Friday, July 27, 2012

That Postman Keeps on Ringing

Film: Ossessione
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

It’s strange how we remember films. I know intellectually that Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione came a couple of years before The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it doesn’t change the fact that I saw the latter first. There’s a real sense going through this film that I’d already seen it. It’s not shot-for-shot the same, but the two films are similar enough (and are based on the same book) that this film filled me with a definite sense of déjà vu.

If you’ve seen The Postman Always Rings Twice, you’ve seen this film, and vice versa. There are some significant differences, but the basic idea is identical with only the names different. A drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) floats into town and winds up and a sort of gas station/restaurant/general store run by a man named Bragana (Juan de Landa). Bragana is a middle-aged man and decidedly fat, so it comes as a surprise when we encounter his young and attractive wife, Giovanna (Clara Calamai). There’s an immediate attraction between Gino and Giovanna.

Bragana is angry when he finds the drifter in his kitchen with his wife, and is even angrier when he discovers that Gino hasn’t paid for his meal. When he discovers that both he and Gino were in the military and a similar service he lightens up, and relents completely when Gino agrees to fix Bragana’s water pump and his car. So while he rides off to get the part Gino needs, Gino makes time with Giovanna. He eventually gets her to agree to run off with him, but she relents. She has a decided fear of being poor, and while she doesn’t love her husband, he’s at least stable.

Here’s where the story breaks from the novel and the more well-known American version of it. Gino runs off on his own and meets up with Lo Spagnolo (The Spaniard, played by Elio Marcuzzo). He’s a travelling performer and he takes in Gino, giving him a sort of productive life on the road. It’s in a nearby city, while Gino is working as a sandwich board carrier, the he meets back up with Giovanna and Bragana.

And now the story goes back to where it almost has to go. Gino is unable to resist the charms of Giovanna and returns to the store with her and her husband. He and she plot to kill Bragana and arrange the murder so it looks precisely like an accident, which not only leaves the store to her, but also grants her a hefty insurance policy. Of course, this also means that the two of them share a dark and dangerous secret, which means that the two of them can’t trust each other, and can’t live without each other. From here, the film builds to its inevitable conclusion, which isn’t a happy one for anyone involved.

Visconti concentrates much more heavily on the environment of these people than do the following versions of this story, focusing on the reality of their situation rather than the unfolding plot. This isn’t to say that he ignores the story, but is intent on at least in some respects blaming the story on the moneyless reality of the characters. The emphasis (at least in what I saw) is on making this a real story with real characters in a believable situation rather than something more lurid and prurient.

The problem with Ossessione is not the fault of the film. It predates most films noir, and in many ways informs the style, but is also far less well known (at least in America) than most films noir. Someone interested in the style will likely see plenty of other films before this one, and so this film becomes sadly predictable. We know what the woman is really like underneath the façade of needing Gino. We know what the man is like in part because of his unending desire for Giovanna. There are only a few different ways this can play out and all of them lead to the same place. Ossessione is inevitable in where it goes, and we know this because so many other films go to the same place.

Visconti was a tremendous filmmaker, though, and the film is worth seeing if only for his visual style. The plot is virtually the same as the aforementioned film and also bears similarity (again in reverse) to Detour in some ways. And really, Visconti’s style is the main draw. You can get the same basic plot a lot of places, most of the same story in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and even some similarities in a film like Les Diaboliques. In many of these cases, the other films are tighter and shorter, which works well for a narrative like this, the speed of the story matching the inevitability of the climax. In other words, Visconti’s film has visual niceties that are great for film study, but don’t do much for the story itself. It’s fat in that respect, which makes it less a taut thriller than the versions that followed it.

Why to watch Ossessione: An early example of non-American noir and Italian neo-realism.
Why not to watch: This story has been filmed at least three times, and possibly more easily found in English.


  1. I really enjoyed this review and will try to get this on Netflix..

    Really glad I am now following this blog, the layout is great.

    Would love it if you fancied checking out my blog and perhaps following back?

  2. Our layouts are really similar--particularly the color scheme.

    I make it a habit to check out other blogs whenever I can.

  3. I actually preferred this to Postman, mostly because I typically find Lana Turner incapable of acting her way out of a paper bag, even WITH those turbans.

    1. Aww...poor Lana. I didn't mind her in that film, and I thought the direction was tighter and better paced.

    2. I've come to admire Lana's acting talents after watching a lot more of her movies over the last few years.

      I've seen all the major U.S. versions of The Three Musketeers and I think she is the best Lady De Winter. (She's certainly my favorite!)

      And last year I watched several of her early comedies when she was just starting out and I was very impressed with her talent for comedy. (I wish I could remember the name of one I thought was especially good. Ann Rutherford was her roommate and they were in college but Lana was just pretending to be in college as part of a very complicated Hollywood "search for a new singing star" competition. It's not The Awful Truth or Duck Soup, but I laughed a lot.)

  4. Would it be wrong to say that the basic difference is that this version is realism? I have not seen the American version yet, so i cannot be sure, but the realistic style seems to me to be the asset of Ossessione. I agree on your objection to the lenght of the film, but I found myself caught up I the scenery to an extent where I actually did not mind that extra fat.
    Which would you say is the better version?

    1. I prefer the American version because I think it's better paced. A film like this (my opinion) works better with a quick pace and less time for the audience to catch it's breath. I didn't hate this, but I did like The Postman Always Rings Twice more.

      I also really question the need for both of them on The List.

  5. I found Ossessione online, but without English sub-titles. Well, I decided to watch it anyway because I know the basic story. Plus, it's Visconti!

    (And I actually have a bit of a history with watching foreign films in languages I don't understand. Before I took two years of Spanish in college, I watched a lot of Mexican films on Canal 22 in Los Angeles. They would show very old Mexican movies (before 1970) all day on Saturday.)

    And I really enjoyed Ossessione! I had no trouble following it. As bad as Turner and Garfield's characters are in the 1946 version, these two in the Italian version are both even more awful! (I thought the guy - Gino - looked like the Italian Robert Stack.)

    My favorite scene was that weird cafeteria where one table is reserved for amateur singers to stand on and belt out old European favorites for the amusement of the diners. And they started with a lady singing Habanera from Carmen! Any movie that uses Swan Lake or anything from Carmen always gets extra points from me!

    (I was in Italy for a few weeks in 1984 and I've always felt like I saw so much that I really can't complain about the experience. But now I'm feeling a little deprived because I didn't get to eat in a cafeteria with amateur singers performing opera!)

    1. One of the real joys of noir is to see just how evil a character can be and still remain interesting. This one, I agree, goes a long way in that direction. That's all part of the fun, though, isn't it?

      There are some films I can follow in other languages. I'm the best at German, although if it goes too fast, I get lost pretty quickly.