Obsession ★★★½

Despite being -- according to many sources -- the first Italian neorealist film, Luchino Visconti's gritty yet gorgeous debut feature feels like a more developed example of the style than many touchstones that came later, like Bicycle Thieves and his own La Terra Trema. Part of this is the accomplished, balletic camera movement and the many impressively lengthy takes, but moreover the use of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice as a reference point -- with its brooding tale of a drifter taking a temporary job at a diner and falling for the cook and waitress who's desperate to get rid of her husband -- helps organize its depiction of squalor and dread into a compelling story, though Visconti's choices of what to concentrate on betray his lack of interest in future noir tropes (and, to some extent, heterosexuality; the suggestive scenes dealing with Gino and Spagnola's friendship are more provocative than the treatment of the sexual relations that drive the story, even if that too is automatically more frank than what we'd see in a contemporaneous Hollywood film). The first act is terrific, a portrait of lustful vagabond life and profound stasis almost distressing in its realism and the sensation it gives of looming disaster; and Visconti does well to make every character, including the villainous husband, complex and interesting. When hugely crucial events happen offscreen and an oddly riveting sequence of Clara Calamai eating soup and falling asleep at the table lingers on the screen at considerable length, a moment reprised in recent years by (on purpose) A Ghost Story and (accidentally) Leviathan, you know this is a director to whom the story is less important than its impact on his characters, but as clever as it is to try to treat a crime novel with this brand of ruthless, lived-in detail, the subject matter is a bit too stylized and heightened to totally make the needed dramatic leap. You see this most plainly in the uneven, sometimes inexplicable characterizations, Calamai's especially. It couldn't be clearer that the lovelorn psychopath Femme Fatale so central to noir has no place in a movie about the "real world."

Where the fusion of genres-ideas succeeds is in the suggestion that the obscure, labyrinthine patterns of noir fiction have their roots in the unpredictable rhythm of life itself; the perversely laconic way one catastrophic event follows another is effective, and probably all too familiar for people (ahem) who spend half their time on this planet worrying about whatever disaster scenario they're incessantly, involuntarily predicting in their heads. Strangely, I'd watch a movie about the depressing, lazy days of dead-end abuse at the diner or one about Gino's ebbing and flowing vagrant life more eagerly than I'd revisit this narrative; it's almost as if the film loses its most compelling threads when Giuseppe and Giovanna re-enter Gino's life while he's street-peddling. But then again, without that reunion we'd be denied the most touching moment, when Spagnola and Gino initially part ways, the latter in denial that the former knows exactly where he's going.