The Bootleg Files: Ossessione

BOOTLEG FILES 683: “Ossessione” (1943 Italian film directed by Luchino Visconti).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm last exhibition of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There was a DVD release by Image Entertainment.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: For three decades, it could not be seen due to copyright violations.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: The problems were all straightened out and it can be seen.

One of the most famous films in the history of Italian cinema is also one of the most notorious examples of copyright violations. And while the legal issues were eventually sorted out, the sheer audacity of this endeavor is still astonishing.

During the early 1940s, Luchino Visconti was an up-and-coming writer/director was eager to helm his first feature-length film. He was introduced to the James M. Cain novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by the great French director Jean Renoir and believed that this would be an ideal vehicle for making his mark on the screen. Whether or not Visconti was aware that Cain’s book was the subject of the 1939 French film “Le Dernier Tourant” is unclear – that production made little impact and was barely seen outside of France.

However, there was one itty-bitty problem: Italy and the United States were at war with each other when Visconti began planning his version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and he was not able to acquire the screen rights from the American writer. Incredibly, Visconti opted to make a film version of Cain’s work without authorization from the novelist, a blatant violation of international copyright law. Cain’s name was absent from the credits of Visconti’s work, which was retitled “Ossessione,” but the screenplay was clearly ripped off from Cain’s best-selling book.

“Ossessione” transports the setting of Cain’s story from California to Italy and the characters are given new Italian names. In this version, Gino is a hobo who is wandering the Po Valley and stops at a gas station and tavern run by Giuseppe, an older and obese man, and his much younger wife Giovanna. The married couple are in a troubled union, with Giovanna loathing her husband while Giuseppe treats her like hired help. Gino passes himself off as a mechanic and is able to stay with the couple, and he is quickly smitten by the sultry Giovanna. She, in turn, becomes aroused by the ruggedly masculine Gino. Poor Giuseppe doesn’t realize that his wife and his new mechanic have fallen deeply into an affair. Gino vainly attempts to convince Giovanna to run away with him, but the pair later hatch a plan to ensure Giuseppe is permanently out of the picture. Of course, things don’t go quite the way they hoped.

In adapting Cain’s work, Visconti and his screenplay collaborators Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis and Gianni Puccini kept the crux of the story but downplayed the police investigation into the older man’s death added two new characters that gave a deeper dimension to Gino’s emotional tumult. The first new character is Spagnolo, a street artist who pays for Gino’s train fare when he briefly abandons Giovanna. Spagnolo and Gino share a hotel room with a single bed and there is the briefest of shots with the two men starting to sit down next to each other on the bed. (Visconti was openly gay and it is impossible to imagine this set-up was merely fraternal.) Later in the film, Spagnolo tries to get Gino to leave Giovanna and travel with him, which results in Gino punching Spagnolo.

The second character is Anita, a prostitute that Gino meets after Giuseppe’s death. Gino establishes a friendly relationship with Anita, but Giovanna discovers this and creates a public scene that ends with Gino slapping her. This sequence emphasizes the volatility of the Gino-Giovanna pairing in comparison to the relatively noble personality offered by the prostitute Anita.

For his leads, Visconti chose two attractive actors, Massimo Girotti as Gino and Clara Calamai as Giovanna, and aggressively deglamourized them with a raw and scruffy physical appearance that bordered on the feral. Visconti’s use of location shooting in poor areas and public spaces was later cited by film scholars as setting the example for the neorealist movement that reshaped the post-World War II Italian cinema.

Since Visconti decided to make the film without Cain’s permission, he had no trouble shooting his conceived project without the consent of his country’s censors. He submitted a script to Italy’s Fascist authorities, but scenes in the script did not turn up on the screen while other scenes that were not approved found their way into the final print. The Fascist government and Roman Catholic authorities were aghast when they finally got to witness Visconti’s visceral depiction of adultery, murder and justice – Vittorio Mussolini, the Italian dictator’s son, reportedly yelled “This is not Italy!” after seeing the film. “Ossessione” only received a few public screenings before it was withdrawn from release. The original negative and all prints were destroyed by the Fascist government and “Ossessione” was saved from being a lost film thanks to Visconti’s foresight in hiding a duplicate negative of his work. After Italy was liberated by the Allied forces, “Ossessione” slowly reappeared in Italian cinemas.

ButVisconti faced another problem. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer held the screen rights to “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and released its version starring John Garfield and Lana Turner in a heavily bowdlerized but very entertaining 1946 production. Visconti was barred from showing “Ossessione” outside of Italy – and within his country, the glossy Hollywood film was imported and became more popular with local audiences than the raw homegrown product.

It wasn’t until 1976 that the problems regarding the copyright infringement on “Ossessione” was cleared up and the film could be seen widely, to the delight of film scholars and fans of Cain’s work. Image Entertainment released “Ossessione” on DVD in the U.S. market in 2002, which filled a void in the availability of Visconti’s works in the home entertainment market.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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