Friday, January 15, 2021

Visconti 1943: Secret Men's Business vs Obsession



    Ken Anderson does extensive research for the films he features at DREAMS ARE WHAT LE CINEMA IS FOR... and often draws attention to the facile quality of contemporary reviewing and analytical film writing. He recently drew attention to Luchino Visconti’s maiden voyage into film-making (“Ossessione” (1943) on social media, by way of the leading man’s sensuality. And that’s an excellent point of entry into accessing a homosexual director’s approach to the art. All things are not equal, all things are not the same: what’s been did and what’s been hid are the domain of insightful analysis.

Also known as “Obsession”, the early masterpiece of Italian neo-realism is often best known as the earliest screen adaption of James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice”…which of course also became the ultimate American film noir classic of the same name. That film’s adherence to the standard sexual noir theme (red-blooded American hero pays the ultimate price for a bad girl’s machinations) certainly wasn’t what was on Visconti’s mind when he brought a finely-tuned gay sensibility to the property. In Gino Costa, the hero would pay dearly for his many sins, with none of them being his propensity to follow the siren song of a homosexual relationship in order to improve his lot in life. Visconti boldly added an original character (Spagnolo) to his screenplay to make his points on homosexuality and politics quite clear to his audience, and all who’d undertake analysis thereafter…should they take him up on the offer.

While Luchino Visconti had the set of balls his entitled background of nobility endowed, Italy in 1943 under Fascism was no place to openly suggest that a homosexual alliance with a probable Communist was a good (and virtuous) move for a fella wanting to escape a destiny of hard times. That didn’t slow Visconti down at all: unless you were looking for it he was clever enough to hide it in plain sight. What he couldn’t hide is what he’d learned from Renoir and the French Existentialists: a meaningful story might always factor class into whether true freedom is vigorously pursued as an existential birthright beyond circumstances of birth.


The shell & the sound of the sea...freedom

The drifter is probably everyman, or at least he is when we project our less inconsequential middle-class selves upon him. We're seduced by ideas about freedoms, and opportunities of all kinds with others of all kinds. And so Gino is thrust into making a tenuous grab at freedom - albeit in a climate of the adultery he's drifted into. But Giovanna - another man's woman / the object of his obsession - doesn’t wish to pursue freedom with him after all,  preferring to stay with her by-now cuckolded husband. 


The wheels of fate are however turning for the penniless drifter in holey trousers. For Italians to whom presentation is everything he's not a good looking guy down on his luck - he's a public disgrace, an offense to bella figura. His choice to ride a train to no particular place with no ticket however brings him an opportunity few of his class ever see come their way. Or - more likely - the kind of opportunity that only males of virile beauty ever get…the type of male beauty which becomes most attractive when gaze considers it in repose, and presenting no threat.

 A bum on a train with no money knows how things play out. He’ll be gracelessly thrown off at the next stop as a discarded man, and he’ll need to go politely. However, the intervention of a stranger who pays Gino’s fare to the end of the line while chastising the conductor for his treatment of “a gentleman” elicits more than a “grazie” from Gino: he grabs his case and joins Spagnolo, the former stranger. In no time at all a cigarette ritual has transpired and with an only partly apprehensive “Why not?” has accepted lodging for the night.

A gentlemen considers his options

 Spagnolo’s vaguely Marxist lecturing to Gino about the circulation of money may be lost on Gino, but the fact that a male couple can share a bed in a pensione for a discounted cost isn’t. Spagnolo’s response to Gino’s confession of his obsession for the woman he’s left behind is as Existentialist as it gets: “Leave. Choose freedom.” Spagnolo gazes upon his new companion while he sleeps, lit only by a match he holds. He’s gone in the morning when Spagnolo awakes, and we find him on Ancona’s dock. But he won’t be shipping out as a free man working on a ship: with a change of heart or mind he returns quickly to the pensione as Spagnolo is departing. No questions are asked - by now the terms of courtship are falling into place. The deal is predictably sealed over that predictably metaphoric cigarette: Gino accepts a light from Spagnolo in violation of masculine manners between peers, and in lingeringly cupping his hand over the other’s consents to intimacy. For Spagnolo’s part he seems a little unsure about what he’s acquired. For Visconti’s part he films the whole secret ceremony with no eye-contact or revelatory close-ups…we observe, but not as invited voyeurs. Not without its charms, the waterside scene will be revisited later.



    But “Ossessione” isn’t about privately resolved homosexual relationships which underpin approved presentation – it’s about obsession. While it’s obvious the Gino / Spagnolo 'arrangement' is working out quite well - they’re together, they’re making a living together, Gino is better-dressed – heterosexual obsession shows up unexpectedly in the form of Giovanna. Obsession is a harsh master with no morality, and Gino’s abandonment of Spagnolo is but the beginning of his own decay. Spagnolo soon finds him in a bad way, and reminds him there are still happier choices than obsession. In repeatedly claiming he doesn’t want to “travel” any more we’re again reminded that The Other was invariably a commie homo..a fellow traveler. Visconti again reminds us that a truer love between men requires each supporting the inherent freedom of the other...something which obsession destroys.'re free

Too far gone – and just too guilty to change his fate – Gino knocks Spagnolo down with a punch for suggesting he knows of Gino’s participation in a crime of obsession. The crime of passion against Spagnolo may or may not be homophobic, but all too late Gino realizes he’s lost Spagnolo. In a masterful statement, Visconti bookends the story of Gino and Spagnolo with another duplicated set-up. As it began with a long shot of Gino carrying his small case towards freedom without looking back at the obsession he was leaving, so it ends with Spagnolo similarly abandoning Gino.


Meanwhile, in another time and place...


...we meet another man unable or unwilling to say "Please stay".

 Sydney J. Furie's "The Leather Boys" (U.K. 1964) is picking up status as an important queer film. Deviating from the book's out homosexuality, the guts of Reggie and Pete's relationship as directed appears to precisely underscore what Visconti suggested for (and about) Gino and Spagnolo: that two men can get along fine without a woman. As a couple, and as themselves. Furie however doesn't beat around the bush but instead lays it right on the line. If not the respectably compleat homosexual, Reggie is certainly a failed heterosexual by most reasonable measures. His identity crisis seems to lie somewhere between delusion and an underlying obsession with heterosexuality...quite possibly a throwback to Gino.


Though different types, Reggie's rock'n'roll beauty is no less attractive than Gino's. And as with Gino, beauty on a man's calling card isn't apparently valid currency when it comes to sustaining love. At crunch time, only Pete knows whether he's respecting Reggie's wishes or just finding him too needy for the long haul.

  Borrowed storylines aren't a film however, and director Furie pays further homage to the visual Visconti with the Chaplinesque motif of a man probably worth keeping heading off alone with one small it was once upon a time with Gino and Spagnolo.





1.   Luchino Visconti’s restricted on-screen homosexualities didn’t apply off-screen. He managed to convince leading man Massimo Girotti that an affair would help with the film. It certainly didn’t hurt: Girotti easily carries the film with panache despite being a relative newcomer - his long and stellar career would be significantly substantiated with "Ossessione". His “Gino” is a satisfyingly perfect creation of raw masculinity and uncalculated naiveté…the reward an auteur must surely hope will emerge from the vagaries attendant to assembling a satisfying film. With no apparent help from costuming or makeup departments, the young Girotti plays dirty, ungroomed and entirely un-actorish. We're told there's no such thing as the male muse, but perhaps Visconti would beg to differ.


2.   "The Leather Boys" wasn't an entirely forgotten movie - its locations and vintage cycles have probably enjoyed more subculture resonance than its queerness. In a sideways 1986 nod to or from queer art, The Smiths celebrated Reggie's beauty on one of their memorably stellar 45 picture sleeves. 


An exceptionally good deep-dive into "The Leather Boys" can be found here.



  1. Hi Rick
    I was so gladdened to see you haven't abandoned us silent-but-faithful readers entirely. And what a return! Visconti's sensual neorealist masterpiece is a late discovery for me, but your insightful observations will have me revisiting it soon (this time I'll pay attention to more than Massimo Girotti's cinemascope shoulders.
    More than just your bringing attention to a film that is perhaps unknown to many, I'm glad you focused on the one thing that's so often overlooked or downplayed in the pieces on "Obsession" I've read: the elements that most reflect Visconti 's "stamp" on the oft-adapted material...the homosexuality and subtle Marxist politics. And you do so incisively and wittily. A big Thank You for the kind plug you gave my blog, and I am SO glad the online discourse of this film now has your distinctively homo-centric, engagingly intelligent take.
    Cheers, Rick!

    1. And thank you Ken.
      I suspect that if and when more writers and scholars and what-not explore these themes in Italian film we'll find much more of what's been flying under the radar and unacknowledged in the name of of heterocentricity: we're after all dealing with homosexual directors like Pasolini, Visconti and Zefferelli.