Bernard is a well respected, award winning writer but when we first meet him in The Possessed, he’s just another man breaking off a relationship over the phone. So opens Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini’s feature film; a scene which marks not only the introduction to our protagonist but also the last time Bernard is in control.
In need of inspiration and a quiet place to write, Bernard returns to a sleepy Italian seaside town where he spent some time in the past and where he met a woman. Ostensibly, he’s there to write but the true reason for his visit – and the reason for his heartless telephone break-up – is to see Tilde, the bombshell hotel employee he had an affair with on his previous trip. Tilde is nowhere to be found and when he finds out about her tragic death, Bernard is convinced that there must be more to the story and soon he’s playing detective, asking questions and turning up deep dark secrets from some of the town’s most prominent residents.
The mystery at the centre of the film is interesting as a starting point but what’s particularly great about The Possessed is how quickly the movie turns from a fairly standard “who done it” into a psychological thriller. The deeper Bernard digs and the more information he uncovers, the sicker he becomes. Sweats and a fever turn into a kind of nightmare and soon, it’s not clear whether what Bernard is seeing are his dreams and conjecture or flashbacks to what actually happened.
Peter Baldwin plays a good detective and, though he’s dislikeable from the opening scene, there’s a charm to him, and his persistence at uncovering the truth ingratiates him. The other standout performance is Piero Anchisi as the Photographer; there’s an eeriness to his features which makes him a bit untrustworthy even as he provides most of the clues. The women don’t fare quite as well, including Virna Lisi as Tilda, because they have little to do with the proceedings. The exception is Pia Lindström, the butcher’s new wife who, in a handful of short scenes, manages to emote so much fear that for a moment, I was sure I knew who the culprit was.
While mysteries generally provide answers, The Possessed bucks the trend. Bernard circles the mystery, digs up what may or may not be answers and in the end, he leaves it all behind but there’s a sense that he’s not fully satisfied with his discovery and as he drives away, there’s a distinct feeling that there’s more to this story. That unsettling feeling sat with me through the final fade to black and for a few days following; as if something was left unfinished. It may look and feel like a standard thriller but The Possessed sinks in deep.
EDITOR’S NOTE: New York’s Quad Cinema is presenting a screening series of six restored gialli from July 19-25. Read Maitland McDonagh’s For the Love of Gialli for an overview. The program includes:
The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire
The Fifth Cord
Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion
Strip Nude for Your Killer
Please click on the titles for AWFJ’s full reviews of the films.