Ossessione (1943) is usually credited as the film that kickstarted Italian Neo-realism. Less often acknowledged is the debt the film owes to pre-war French cinema. Appearing in 1942, it is possible to see Visconti’s film as a vital link not only between the Poetic Realism of Renoir and Carné, but between the economic and political tensions of the 30s and the austerity of a Europe barely recovering from war.

James M. Cain’s hard-boiled source novel The Postman Always Rings Twice was first adapted for the screen in France as Le Dernier Tournant (The Final Twist), directed by Pierre Chenal. Brooding and fatalistic, the book conformed to the ‘Serie Noire’ French pulp paperback tradition. Released in 1939, the film conformed to a Poetic Realist thriller style then being described in French critical circles as ‘film noir’. Whilst the bleached August streets of Visconti’s Delta Ferrarese locations seem inhabited, with passers-by appearing to go about their business in authentic fashion, many key scenes in Ossessione take place in the dark shuttered interiors so beloved of the French school.

Ossessione‘s illicit passion between an itinerant mechanic and the bored wife of a trattoria manager has all the doomed inevitability that we associate with Cain, who also wrote the novel Double Indemnity, and with the existentialism of such films as Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938) and Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939). Indeed, Visconti was Renoir’s assistant on Toni (1934), set and shot among Italian migrant workers around Marseilles, and it was Renoir who suggested Visconti adapt Cain’s novel.

From its opening moments, in which we accompany the driver of a speeding truck as Giuseppe Rosati’s overwrought music blares on the soundtrack, Ossessione announces a fascination with the mechanics of fortune that is as compulsive as the dusty road ahead. When Gino (Massimo Girotti) walks into the trattoria for the first time, the camera pulls back to an aerial shot, one of very few self-conscious moments in this naturalistic film. Perhaps it is God looking down. Perhaps it is God taking his leave. While the title – Obsession – suggests uncontrollable longing, the characters’ constant references to fate and the inescapable settlement of debts evokes a wartime climate of dangerous deeds that bridges the gap between Le Jour se lève and Rome, Open City (1945). At one point, ‘The Spaniard’ (Marcuzzo) touts for business in a town square, inviting a man from the crowd to choose a card. With God elsewhere and the priest away playing bowls, destiny becomes contingent upon what a man holds in his hand.

Key to Ossessione‘s melodramatic tenor is the acting. For all the naturalistic associations of its neo-realist reputation, the shrill exchanges between Gino and Giovanna (Calamai) suggest mainstream studio acting and the allure of the export market. When the beautiful Clara Calamai, Italy’s biggest star at the time, performs a double-take as Giovanna first sets eyes on Gino, the camera seems to zoom up to Girotti, himself a former polo and swimming champion. Like a voyeur, the camera finds unkempt sheets and a couple in each other’s arms, looking like lovers on a dime store novelette.

For a 40s film, Giovanna’s talk of her feelings is startlingly frank. Of her boorish husband Bragana (Juan de Landa), she says: "Every time he touches me with those hands, I want to scream". Later she revels in her pregnant body. In a bar the lovers discuss their love, their words made all the more powerful as Bragana sings an aria from La Traviata (badly) behind them. Screenwriter Giuseppe de Santis described this as a tale steeped "in the air of death and sperm". Back at the roadhouse following Bragana’s death, Giovanna and Gino become increasingly estranged, their estrangement responding to savage depression economics that led women into loveless marriages while the unemployed hit the road. In an Italy divided between the petit-bourgeois aspirations of Bragana and the Fascists, and the freedom and desire represented by Gino, a vagabond wanted by both Giovanna and ‘The Spaniard’, genuine passion is fleeting. But when it appears it brings a clarity both poetic and terrible.

When Ossessione first opened in Italy, an archbishop was summoned to sprinkle holy water in the cinema. Eventually playing in a 112-minute version in Paris in 1959, it would be 1976 before the film appeared in full in an American cinema. Suppressed from international distribution by MGM while they embarked on the pallid The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Ossessione‘s allegiance to the melodramatic passions so beloved of Paris and Hollywood could have made a great calling card for Visconti. Accompanied here by a useful commentary by David Forgacs of University College, London, the Bfi DVD coincides with the Visconti retrospective at the NFT and the Edinburgh Filmhouse.