his disaffected wife serves as blank canvas on which to transpose the ideological fixations and societal cracks present at whatever place in whatever time the adaptation is made. Not unlike how there are Westerns and there are films that remake The Searchers, The Postman Always Rings Twice acts as a genre unto itself.
It’s not as if Visconti is only taking the bones of Postman and completely reworking its details to make a different kind of film (like, say, with Christian Petzold’s Jerichow). Instead, most of the difference, beyond the superficial details of transposing the story to fascist Italy, comes from where Visconti places the narrative focus. While the meditation of murder and the courtroom dramas that surround it occupy the center of Cain’s novel and the straight titular adaptations, Visconti ditches the procedurals in favor of the constantly changing, if always ambivalent, relationship between Gino and Giovanna. The murder of her husband brushes by off-screen, and when the life insurance policy is revealed it barely makes an impression. It’s a narrative coolness, a weird alienation that seems to pervade the film's atmosphere, almost forgetting about its own plot the way Antonioni’s films would start to do a decade later.
Gino’s the key to understanding Visconti’s differences to both the novel and its subsequent adaptations. Gino the tramp is not Frank Chambers, Postman’s shifty, drifty narrator. Whereas Chambers figures himself a bit of a wise guy, a smooth talker who can (try to) think his way out of any kind of situation even if he’s pathetic, Gino doesn’t think much of anything—he blows with the wind. Cain’s Chambers is the prototypical protagonist of the kind of existential crime stories that would conquer the post-war psyche, Gino is totally antiquated; he resembles more the romantic wanderers of the 19th century. Like Visconti, he’s the product of a world totally alien to the one he came from, and perhaps if Gino been born 150 years earlier he would’ve been at home in the Italy that hosted Byron and Shelley, but today (well, then) in Mussolini’s Italy, he amounted to little more than a tramp.
Equally revealing is the character of Lo Spagnolo (“the Spaniard,” played by Elio Marcuzzo), a street performer with whom Gino immediately forms a kinship when he runs off from the expectations of both Giovanna and her employer husband. They have a friendship on the fringes of society, and an immediate understanding of each other’s needs (that would also fit nicely into a queer reading of the film). Whereas Giuseppe wishes to mold Gino into a worker, or Giovanna wishes to mold him into a husband, the Spaniard only tries to help him be free.
Professor Geoffrey Nowell-Smith points out that “The tragedy in [Visconti’s] films is never a trick of providence… [it] arises from the necessary logic of the situation into which the characters are thrown.” And unlike a certain arbitrariness that governs the America of The Postman Always Rings Twice, with its legal system apparently governed by whim and the acquisition of a life insurance policy for a murdered husband being as random as a car accident, Ossessione fateful conclusion is weaved with every decision. If Cain’s novel is about a condition, a sort of psychosis of an absurd and cruel world told through the experiential first-person viewpoint of its narrator, Ossessione is an analysis of societal structures, mores, and expectations that humanity has laid as its foundations, ones that ironically act as their own chains, and their inevitable personal and systemic oppression. It seemed to have all the trappings of neorealism, the one problem being that it didn’t exist yet.
Ossessione is often lauded as the first neorealist film, both for its form as a street-level picture made outside the artificial studios of Cinecittà, and its content as a story about the hapless lower classes. But when compared side-by-side with its post-war counterparts and Renoir’s social realist melodramas, it's clear that it has more in common with the latter—both a tribute and continuation of his experiment. In fact, it’s less start to neorealism as it is the last precursor to it, or as Nowell-Smith says, “realism without the neo-”.
Visconti got a stay at the last minute, and soon after the Allies would make their way up the peninsula, liberating Italy not from the fascist government they had given themselves but the occupiers from Germany, as if the whole world had converged on them to tell them they weren’t able to govern themselves. And while Visconti’s partisan work would conclude, his fight for Ossessione was only just beginning, as the Catholic Church would act as much a censorious thorn in his side as the Party once did. Its international distribution also faced problems as, in the wartime production era, they never needed to get the rights to Cain’s novel. It was a film more legendary than seen, a missing link between the old and the new, a transition out of the fascist psychosis into the attempts at reconstruction and reconciliation that set the rest of the 20th century in motion.