Friday, April 8, 2011

Obsessione (1943)

Being a long time fan of James M. Cain, I don't know why it has taken me so long to watch Luchino Visconti's adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Obsessione. Made in 1943, it beat Hollywood to the punch, the John Garfield/Lana Turner version of the novel not coming out until 1946.

Here's the plot: Giovanna lives in a shabby restaurant with her husband, the gruff and not terribly bright Bragana (Juan de Landa). One day a hobo named Gino stops in and cons Giovanna out of a meal. When Bragana catches him, the bum offers to perform some repairs around the place. He stays and he and the wife fall for each other, hard. He asks her to run off with him; she refuses; he leaves without her. They meet again in the city, decide they can't live without each other, and plan to murder Bragana. Nothing good comes from their crime.

Neither this nor the American movie packs the wallop the novel does, but the American film comes a little closer. Visconti's seediness is seedier than Tay Garnett's seediness and the garage/hash house in which the lovers meet is certainly hot and dusty, but leads Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai, as Gino and Giovanna (Frank and Cora in the book) are not convincing as a pair so desperately in lust they are willing to do whatever it takes to stay together. Cain called it "the love knot" and it was the plot device that drags his protagonists to hell in this story and its literary doppelganger Double Indemnity, both of which were based in part on the Judd Gray/Ruth Snyder murder of Snyder's husband in 1927, a stupid crime so ineptly carried out, Damon Runyon dubbed it "the dumb-bell murder case."

Whether or not you believe in the kind of blind, ravenous passion that rips its victim's guts out is entirely up to you, but I didn't see it in Girotti and Calamai. Calamai is certainly an attractive woman and was a big star in Italian cinema of the time, but we see nothing in the way Gino reacts to Giovanna that is a convincing motive for murder.

I suspect part of the problem may be that Visconti wasn't particularly interested in the sordid crime part of the story. While Gino is separated from Giovanna he meets lo Spagnolo (the Spaniard), a street vender who preaches Marxism—but subtly enough to get around Fascist censors—and appears to have more than a fraternal interest in Gino. I sense that Visconti, a homosexual Communist, would rather have spent more time with Spagnolo (Elio Marcuzzo), a character who has no equivalent in Cain's novel.

The real attraction of the film is its look and feel. It is one of the earliest examples of neo-realism, the style Visconti pioneered and championed before moving on to the romantic luxury of films like Senso and The Leopard.

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