Screen Women: Interrupting the Gaze in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione and Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice

OssessioneIn this instalment of our Screen Women series, Christina Newland looks at Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione — and how it flips the script on the gendered gaze.

A director simultaneously blessed with the ability for painterly, decadent production design, salt-of-the-earth documentary realism, and rigorous formalism, Marxist aristocrat Luchino Visconti remains a unique figure in Italian cinema. Visconti’s directorial debut Ossessione (1943) is frequently described as one of the earliest neorealist films, but is also an unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s crime novel — an adaptation that would later become The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

Originally banned by the Fascists for its portrayal of an extramarital affair and murder, the story centres around a handsome young drifter, Gino (Massimo Girotti). Gino wanders into a bar run by old man Bragana, much older husband to Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Gino and Giovanna begin an affair, eventually plotting to murder her husband before making an attempt to live out their guilt-stained lives. Although many neorealist directors (Rossellini, to name one) got their start at Cinecitta under Mussolini, the deeply anti-Catholic and anti-family values of Ossessione proved to be too outrageous to ignore.

I would contend that the film is not just socially subversive but sexually too; Visconti, who was openly homosexual, upends cinematic representations of gender relations, particularly in relation to the noir genre. He casts a scopophilic eye on his male lead — a choice which redirects the blame that is often cast on the archetype of the seductive female. The love triangle is fleshed out past one-dimensional class stereotypes; the cuckolded husband, while a bourgeois bore, is also warm and fatherly at times, with a beautiful singing voice. Giovanna is torn between genuine love and bourgeois comfort, but isn’t the grasping, conniving femme fatale we’ve come to associate with the genre.  As both a committed Communist and a nostalgic aristocrat,  Visconti portrays the couple as trying to live between two worlds. They have flouted all traditional morality, but remain shackled to their worldly goods; a tension that simply cannot be.  His inclinations toward political and sexual subversion are all the more apparent when compared to Tay Garnett’s production code-era adaptation of the novel, backed by Hollywood’s least subversive studio, MGM.

Screenwriter and director Giuseppe De Santis once described Ossessione as ‘steeped in the air of death and sperm’, so it is unsurprising that The Postman Always Rings Twice feels stymied and even little bland by comparison. Cora Smith (Lana Turner) is a painted-by-numbers dame, camera lustily tilting up her bare legs as she uses her feminine wiles to ensnare John Garfield, the perennial rumpled everyman. There’s little denying the schematic nature of the film, with its traditional noir dichotomy between feminine sexuality/mendacity and male righteousness. Ossessione differs considerably here, with Giovanna far less knowingly manipulative than her American counterpart. As Cinéaste writer Martha P. Nochimson puts it, ‘She responds instinctively to Gino’s sensuality; he is never the same means to freedom and wealth that set into motion the cold calculation of […] Cora Smith.’ Nochimson goes on to note the lack of careful planning on the lovers’ part; for them, murder is the result of an uncontrollable spiral of events – Giovanna is led by blind lust, not shrewd greediness.

Further, Clara Calamai is not the bearer of the gaze in the same way that Lana Turner is; she is oddly overlooked by Visconti’s camera, which dotes instead on the broodingly sensual male lead, Massimo Girotti. With his torn white vest and broad shoulders, Girotti anticipates a young Brando. Girotti replaces the traditional femme fatale – for ‘male attractiveness can only be figured using the feminine, since the common sense that women are the “fairer sex” renders all sexual objectification feminizing.’  Even a same-sex gaze borrows from heterosexual power dynamics, essentially feminizing the object of desire. In its privileging of straight female and homosexual male desire, Ossessione transcends its conventional noir framework. The film does not only swap out the role of the erotic film noir woman for a man; another character – a male friend, Spagnolo – appears as an indirect rival for Gino’s affections. Though it is never explicit, Spagnolo offers Gino an escape into a gay lifestyle. His force in the film is eventually destructive (again, perhaps, recalling the stereotypical endowment of gay men with negative ‘feminine’ traits), but the scenes between the two men allow for male friendship and attraction in a manner which parallels the relationship between Gino and Giovanna, providing an interesting counterpoint. The character of Spagnolo, much like Giovanna’s pregnancy, actually disappear entirely from The Postman Always Rings Twice. Ossessione‘s languid pace teases out the complexities and ambiguities of Visconti’s gender dynamics, allowing for a less schematic, more realistic series of events. Although no one is innocent. Gino and Giovanna are in many ways equally culpable for their crimes; there is a sense of shared guilt and genuine tragedy present in their story — a shared guilt that Garnett’s version ignores in order to place the blame on the head of Lana Turner’s femme fatale.

Ultimately, Visconti’s first and only foray into ‘neo-realist noir’ proves to be an unwieldy, brooding combination of class warfare, postwar fatalism, and sexual murkiness. It’s nuances and reversal of traditional roles allow it to implicitly critique traditional values under Mussolini’s regime – and to provide a fascinating counterpoint to Hollywood’s treatment of the same source material.

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