film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Gaslight (1944)

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I’d not ever seen this film before, but knew all about it; the term “gaslighting” has become common knowledge in the days of #metoo and Gamergate and jerks being jerks to women online.  But those modern associations are why there’s a scene at the end that felt so viscerally satisfying.

Just in case – Gaslight is the tale of Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), who is a teenage girl living with her opera singer aunt at the very top of the film.  That is, she was – the film opens on the night of her aunt’s murder, after Paula has discovered her body.  The police kindly lead her past the curious throng waiting outside her aunt’s London townhouse and into a carriage, where the avuncular police captain tells her she’s being taken in by her aunt’s old vocal teacher in Italy.  It’s a chance to start afresh, he tells her.  We then jump forward ten years to find Paula quitting her music lessons because she’s fallen in love with the class accompanist, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). The professor releases gives them his blessing, and the pair quickly tie the knot.  Paula dreamily looks forward to a life with Anton in a city like Paris or Vienna – but Anton is strangely insistent on moving back to London.  In fact, hasn’t Paula inherited her aunt’s old house?….why not live there?

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Anton further suggests that they could move all of her aunt’s things into the attic and board up the door so Paula doesn’t have to look at it all the time. While they’re packing it up, Paula comes across a love letter from someone named Sergis Bauer, written to her aunt two days before her death.  She starts reading it out loud, baffled – and Anton seems unusually freaked out and roars at her to stop.  He tries to laugh off his reaction as “oh, sweetie, I just hate to see you dwelling on icky stuff like that,” but Paula is understandably alarmed.  Anton brushes her concerns off – she’s just overreacting!

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Dismissing Paula’s concerns becomes something Anton does a lot.  When Paula senses the new maid really doesn’t like her, Anton brushes it off as being all in her head.  When Paula can’t find little things around the house that she could swear she’d just put down right there, Anton suggests that she’s been getting kind of forgetful lately.  When Paula keeps thinking she hears noises from the attic at night, Anton says that’s impossible – is she sure she’s not dreaming? Or hearing things?  She’s been getting kind of forgetful lately, maybe something’s wrong with her?…

Anton persistently chips away at Paula’s sense of reality, making her doubt the things she sees, hears, and does, and even her own memory.  He keeps her at home constantly, turning away any visitors on the pretext that she’s sick; the isolation makes Paula feel even more unmoored.  Finally things get to the point where he even contradict’s Paula’s memory of the letter from Sergis Bauer – “you said you were reading a letter, but there was nothing in your hand in the first place!”

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Fortunately, the goings-on at Paula and Anton’s house have attracted the attention of a busybody neighbor and a young detective from Scotland Yard, who suspect something’s up – and as Anton is chipping away at Paula’s sanity, the detective is working to get to the bottom of what’s happening with Paula – and whether it may be connected to her aunt’s murder.

It may be because I’m familiar with Gaslight’s premise, but I knew right from the start that Anton was pulling a fast one on Paula.  But even though I knew all along, it was still hard to spot exactly how he was pulling some of his tricks off, planting evidence on her person or stealing it out of her room without Paula (or us) catching him.  For most of the film, something definitely seems off about him, but he has frustratingly plausible deniability for most of the film.  Bergman plays Paula beautifully; even her freakouts avoid complete histrionics and hit exactly the right tone.

And that’s why the very last scene is so, so satisfying.  I’m going to warn you that this is a spoiler for the ending, so stop now if you want to watch first.

….So, yeah, Anton’s been manipulating Paula the whole time; he’s on the hunt for some jewels that are hidden among her aunt’s things.  The detective catches him in the act, telling Paula that Anton actually is Sergis Bauer, and is also her aunt’s killer.  The detective tied Anton to a chair in the attic while they wait for a paddywagon to carry him away, and suddenly Paula asks for a moment to speak to him alone.  And almost as soon as he walks out of the room, Anton begins to sweetly appeal to the early days of their love affair, begging Paula – for old time’s sake – to set him free so he can escape.  Paula….has some things to say about that.

Up to this point, the term “gaslighting” has had an unpleasant 21st-century-social-media association for me – where women who make complaints about powerful men get disbelieved and accused of fabricating the whole thing.  So when I saw this scene – a cutting tables-turning moment of “I know precisely what you did, you ass-sponge” – I was watching with a giddy grin on my face.

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Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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1944 is shaping up to be The Year Of The Detective Film Noir.  My crash course continues with this film, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, with Dick Powell starring as Chandler’s anti-hero detective Philip Marlowe.   Things start off simply enough, with Marlowe getting a late-night visit from “Moose” Malloy (Mike Mazurki), a big lummox of a guy who just got out of an eight-year prison stint and wants Marlowe to help track down his old girlfriend Velma.  She was a chorus girl at a local bar, but the bar’s changed hands recently and no one knows where Velma is.  It seems the trail’s run cold, but Malloy is insistent enough – and Marlowe broke enough – that Marlowe agrees to keep on the case, thinking that he can simply mark time until something better comes along.

And the next day something does – another straightforward-sounding gig as the bodyguard for a Mr. Marriott (Douglas Walton), the representative of a socialite who’s sent Marriott to pay the ransom for one of her stolen necklaces. Marriott is meeting the thieves in a canyon outside Los Angeles, and offers Marlowe $100 simply to keep him safe. Easy money for easy work.  …Except Marlowe gets knocked out when they arrive – and when he comes to, he finds Marriott has been brutally beaten to death.  Even more puzzling, when Marlowe reports the murder to the police, they ask him out of nowhere if he’s ever heard of a man named “Jules Amthor”.  “….No, who’s that?” Marlowe asks.  But instead of answering, the police warn him to stay away from Marriott’s murder case.

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Except when he gets to his office he finds a young woman, Ann, waiting there (Anne Shirley); she’s the stepdaughter of the woman who owned the necklace. Ann brings Marlowe to her parents’ house; her stepmother Helen (Clare Trevor) wants to hire him to find the necklace.  Ann briefly and secretly tries to bribe him into refusing the case.  But then Helen’s next visitor shows up – Jules Amthor.  Marlowe is hurried out the door before he can say anything.  But then gets his chance to meet Amthor when he is brought to Amthor’s apartment – by Moose Malloy, Amthor’s hired hand.  Amthor is a psychic, and Helen one of his frequent clients; but Marlowe guesses that Amthor somehow thinks Marlowe has the necklace in question.  But before he can act on it, Malloy knocks him out and brings him to….

{heavy sigh}

To be perfectly honest, when I got to this point of the movie I was finding I really, really didn’t care about it any more.

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This isn’t really the fault of any of the actors.  Dick Powell was okay as Philip Marlowe; although the role was a serious departure for him, as you may recall from his previous appearance as a Busby Berkeley regular in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.  Powell feared he was getting typecast as the song-and-dance romantic lead, and lobbied hard for the role of Marlowe (kind of the flip side of Jimmy Cagney trying to move from gangster films to musical theater).

And, sure, he does fine. But I was finding that I simply didn’t like Marlowe himself very much, and it’s hard to care what happens to a character you actively dislike. Especially a plot this complicated; it felt like every scene was pulling Marlowe into another meeting with yet another character adding yet another layer of complexity to the plot, oftentimes with Marlowe getting hit or punched or tripped or drugged or shot or otherwise suffering from some other physical indignity, to the point that I wondered why Marlowe didn’t simply throw up his hands and tap out to save himself.  It was bound to leave fewer bruises that way, at least.

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The screenwriter also set the script up so that the whole story was a flashback, with Marlowe relating his tale to the sergeant at a police station where he’s been brought in for questioning.  Screenwriter John Paxton pulled that trick so he could preserve some of the first-person narration from Chandler’s novel; but it was an element that I tired of quickly, especially since Paxton and/or Chandler uses the very same expression to describe Marlowe passing out (something about a black pool opening at his feet and him diving in) on three separate occasions in the film.

I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed. I know and respect that Raymond Chandler is a titan in the crime-novel world, and that Philip Marlowe is one of his biggest characters, but…I have never been an enormous fan of the mystery genre for the most part, and to be honest, it’s because of things like this film.

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Laura (1944)

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Laura is one of the film noir films everyone points to as an example of the genre.  And with good reason – it’s a murder mystery tale, with duplicitous suspects, a gruff gumshoe, and a gorgeous lady star, with everything in low light and gorgeous set pieces.

The murder-mystery part of it was clever, too.  Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to investigate the murder of Laura Hunt, an advertising executive who was found dead in her apartment of a gunshot to the face at point-blank range.  McPherson’s top two leads are Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the suave gossip columnist whose influence got Hunt her first job, and Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a playboy slacker who was engaged to Hunt.

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Both Lydedecker and Carpenter have plausible alibis – but both Lyedecker and Carpenter also have complicated backstories that make them very likely suspects.  Carpenter actually met Hunt through her aunt Anne (Judith Anderson), while he was Anne’s gigolo.  Hunt took a shine to Carpenter, and aunt Anne stepped aside for decorum’s sake – but McPherson discovers that Carpenter had still been secretly getting money from her the whole while. And running around with a model from the ad agency. Lyedecker, meanwhile, always maintained he had a platonic relationship to Hunt – but McPherson learns that Lyedecker was more of a Svengali figure, passing judgement on Laura’s career path, fashion choices, and social life, going so far as sic private investigators on anyone she happened to date.

It’s a complicated case, which gets even more complicated when McPherson realizes he’s getting a little personally obsessed with Hunt.  But that’s nothing to the complications that ensue when Hunt turns up two days later – back from a weekend in the country and very much alive.

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This sadly was one of the films in which I dozed off midway.  Not because of the plot, mind you – the mystery plot is pretty fascinatingly intricate, and unfolds at a nice pace.  The killer seemed suspiciously obvious to me on a rewatch, but I doubt it would have been as obvious at first blush; the killer was acting hinky, sure, but no more or less than any of the others with a motive.

The problem I had is that this is supposed to be a crime of passion, with multiple people being obsessed by Hunt.  They speak of her as being warm and vital and electric and driven and vivacious and quick-witted and….and on and on, with everyone heaping praise upon her for the first half of the film.  But when we finally meet Hunt herself….she actually seemed pretty ordinary, and I was wondering what all the fuss was about.  This is not the fault of Gene Tierney, who played Laura, in the slightest; she gives a fine performance.  But the script doesn’t really give Laura any chance to back up the other characters’ claims that the sun basically shines out of her tuchas.  Compassionate to her maid, sure; but that’s about it. So I spent much of the second half questioning exactly why everyone was so obsessed over this fairly bland person, to the point that someone actually committed murder over her.

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It’s a pleasantly moody piece still. I just wish that the script had given Gene Tierney more to do, and gave me more of a reason to see why everyone thought Laura Hunt was all that.

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Double Indemnity (1944)

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I thought that Maltese Falcon was the birthplace of a lot of film noir tropes.  If that’s the case – this is where those tropes graduated high school.

Double Indemnity takes its name from a clause in a life insurance policy which states that if the person insured dies in an unusual accident, the insurance company will pay out double.  Our lead Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) knows all about it; he’s an insurance salesman rather than a detective. While making his rounds one day he remembers a client, Mr. Dietrichson, whose auto insurance is about to lapse and drops by; Dietrichson’s not home, but his wife Phyllis is (Barbara Stanwyck), and she seems unusually…friendly. She also seems unusually interested in taking out a life insurance policy on her husband, and Neff is intrigued – until Phyllis says she doesn’t want her husband to know about it. Neff is friendly with his firm’s claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), and knows from him that what Phyllis is asking suggests she’s plotting something skeevy, so he quickly leaves.

But he still has to renew that auto policy, and Phyllis is pretty hot. And come to think of it, Neff’s had so many conversations with Keyes about phony claims, and the mistakes that would-be murderers made in hiding their tracks, that he thinks he’s figured out a way to not only carry out a murder, but 100% guaranteed pass it off as an accident. So when Phyllis confides in him once again – this time implying that her marriage is a burden and that Neff could be her next suitor – he agrees to help.

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Of course things don’t go quite so smoothly as Neff hopes. Keyes is better at spotting suspicious items than Neff thought, and Dietrichson’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) shares her own doubts with Neff, revealing some facts about Phyllis which suggest she’s been scheming since before she and Neff even met.  Can Neff get away with what he’s done when he’s got two skeptics doggedly pursuing the truth, and he can’t even trust his own partner in crime?

So there were things about this story that did and didn’t work for me.  The actual actions of the plot unfolded well – this is essentially a crime story, except the crime itself isn’t the central mystery; Neff is pretty gamely plotting murder early on, and most of the last half are his efforts to try to hide his tracks.  But Phyllis is herself a second mystery. She actually seemed pretty suspicious early on – she comes onto Neff awfully strong in their first scene – but all the film’s revelations only make you even more prone to second-guessing everything she says or does throughout, such that even at the very end, as she fervently declares her feelings about something, I was squinting and thinking “yeah, she’s just saying that.”

On the other hand, I really didn’t buy how quickly Neff got suckered into things. The film suggests that he’s seduced into it – he and Phyllis are fervently declaring their love after only a couple scenes – but there’s no real foundation for that ardor that I can see (lust maybe, but not love).  Then again, the whole film is being told as a flashback, so we could be dealing with an unreliable narrator, and Neff may simply have been fantasizing about “getting away with murder” all this time.

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Speaking of that narrator – that’s another bit that ultimately got on my nerves. The film comes with a framing device of Neff telling his story into a Dictaphone in Keyes’ office, so many of the scenes come with Neff narrating events in voiceover and commenting on the action.  There was time or two when this added a bit of nuance to the scenes, but most of the time the script for the narration got a little…florid, and ultimately it bugged me.

Speaking of Keyes, too – I was pleasantly surprised by Edward G. Robinson in this. I hadn’t actually been all that impressed by his turn in Little Caesar – but that may have been more of a function of the script.  He came across as a more interesting character in this film; even when all he was doing in a scene was rattling off dry facts. You’ve heard the common expression about how “[so and so] would be fascinating to watch just reading the phone book” – well, here, Robinson is fascinating just rattling off a list of statistics, in an early scene where he tells his dubious boss that the case he suspects is a suicide very likely isn’t.


Robinson almost didn’t take the role; he’d been a lead in all his films up to this point, and even though he was aging out of most lead roles, he still was trying to hold out for them. But ultimately he realized that he was going to have to transition into character roles eventually, so maybe it was better to do it with a good script after all.

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To Have And Have Not (1944)

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The best way I can think to describe what I thought of To Have And Have Not is that it felt….hastily put together.

Ostensibly this is based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway – but only very loosely, and in fact is suspiciously more like Casablanca.  Humphrey Bogart is playing the same kind of role – grizzled American in a French colony who’s trying to stay neutral in the early years of the Second World War, but is ultimately persuaded to help smuggle a French Resistance leader out to safety.  We’re in Martinique instead of Morocco and Bogart is captain of a charter boat instead of a barkeep, but otherwise it’s the same character doing the same things.  Unfortunately, the script for this film somewhat pales in comparison to Casablanca, and lacks not only the complexity in the characters’ relationships, but also the quick wit in the dialogue.  This film comes across more like an attempt to capitalize on Casablanca’s success, made by someone who didn’t really get what made that earlier film work.

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There is one way in which this film distinguishes itself, however. The love story subplot from Casablanca is entangled in the rest of the plot; in this film, it’s much more straightforward, as Harry gets his head turned by Marie (Lauren Bacall), a wisecracking, flirtatious drifter.  Harry first notices her on a date with another man in their hotel’s bar, simultaneously canoodling with him and picking his pocket.  He calls her on it when they pass in the hallway later that evening – but somehow his planned threat to turn her in turns into a conversation that is both mating dance and verbal boxing match, and to Harry’s even greater surprise, Marie wins.  …This is the film, and this is the scene, which ends with one of the best exit lines in film.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the film in which Bogart and Bacall met and ultimately went on to fall in love. The chemistry between them heats up all of their scenes, making them stand way out from what was ultimately a fairly forgettable movie.

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Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

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I confess that I went into this film thinking I would dislike it.

Well, maybe “dislike” is too strong a word. But Meet Me In St. Louis looked exactly the kind of self-consciously cozy hokum that I’m a little too much of a cynic to enjoy; all cozy domesticity and sanitized nostalgia, beribboned and pettitcoated lasses getting tittery over the thought of young men holding their hands, and any problem would be solved with a heart-felt chat with dear old Dad, who ruled over his happy brood and shepherded them through the little challenges of domestic middle-class life.

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The happy brood in this case is the Smith family of St. Louis, Missouri, with the film covering their lives in the year leading up to the 1903 Worlds’ Fair.  Father Alonzo (Leon Ames) is a lawyer overseeing a household with five children – one son and four daughters – along with his wife and father-in-law.  All of them are eagerly looking ahead to the World’s Fair as much as a year in advance, while simultaneously contending with other challenges – oldest sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) is impatiently waiting for her long-distance beau to propose, while next-oldest Esther (Judy Garland) is developing a crush on the new boy who’s just moved in next door.

Most of the first act is taken up with little rom-com adventures for Rose and Esther.  They throw a house party in the parlor as an excuse to invite Esther’s crush John (Tom Drake), and end up having to babysit Tootie.  Rose waits all day for a long-distance call from her sweetie, but her bewildered father answers the phone at the appointed time and refuses the call (“Long distance from New York? I don’t know anyone there”).  The baby of the family, “Tootie” (Margaret O’Brien), pulls a Halloween prank on John that gets out of hand, and the indignant Esther storms next door to punch John for being a “bully” – only to hurry back five minutes later with a grovelling apology when she discovers the full story and John’s name is cleared.  The rest of the family has its own adventures, with little Tootie tagging along with all her older sisters and mother Anna and her father having an ongoing debate about the proper recipe for ketchup and father grumbling about wanting peace and quiet, especially that darn song about the World’s Fair that everyone keeps singing.

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And then Pa gets a promotion, with one catch – the family will have to move to New York City.  That winter.  Right when Esther has finally landed John and Rose may have found a more attentive beau herself.  And right before the Worlds’ Fair, so they’d all miss it.

I mean, of course things end happily all around.  The plot events are all entirely the little simple ordinary dramas that would loom large for a teenage girl but really are simple little hiccups. It’s the kind of thing I’ve seen before in quaint little family sitcoms, even, where all it takes to sort everything out is a short conversation.

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And yet – here and there, as the film went on, there were moments that caught me off guard. Esther and Rose are not entirely the giggly virginal maidens I thought they’d be – Esther in particular shows some signs of sass, showing no hesitation in attacking John when she thought he’d hurt her sister Tootie.  Even earlier in the film, she has a conversation with Rose where she says that she’s going to try to get John to kiss her; when a scandalized Rose says that “nice girls don’t kiss” so soon because “men don’t want a girl with the bloom rubbed off”, Esther scoffs that “Personally, I think I have too much bloom!”

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The scene where Pa breaks the news of New York to the family is especially striking. Pa tells them all the news during a festive Halloween dinner, expecting the rest of the family to be excited, but is baffled when everyone seems hurt and upset instead, with everyone gradually leaving the table to cry in their respective rooms, not even helping themselves to dessert.  Wounded, Pa retreats to the study himself to sulk.  But then Ma extends an olive branch, taking a seat at the piano in the parlor and gently inviting Pa to sing “their song” with her.  And gradually, as they sing, the rest of the family starts drifting back downstairs, fetching themselves dessert before sitting down to listen.  By the end of the song, the whole family is back downstairs again, finishing their family meal; their presence itself a silent apology.

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That’s not the only song either. There are a handful of period songs woven through the film, most sung by Judy Garland; and most of them coming across as sing-alongs or “party pieces”, things that Esther is singing along with her friends or which she does to entertain her friends at the house party.  She even lets Tootie do a duet with her as a sop to get Tootie to finally go right to bed after.  The film also boasts three original songs as well – one of which, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, quickly became a holiday standard.  Esther sings it to Tootie on Christmas Eve to comfort the girl’s sorrow over the family’s upcoming move; however, just prior, Esther’s had her own moment of heartbreak with a tearful goodbye to John, and is trying to convince herself as much as she is doing her sister. It was surprisingly poignant.

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…Okay, movie, you win.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Ossessione (1943)

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This Italian film has a reputation among film scholars; it’s based on the same book as Hollywood’s own The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it’s an advance taste of the upcoming “neorealism” movement in Italian cinema.  For me, however, it reminds me of neither – instead I kept comparing it to The Baker’s Wife

In my defense, there are parallels.  Giovanna (Clara Calamai) is the much younger wife of Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), the owner of a roadside tavern and gas station out in the middle of nowhere; she married Giuseppe out of a fear of poverty more than love, and is unattracted to the boorish Giuseppe.  When a hot young drifter named Gino (Massimo Girotti) turns up hoping to bum a meal and a place to stay in exchange for doing odd jobs, Giovanna persuades Giuseppe to agree – and comes up with an additional, er, unorthodox means of compensation.  After just a couple days the lovers are scheming to run away together, much like the lovers in The Baker’s Wife. 

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That’s where the similarities end, though. After making their escape, Giovanna returns to Giuseppe – but not out of regret.  She still hates Giuseppe, she’s just uneasy about the uncertain future she and Gino face and has decided that the devil she knows is at least more stable. Gino throws himself into a roving lifestyle again, taking up with a circus barker (Elio Marcuzzo) who tries to help him get over Giovanna – but when Giovanna and Giuseppe turn up at their circus a little while later, they run into Gino and persuade him to return with them (albeit for different reasons).  Giuseppe is in an especially good mood at the circus and drinks rather more than he planned – an event which Gino and Giovanna decide to use to their advantage, taking rash action to get Giuseppe out of their way for good.  But the aftermath of their actions is not quite so simple as either one anticipated.

It’s only in the aftermath of the film that I realize that there are things that I wish I’d seen.  In her marriage to Giuseppe, she’s the one in charge of the tavern’s kitchen, and bristles at that role in her first conversations with Gino.  “You’re a lady,” he gushes.  “You don’t belong in a kitchen.”  However, Giovanna ends up back in the kitchen when she and Gino take over the tavern – and she turns it from a sleepy little dive bar of a place into what looks like a swinging spot, with about twenty times the clientele and people lining up to get in.  She also flits among the guests bussing cheeks and cheerfully welcoming all comers.  Something in her enjoyed being the hostess, it seems; so that made me question what she’d said to Gino before.

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I also wished I’d seen a little bit more of the inquiry into “what happened to Giuseppe”.  His death understandably looks hinky to the authorities, and a plainclothes police officer starts hanging around the tavern and subtly following Gino, hoping to turn things up about him; but he’s kept out of the way for a good while, reduced to being a mysterious figure hovering in the background.  No doubt we’re meant to think that Gino is being paranoid about the mystery man watching him, but the police-procedural fan in me wanted to know more about what the cops were doing to investigate.

Ultimately things end badly for our heros.  And ultimately this meant things also ended badly for the production itself; the Fascist authorities weren’t fond of the dark turn and downer ending and banned the film after just a few screenings, going so far as to confiscate and destroy all the prints they could get their hands on.  Director Luchino Visconti managed to save one copy, though, and patiently waited until after the war ended and the Fascist government fell to try rereleasing it.  However, by that time the Hollywood adaptation was hitting cinemas, prompting accusations of plagiarism and blocking Ossessione from a release outside Italy for thirty years.

By that time, though, Italian cinema had endeared itself to cinema scholars with a movement called “neorealism” – films which dealt with poor or working-class characters, set in rural communities, and often using non-professional actors.  Neorealism was a reaction to the polished perfection the Hollywood studios had been offering, and filmgoers of the 1970s embraced it wholeheartedly.  So when Ossessione was finally released in 1976, scholars spotted it as an early example of neorealism – predating what they’d thought was the birth of the movement – and Ossessione finally got its due.