THE POSSESSED (1965)
A visitor arrives in a small Italian village looking for a woman. Residents tell him that she committed suicide but there's more to the mystery than they're letting on. Meanwhile, a strange woman walks by the lake.
As the giallo has become rather obscure, it may be difficult to grasp how important the genre was for Italian cinema during the late-1960s and early-‘70s. The Italian film industry had become genre-driven and distribution companies were quick to notice giallo’s growing international appeal. They even drew up a checklist for producers to follow that outlined the essential ingredients (body count, nudity), and budgets would be allocated accordingly. Now, thanks to a run of restored Blu-ray releases from Arrow Video, a genre that was considered very much ‘of its time’ is enjoying a renaissance and earning the respect it so richly deserves.
Pretty much any director working in Italy during the early-’70s found themselves at the helm of a giallo, but only a handful have since become synonymous. For many, Dario Argento is the one that springs most readily to mind, for defining the genre and breaking the international market with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), for reinvigorating that market with Profondo Rosso (1975), before pretty much giving the giallo its swansong with Tenebrae (1982). Then there’s Mario Bava, recognised as the pioneer with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), “The Telephone” segment from his portmanteau movie Black Sabbath (1964), and Blood and Black Lace (1964).
Fans of the genre will know Sergio Martino, who gave us some of the finest examples such as The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972)—all written by Ernesto Gastaldi, who also penned Luciano Ercoli’s three major contributions, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), Death Walks on High Heels (1971), and Death Walks at Midnight (1972). But Luigi Bazzoni is a name that may only be familiar to aficionados, despite giving us three of the genre’s more interesting and unusual offerings….
Bazzoni’s directorial debut, The Possessed, is sometimes referred to as a ‘proto-giallo’ but it doesn’t sit well alongside the more lurid offerings that came to typify the genre, so it may disappoint those hoping for the usual bloody murders. Though it does eventually serve up perversity and madness, it’s a brooding piece that borrows from the visual language of European arthouse to present a poetic and sophisticated murder mystery.
It owes much to Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much—indeed Valentina Cortese plays similar characters in both films. Both Bava and Bazzoni were building on the Hitchcockian heritage: Bava’s film features an innocent bystander who’s imperilled by witnessing something they shouldn’t, but Bazzoni is harking back to the more gothic undertones of Rebecca (1940) and, just like Rebecca, The Possessed feels like it may turn out to be a ghost story but never quite does. Instead of a rugged Cornish coastline, it’s set in an off-season lakeside resort somewhere in the mountains, but both films use large bodies of water as a central motif and a metaphor for something in the past that threatens to resurface. The original Italian title for The Possessed, La Donna del Lago, translates as The Lady of the Lake—perhaps a nod to Lady in the Lake (1946), based on the novel by Raymond Chandler and its noir influence.
We meet our protagonist, Bernard (Peter Baldwin), as he speaks on the telephone. He’s letting a girlfriend know that it’s over between them. “I don’t feel anything,” he confesses, “not for you, not for me, not for anyone.” He’s evidently haunted by something from his past that remains unresolved and he must confront before he can move on with his life in the present. So he decides to return to an unnamed lakeside resort that he used to frequent as a youth and work it out by writing a memoir based on unflinching self-reflection.
Bazzoni dwells more on the mental state of the central character throughout and barely touches on the police procedural aspects usually central to a giallo. Even the amateur sleuthing isn’t conventional and seems just as concerned with dreams and memory as with evidence and testimony.
On his arrival at the somewhat forlorn hotel, Bernard’s welcomed like an old friend by the proprietor Enrico (Salvo Randone). As it’s off-season and he’s the only guest, Enrico offers the best suite overlooking the lake which hides a drowned village in it dark depths. Instead, Bernard asks for the room he stayed in last time. It’s a quaint, slightly shabby smaller room, overlooking an unremarkable terrace with a view of a slaughterhouse. Like many creatives, he deliberately avoids making things too comfortable for himself. He’s not on vacation, he’s there to work—though we never get to see him writing.
It seems he’s been drawn to the hotel by the memory of his unresolved romance with Tilde (Verna Lisi), a strikingly beautiful girl who worked there as a maid. To his dismay, Bernard learns that Tilde apparently committed suicide shortly after his last stay there, though the circumstances of her death are decidedly suspicious—she had been poisoned and her throat had been cut. We see her only in photographs and, later, in flashbacks through the unreliable lens of recollection.
It’s a thriller, but also a meditation on the creative mind—a film that reads like a book, attempting to capture a writer’s voice on film. To achieve this there is the prominent use of voiceover, something not unusual in mainstream ‘gumshoe’ noir detective stories. It goes much further than that with an array of far subtler methods, including the use of almost expressionist photography to externalise the internal feelings of the characters: stark contrasts, grainy glare, soft focus, and dramatic lighting that lends a pervasive sense of foreboding.
The screenplay was based on a novel by respected literary author Giovanni Comisso, which had been inspired by his journalistic investigation into a real-life murder mystery. Giulio Questi had already penned half-a-dozen scripts and here he lends a hand to Luigi Bazzoni, who had but a single writing credit to his name at the time, for Claudio Gora’s La Contessa Azzurra (1960), and Franco Rossellini—for whom this would remain his only venture into scriptwriting, apart from some dialogue for Caligula (1979). Questo himself would go on to write and direct his own important contribution to the giallo genre, Death Laid an Egg (1968).
Franco Rossellini’s also credited as co-director here, though given his track record it’s thought by film historians that he was more of a ‘hands-on’ producer alongside Manolo Bolognini. Being the son of composer Renzo Rossellini, and nephew of the famous film director Roberto Rossellini, it’s highly likely that his involvement helped to finance the production. He would continue working as a producer over the next 20 years, including a handful of films for Pier Paolo Pasolini, another film with Bazzoni called The Blue Gang/Blu Gang Vissero per Sempre Felici e Ammazzati (1973)—an ultraviolent Euro-western starring Jack Palance. His final film would be Federico Fellini’s City of Women (1980).
Throughout The Possessed, there’s a clever disjoint of communication. Information bridges the years via memory, hearsay, suspicions, and photographs. People may say one thing with words and another with their eyes (there’s some fine ‘face-acting’, especially from veteran character actor Salvo Randone). They gesture to each other, often ambiguously, across rooms or through windows. There are attempts to pass notes that are intercepted or later found incomplete. The intrigue slowly deepens as the plot thickens. The local photographer (Pier Giovanni Anchisi) shares Bernard’s suspicions and becomes a reluctant ally. He shows him a negative he still keeps of one of the last photos taken of Tilde, in which she appears to be pregnant… although in the autopsy report the coroner had declared her to be a virgin—this is something Bernard knows to be untrue.
Bernard falls ill. The food he’s being served at the hotel smells decidedly fishy and he begins to suspect slow poison, though the local doctor (Mario Laurentino) diagnosis the flu. As Bernard becomes increasingly feverish things get weirder. Enrico’s daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese) sneaks into his room while he sleeps and whispers secrets to him as he relives the past in delirious dreams. The boundaries between reality, memories, dreams and fevered imaginings begin to blur…
After such a ponderous, yet nicely paced slow-build, it all falls into place rather abruptly and the conclusion plays out quite quickly, not allowing us enough time for the implications to really sink in. The explanations leave us satisfied, yet as Bernard drives away down a beautiful tree-lined avenue, we are left with a nagging doubt that perhaps we didn’t get the full story. He uncovered the truth, but was it the whole truth or just a facet brought to light out of a more complex version? We’ve been provided with some evidence and a couple of confessions but much of the story has been filled in by the novelist’s reasoning of Bernard. There are a few things we may never know for sure.
The Possessed has more in common with the European art movies of the time—films that felt the influence of US noir but had woven-in their own stock-characters, preoccupied with philosophical self-discovery, existential angst, and worn-down with world-weary ennui. It shares much of its visual language with the French New Wave (the likes of Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Goddard), but perhaps feeling that influence via the contemporary Italian cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and, of course, Roberto Rossellini.
The cinematographer, Leonida Barboni, actively uses the visual language of monochrome photography as an effective narrative device. Some sequences are soft-focus, almost blurred, to signify the encroachment of memories. Flashbacks are glaringly over-exposed to wash away the grey tones, giving them an unreal dream-like quality, perhaps not letting us see every detail. Much is made of faces being hidden in shadows, emerging from or receding into darkness, glimpsed through a crack in the door.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it’d been an influence on the young David Lynch (even before he met Isabella Rossellini). His debut movie, Eraserhead (1977), employed a prominent industrial soundscape to give each environment a distinct feel, almost becoming part of the set. Though subtler in approach, The Possessed also uses background sound to give each environment a poetic backdrop: the winter wind whispering around the hotel eaves; the distant howls of dogs on sleepless nights, or perhaps they are wolves; the indistinct hiss of leaves in the wind, or is it the inner ear denying the silence?
The inventive sound design was probably down to mixer Renato Cadueri who, up until then, had been working mainly on exploitation B Movies, sex-comedies, and TV documentaries… but would go on to record Love and Anger (1969), an art-house portmanteau featuring segments directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Luc Godard, and Pier Paolo Pasolini (later referenced by the Kate Bush song). He would also mix Death in Venice (1971) for Luchino Visconti and later work for Bazzoni again on his final and perhaps most interesting film, Footprints on the Moon (1975).
It must be said that Renzo Rossellini’s score for The Possessed is one of the film’s strongest points and works beautifully in tandem with Cadueri’s subtler soundscape approach. The music is often at odds with what we’re seeing, adding overly-dramatic orchestral swells, jarring the viewer from a dreamy reverie with bursts of kettle drums, frantic percussion and urgent strings. It reminds us that although it sometimes feels like an art-film, we’re definitely watching a thriller.
It wasn’t a big budget project and, although the cast is excellent, there’s no big-name star to promote it. On release, it didn’t perform too well—at either the domestic or international box office. Critics either dismissed it as a failed art-movie because of its sordid thriller plot… or as a failed thriller for being too arty! It faded into obscurity and, perhaps, would’ve been forgotten entirely if not for its association with Bazzoni’s later ventures into giallo territory: The Fifth Cord (1971) and Le Orme/Footprints on the Moon (1975). So, once again, thank you Arrow Films for digging another great Italian thriller out of the archives and giving it a 2K restoration from the original camera negative, which is being presented in HD Blu-ray. It looks beautiful and the inventive variations in lighting and textures can be fully appreciated again. And even better news, Arrow have done the same thing for Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord—which I’m looking forward to with eager anticipation!
directors: Luigi Bazzoni & Franco Rossellini.
writers: Giulio Questi, Luigi Bazzoni, Franco Rossellini & Renzo Rossellini.
starring: Peter Baldwin, Virna Lisi, Philippe, Leroy, Ennio Balbo, Valentina Cortese, Pier Giovanni Anchisi, Pia Lindström & Salvo Randone.