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Though Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti may not be a household name, his influence alone marks him as one of the cinema greats. Born to an aristocratic family, Visconti began his cinematic career after meeting Jean Renoir, working on the French master's 1936 short film A Day in the Country and 1937's The Lower Depths, and he wrote and helped make 1941's Tosca, which Renoir had to abandon because of the war. Visconti began his career as director with 1943's Ossessione. The film was a harbinger for the Neo-realist movement, as it concerned the working class and used real locations to tell its story — and for that it was censored by the reigning fascists. The picture also came under fire in America, but for different reasons: It was an unauthorized version of James M. Cain's pulp novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, and due to copyright problems Ossessione was kept out of circulation in the U.S. until 1975. After World War II, Visconti congealed his role at the forefront of Neo-realism with 1948's La Terra Trema. But it was the '60s that cemented his importance, through such efforts as Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963) that proved him a master of operatic melodrama. His influence on the New Hollywood of the '70s changed the way Americans saw movies, as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and others drew heavily from the Italian masters in creating their new American masterpieces. In fact, The Leopard's final ballroom party is often cited as a direct influence on how Coppola staged the opening wedding sequence of The Godfather. Visconti had a slow and steady output — often filming adaptations — with his final effort L'Innocente (1976) made shortly before his death. But even from his first film, it was obvious that the director was a talent to be reckoned with. The story of Ossessione follows the main thrust of Cain's book: A stranger named Gino (Massimo Girotti) stops at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant/gas station when he's kicked off a truck he hitched on. But while at the station he meets the owner's wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai) and they immediately fall for each other. Gino convinces her husband that he's a mechanic, so the husband is sent into town to get a part for their broken car, providing Gino and Giovanna enough time for a tryst. They also get a chance to talk, and bond: He's a drifter who doesn't want to settle down, while she was a poor girl who got married to have something more. Both decide to run away the next day, but when the time comes Giovanna can't give up her business and the life she has built for herself. Gino is desperately in love with her but goes on, afraid they might decide to kill her husband. However, a twist of fate later reunites the lovers, leaving murder a forgone conclusion. And after their fateful decision, tensions mount between them as both grapple with mounting guilt and the townsfolk's suspicions.

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Though Hollywood tried it twice (in 1946 with John Garfield and Lana Turner, and again in 1981 with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange), and both versions are not without their pluses, Visconti's Ossessione stands as the best adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Perhaps it's because — like any great film noir — the picture captures the right sense of fatalism and bleakness, although here that darkness is mixed with the influence of Renoir's humanist filmmaking style. Visconti makes sure that even the most unsympathetic characters in Ossessione have plausible motivations, as the film takes pains to create sympathy for these downtrodden people who feel murder is their only solution. Ultimately, even though things must end with the guilty punished, it's hard not to feel bad for them. As a first film, Visconti's effort ranks as one of the best directorial debuts in history, and it illustrates many of his best traits — his camera sensibility, his masterful abilities with actors, his confidence with material — but the movie also works as just a good movie, with inevitable doom breathing down the lovers' necks from the minute they meet. In his later efforts, Visconti embraced some of the more theatrical elements of cinema with costume dramas, and even CinemaScope and Technicolor. But he never forgot that characters define stories, and that's never more apparent than in this first outing. Image Entertainment's DVD release of Ossessione can be troublesome. The transfer is full-frame (1.33:1) with the original Italian soundtrack in monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 and optional English subtitles. However, the source has flecking throughout, print damage, and occasional motion distortion due to the transfer's origins from a duped master, which is not surprising considering the film fell into public domain. This would be unacceptable from most films on DVD — Ossessione is an exception, as the original negative was destroyed by the Italian fascists during World War II. The film only survives because Visconti was able to hide a print, and unless some miraculous restoration can be undertaken someday, having to deal with minor problems in the source material is a small price indeed. Keep-case.

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