Or Advanced Guide to Cinematic Survival?
Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione is a darkly lustrous life form born in the “golden era” for cinema — a period that occasionally let slip some of the worst dogs of noir. I’m facing up right away, then, to certain ungovernable forces of critical destiny, hoping to ease passage into a discussion of the best amalgam of crime fiction, melodrama, and documentary verismo in all film history. (So far, that is. The 21st century might still have time for a riposte or two.)
Via the luxury of the word, I’ll briefly delay a closer look at what decided its survival and come straight to the biggest and most amazing fact about Ossessione, which is that it exists at all. Even Italianized from the multicultural ’30s America of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Visconti’s official career-opener is as sullen a challenge to Church, State, and, above all, family values as we’re likely to find in any era, let alone one in which political chaos reigned. Meanwhile, the nomadic, sexually needy Gino and the security-seeking, sexually needy Giovanna seem to stare hopelessly back at us, brooding all the while on the murder of Giovanna’s boorishly conventional husband. To call this “provocative” reveals about as much as the news that the Pope is, indeed, Catholic. On that point, and luckily for Rome, in August 1943 Pius XII had finally persuaded Roosevelt to declare it an Open City, free from Allied bombing. Unluckily for Visconti, his primo, or premiere, had already occurred in May. As we learn from Henry Bacon’s excellent 1998 text, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay, after its second screening, the initially genial response of a well-heeled Roman “festival” audience didn’t stop backs-to-the-wall nationalists from seeking to destroy every print of the film they could lay their hands on.
Not that an entire political generation in Italy was lacking all complexity. Before times had become so changeful, the Mussolinis, papa e figlio, had generally prided themselves on a liberal response to the Arts, if only because — as they saw it — the masses were essentially dead to arty political nuances, should these ever get past a highly efficient censor. It’s worth bearing in mind here that a mixture of complacency, snobbery, and “reluctant” brutality had already ruled the Fascist roost for much longer in Italy than Germany. Of course, by 1943 the Nazis were going hard at their game of Cultural Catch-up; and, among modern films illustrating the point, I think of Istvan’s Szabo’s Mephisto (1981) and Bernard Tavernier’s Laissez-Passer (2002): Szabo’s film foregrounding Goering’s control of the Arts in the Heimat, and Tavernier setting his story inside Continental Films, the pet Parisian project of Joseph Goebbels. Relevantly enough, Mephisto, like Ossessione, is another highly successful screen adaptation of literary fiction — in Szabo’s case of a “somewhat hysterical” work by Thomas Mann’s son Klaus. Visconti’s “theft” of and changes to Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice aren’t quite so universally seen as an improvement on the original; but — as I hope to show — the balance of that argument is also firmly on the filmmaker’s side.
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As l suggested in Bright Lights last time, Jean Renoir led the way in 1930s cinema, not just with its increasing tendency to social comment but — just as significantly — its increasingly sophisticated use of sound technology, particularly with regard to music. I also suggested that, with Toni, Renoir’s well-known personal influence on Visconti’s early career started even sooner than has generally been recognised. However, with one possible exception to which we’ll soon come, their lifelong passion for the stage was pursued entirely independently of one another. Meanwhile, their apparently effortless command of so many art arenas seems to emphasise a certain shared class privilege, a fact that sits uneasily with their political vision. Yet the son of Auguste might as easily have paled in his father’s shadow as lead the famous dynasty into a new age. Visconti, too, might have become invisible among the many sad stereotypes of faded aristocracy. In reality, however, it’s clear that both men were driven by what we would now call a strong work ethic. In Visconti’s case, this was no small consideration when friendly bombs had already come and fallen on Rome, flattening most of the Cinecitta complex. As things were panning out, then, it was just as well for the location-based Ossessione that much of Visconti’s time with Renoir in the 1930s had been spent on the road.
Illustrating Renoir’s own unpretentious approach to filmmaking, his devoted admirer, André Bazin, quotes this: “Making the Bayeux tapestry Queen Matilda had no better reason for placing a knight in a given spot than the chance presence of a clump of blue or green wool.” If Renoir was dealing at the time with, perhaps, an over-admiring friend, the Bazin who founded Cahiers du Cinema could hit a few practical nails on the head himself — none bigger than his emphasis on the connection between the coming of sound and the arrival of a new realism in fiction and films — especially the new writerly concern with “street talk.” A backwards glance from our own multimedia universe enables us to see distinctions between, say, the rapid spread of recorded music, radio, and cinema and a comparative lag in the development of paperbacks. But, as Bazin already witnessed in the l940s, “Five years in the evolution of the cinema is the equivalent of a generation in literature.”
Paradoxically enough, something one notices about so many writers for film in the 1930s and ’40s is an upping of classical literary awareness side by side with a new street aesthetic. On this view, Ossessione can be understood as a thoroughly modern take on what is, in many ways, a thoroughly classical, even Shakespearean idea of tragedy. I’ll leave to last my comments on the profoundly supportive role music played in all this. But staying with film scripts — again as Bacon reminds us — Visconti fiercely resisted pressure from his co-writers to come out with a flat-footed and, pace Gramsci, semi-literate Marxist manifesto. Arguably, the script would never have been turned into a film at all without Visconti’s input. But, in fact, his resistance to polemic was not simply an attempt to bypass the death-throe reactions of Italian Fascism, but — by means of any model, old or new — to create a complex and truthful social/artistic vision. Far from producing the watered-down scenario his co-writers feared, this was exactly what enraged Fascist sensibilities, so much so that — long into the post-fascist era, at home and abroad — no one wanted anything to do with this toxic fleur du mal.
When we look at the broad range of literary influences at the time, they obviously include the Hardboiled school — from which, by the way, James M. Cain did his best to dissociate himself — as well as, in Europe at least, the late 19th-century realism of Verga and Zola. However, if we’re looking for a common literary heritage between “old” books and 20th-century crime fiction, what jumps out at us, I think, is a more than surface set of resonances with the (thoroughly Italianate) English Renaissance. In no particular order, one thinks of Chandler’s self-consciously chosen alter ego, Marlowe, or Hemingway’s Donne (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940). In 1931, there’s W. R. Burnett’s stab at what he called a “gutter Macbeth” in Little Caesar. And, leaving the Renaissance aside, for a hint of dismally failing real little Czars, how about a dash of Hammett’s beloved Dostoyevsky?
If anyone still doubts the possibility of a nuanced input from classic literature into popular film, I refer them to Fritz Lang’s anti-capital punishment crime thriller You Only Live Once (1937). While an execution is about to take place, in the prison kitchen a couple of cooks discuss how strange it is that they feed chickens only to kill them, then feed them again to condemned men, who are also immediately killed. In dramatic terms, this scene is doing the same work of high-brow/lowbrow absurdist conflation that we know from the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet — and, of course, the filmmakers knew this is what they were doing.
For a slightly more personal glimpse into Visconti’s mind at this time — and before expanding on the Cain connection, which, somehow inevitably, also featured a prominent role for Renoir — this is the moment to return to that “exception” where Renoir and Visconti work together on a piece derived not from books or films, but from theatre. This was their joint attempt to bring La Tosca to the screen, which, in one sense, actually succeeded. However, in the middle of the Italian-based project, Italy and France — to many people’s surprise — suddenly found each other at war. Renoir, nominally a serving officer, was called home and Visconti was left to finish the job with “Carlo” Koch. After the denuding of the German film industry by the famous mass exodus to Hollywood, Koch’s abilities were more those of a hard-working artisan than hard-working artist; and the result was a film Visconti himself described as “horrible.”
What was it, though, about Tosca that attracted leftists like Renoir and Visconti and at the same time roused no great suspicions in the mind of Il Duce? Yes, it was — and still is — one of opera’s most consistent box-office attractions. It’s also very dark, with political chaos and personal treachery contributing so much to a tale of doomed love it can equally be read as a tale of a doomed society. In fact, the musicologist Joseph Kerman won a certain immortality for himself in a 1960s critical piece when he referred to this audience favourite as a shabby little shocker. For me, the phrase perfectly describes Kerman’s own critical persona; and a lot of us might wonder — just like Il Duce — what all the fuss was about when it’s set, safely enough, in the long-ago Italy of the Napoleonic era. Clearly, like many another sombre masterpiece, its power to disturb depended not only on the strength of any given production but on the mood of the time. This returns me to those ungovernable forces I mentioned early on; and here I can also make more comments on the tie-ins between Visconti’s world and Renaissance literature.
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Few critics of any era have brought more to our understanding of classic literature than William Empson. In the context of the 1930s and ’40s, as I suggested last time, Empson was part of that huge cultural shift that — without becoming a recognized School — was putting new emphasis on classical literature and at the same time developing a strong feeling for “the common man.” Empson’s own famous response was to come up with that joyously frank and complex critical plainsong, Seven Types of Ambiguity . As we’ve just seen, André Bazin identifies the new technology of sound cinema as the main driver of this new ethos. Therefore, as I also suggested, it’s no coincidence that Empson’s unprecedentedly fresh and still stimulating book emerged within a year or so of the first talkies.
In terms of classical literature, the Empson of1930 and Renoir/Visconti of ten years later are firmly connected by their approach to the theme of social/moral collapse: poetically hinted at in Macbeth and, of course, musically evoked in Tosca. In fact, however, we’re going beyond narrowly artistic starting points to a time when, at the start of the decade, ominous change was at least nervously apprehended and, by 1940, already a fact to which everyone had to adjust as best they could. But let’s look at the few short lines from Macbeth that Empson chooses among all those at his disposal to end his longest chapter.
But cruel are the Times, when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves; when we hold Rumour
From what we feare, yet know not what we feare,
But float upon a wilde and violent Sea
Each way, and move.
Empson suggests that the speaker — evidently very agitated — seems, at the last minute, “calmed by the effort of description.” Briefly, Empson has been looking at the sort of ambiguity where a writer, consciously or otherwise, leaves open quite different alternative meanings — not just differences of emphasis — which “an ordinary good reading” can resolve. Needless to say, this can still result in diametrically opposed resolutions. If, for example, we agree with Empson, these lines are about a troubled mind singing the blues, as it were, and thereby soothing itself. Or, as I read it, we end on the sickening moment when the speaker realises he can do nothing whatever but “move” with these terrible times. I suppose both readings could imply a fading note of resignation. But I’ve been watching Ossessione, and my money’s on that sinking feeling in the pit of one’s stomach as the world moves on only to move us that much nearer the edge.
Will a look at Cain’s 1934 novel lighten our darkness in any way? Of course not, since that was never its intention. As Scott Fitzgerald commented to the hopeful young author, “[your book] is not a harbinger of joy!” — a remark that reveals Fitzgerald either as a master of irony or as someone entirely devoid of it. The book itself attempts what, to my jaundiced eye, are mostly Hammettisms — especially the deeply corrupt nature of the “straight” bourgeois world — in this case of insurance companies. (Anybody listening at Fox News?) There’s also a femme fatale, perhaps a smidgeon more sexy and certainly more biologically maternal than the standard Hammett model. And there’s a cat-loving cop that feels like a real genre original.
But the fatal weakness in all this is not an untrustworthy dame or even an untrustworthy narrator. For me it’s the first-person narrative itself that just doesn’t bear the weight of development Cain wants to put on it. In movie terms we’d be talking about the problems of voice-over, famously the device of choice for many a noir and war film of the ’40s and, as such, worth a separate analysis. But, briefly, it’s a device that has to be handled with care or, at worst, it stands in the way of the very developments on which it’s so busy commenting. This, I’m afraid, is how Cain’s first-person affects me in Postman; and so what should be experienced, at the least, as ambiguous feelings about a killer dying for a murder he didn’t commit ends with near total lack of interest in his “fate.” My not very grim resistance to sympathy or even empathy was only made easier by the central character’s final fatuous appeal for us to “Pray for him.”
By the way, my understanding is that neither the French nor the Italians saw themselves as “stealing” Cain’s story, as the author has claimed, since there was no legally restricting studio contract until MGM and Tay Garnett’s 1946 Postman. (This rather limping delivery was redeemed only in part by the ever-edgy John Garfield; and, whatever else one can say about the 1981 remake starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, it certainly wasn’t lamed by the censor.) And so, when Julien Duvivier passed a typescript of Postman on to Renoir, who passed it on again to Visconti, they were simply helping a fellow director in search of something realistic and modern, but not too obviously destined for the censor’s wastebin. (A Verga story from Visconti had, in fact, just thudded therein.)
When — again from Henry Bacon — I learned of the Duvivier connection, I recalled that, with Pepe le Moko in 1937, this director made what for many of us is one of the most compelling crime melodramas of the ’30s. Via Jean Gabin’s gangster on the run, you really do feel like praying for a not totally guileful bad guy, caught as he is between a claustrophobic wish to stay hidden and a suicidal yearning for love and freedom. No unappealing appeals here, then, and our emotions are all the more wrenched as a result. Indeed, it seems to me that Visconti brings a very similar empathy to Massimo Girotti’s Gino in Ossessione. And, at the risk of turning him into an over-impressionable young man (which he was not), one could say that, in this case, Visconti was imbibing as much cinematic nous from Duvivier as from Renoir.
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To rescue myself from these tiny hints of sacrilege, mention of melodrama — literally a musical drama — takes us back to Renoir and his chief explicator, Andre Bazin. With his help we also discover that the new realism in cinema, enhanced by sound technology, was taking quite a sexy turn via the exploitation not just of street talk but of that even more universal form of communication, music. In Boudu Sauve des Eaux, (1932): “Whenever we hear music we know that someone is aroused — Quelqu’un bande.” By 1939 and La Grande Illusion — remarkably, the first of Renoir’s films to make it big internationally — Renoir’s mastery of sound is probably best exampled by that famous moment of silence when sex-starved prisoners of war are suddenly subdued by the entry of a young male soldier in female dress.
Especially to those who think they saw through my provocative claims at the start of this piece, I now say again, only louder, that Ossessione — by means of its soundtrack and music more than anything else — takes crime fiction, melodrama, and documentary realism, and creates from them an utterly spell-binding piece of cinema that not only still sets all the important standards, but still asks all the important questions about what it means to make a good film. At this point I remember how writing has sometimes aspired to “the condition of music” and how often writers complain about the impossibility of the task. This, I think, is where they should envy the filmmaker, because he or she — alone in the arts — has the chance to pull off this miracle. Of course, at one level it’s an entirely unmiraculous, rational process that — unromantically enough — we can break down into component parts. In Ossessione we hear, from the opening titles onwards, an off-stage, emotion-setting, non-diegetic score as it evokes its slide-away, Shakespearean sense of unavoidable disaster as felt by Gino and Giovanna. We also hear all sorts of supposedly “natural” or diegetic, snatches of song and instrumental playing, in this film always employed to strengthen our sense of the external world in which everyone — including Gino and Giovanna — has their being. Perhaps most impressively, however, we also have nothing but silence, or more accurately, no music at all, just sound effects — for example, a clock ticking. And this usually accompanies moments of breathless self-consciousness, as when the lovers don’t just feel their own sexual tension but scarcely know how they’re getting away with silencing their unspoken thoughts, most of these, of course, about Giovanna’s inconvenient husband . . .
After all this, I feel a certain debt to James M. Cain. If his take on classic literature and modernity doesn’t work for me, it’s only fair to recognize that in much of what he wrote, classical music is an arena where social and personal tensions are often played out. It’s the sort of socially aware subtext that would have made more rather than less likely that vital little improvised link between Duvivier, Renoir, and Visconti, without which Ossessione would never even have been a lost masterpiece, let alone one now constantly being rediscovered. This invokes perhaps the wildest of those forces I was talking about; but here, at least, it has contributed something far from shabby to our own often shocking world; and for that we must surely be grateful.