Obsession Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of Brian De Palma’s Obsession, an entertaining variation on one of Hitchcock’s best films. The disc is technically disappointing but contains a good documentary.

Brian De Palma has often been accused of ripping off Hitchcock, the director he most admired as a young man. Nowhere is this influence more apparant than in Obsession which is so heavily inspired by Vertigo as to be suspiciously familiar. Having said that, De Palma’s film is very entertaining in its own right and full of technical virtuosity that serves the story as well as being impressive on a purely aesthetic level.

Beginning in 1959 New Orleans, the film tells the story of successful businessman Michael Courtland (Robertson) whose tenth wedding anniversary is rudely interrupted when his wife Elizabeth (Bujold) and daughter are kidnapped and a note is left demanding a $500,000 ransom. Courtland is willing to pay but the police intervene and attempt to rescue the hostages; an attempt which goes wrong and ends in bloodshed. Sixteen years later, Courtland is still grieving for his wife and daughter and has used a valuable piece of land as a memorial to them. His business partner Bob (Lithgow) takes him on a trip to Florence to jerk him out of his obsession but the plan backfires when Courtland visits the church where he met Elizabeth. Standing on a ladder, restoring a painting, is Sandra (Bujold), the exact double of his late wife. This plunges Courtland into an obsessive love affair with this woman, but their plans for marriage are destined to end in disaster when history appears to be repeating itself.

The elements stolen from Vertigo are plain to see and the whole tone of Courtland’s obsession is also straight from Hitchcock’s masterpiece. He’s less intense than Scotty admittedly and he doesn’t explicitly try to turn Sandra into Elizabeth, although there is a dream sequence when the two women’s identities merge in his mind and a moment when he teaches Sandra to walk like Elizabeth. The problem is that Cliff Robertson, while being perfectly competent and sometimes quite touching, is not an actor in the Jimmy Stewart class and fails to make the obsession sufficiently heated for the story to work properly. This leaves something of an emotional hole at the centre of the film. Luckily, Genevieve Bujold is superb in a difficult part and even manages to nearly bring off the utterly insane twist towards the end of the story. John Lithgow isn’t bad in this, his debut film, but he’s much better in his later collaborations with De Palma.

On a technical level, the film is astonishingly well made. It’s here that De Palma really demonstrates his imaginative brilliance as a director. This was present in large portions of Sisters and Phantom of The Paradise, and even in his early work like the obscure Get To Know Your Rabbit and the underrated Hi Mom, but it flowers in Obsession into a signature style that he has been using ever since. Right from the start, where a tracking shot takes us inside the Courtland house and then picks out a waiter hiding a revolver, the camera rarely stops moving. De Palma made a conscious decision to cut as little as possible in order to acheive a flowing, dream like motion and this results in lots of medium length tracking shots, lots of rhythmic camera movements and a couple of truly extraordinary 360 degree pans which are very effective. The first is the best, as we are taken from 1959 to 1975 in one apparantly seamless shot which actually features an invisible cut that had to be pointed out to me and is explained in the documentary. The second, in Elizabeth’s bedroom, is incredibly emotional, serving the material rather than simply showing off the technique. We also get lots of crane shots, track/zooms which flare out with meaning, split focus effects and the interesting decision to use diffusion throughout the film but increase it for the scenes in the past. Just when you think nothing more can be packed into the visual scheme of the film, the last five minutes feature a great slow motion shot and a mad spin around an embrace, an image that De Palma uses again and again in his later films.

The film is very derivative of Hitchcock – there are bits of Dial M For Murder here too and the visual style resembles parts of Marnie and Spellbound. However, there is a sense in which it is these elements that work best and are most enjoyable. De Palma isn’t a cheap rip-off merchant and he obviously loves the films he is emulating. Consequently it’s entertaining to see what he does with the familiar material. It’s also appropriate in these circumstances that Bernard Herrmann produces his greatest music score since his work on Vertigo seventeen years before. It’s a stunning piece of artistry, the sort of music you turn up the volume to wallow in. Apparantly, he was very ill during the recording of the score which makes the achievement all the more impressive.

The parts of the film which are original are not quite as satisfying. De Palma is using pulp material but can’t quite transcend it the way he did with Carrie and especially The Fury. The identity of the villain is pretty easy to spot from the beginning and the mechanics of the plot are a little too obvious thanks to the slow pace of the film; a pace which is actually quite effective most of the time, creating a dreamlike sense of dislocation. If you’ve seen Vertigo there is pleasure to be had in spotting the references and also the deviations and if you haven’t, there’s enough tension and exciting filmmaking to justify a viewing. We’re not talking classic De Palma, but even middling De Palma is better than most films can hope to be.

The Disc

Columbia have given this film a sort-of-special-edition release on DVD. The main extra is substantial and interesting, but the quality of the disc is not so pleasing.

The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1. This immediately puts it one up on previous releases which have all been horribly panned and scanned, making a nonsense of De Palma’s rhythmic camera movements. That’s the only good news however. The print that the DVD has been sourced from is grainy and damaged. No remastering has been done on the film – according to one De Palma website, the original negative has gone astray – and it is obviously a film desperately in need of a thorough clean up. The image is meant to look a little soft, but not as soft as this. The grain is constant and the blacks are washed out and show up the artifacting. It’s not a total disgrace – the colours are generally pretty good and not even this transfer can totally destroy the pleasure in the Florence location filming – but it isn’t satisfactory.

The soundtrack is rather better. The disc contains the original mono track, which sounds generally fine although a little muddy, and English 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. These showcase the music to spectacular effect,making up somewhat for the lack of an isolated score track, but otherwise are not all that impressive. Much of the sound information is monophonic although there is some directional dialogue and limited use of the sub in the 5.1 track. Apart from this, the differences between the 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are minimal.

The main extra is a 35 minute documentary called “Obsession Revisited”, produced and directed by Laurent Bouzereau who is something of a DePalma buff. It’s a good one too, using the standard format and emphasising the camera techniques used in the film. Interviews from various participants are present, but not, suggestively, from screenwriter Paul Schrader. My slight mystification arises from the fact that while this is a good film, it’s hardly a significant one and the upcoming release of Blow Out, one of De Palma’s best movies does not have a documentary despite being a more suitable subject.

Along with this, we get the original trailer and trailers for Against All Odds, Someone To Watch Over Me and Devil In A Blue Dress – presumably chosen as romantic thrillers and also plugged on the chapter list card.

There are 28 chapters but the titles of these give away most of the plot so don’t look at them until you’ve watched the film. This goes for the documentary too by the way. The menus are static and there are some brief biographies.

A good film then, but only an average DVD. To be fair this is probably not the fault of Sony Pictures DVD Centre since they had such limited materials to work with, but it is a disappointment. However, it’s certainly worth buying if you’re a De Palma fan simply to get the film in the proper aspect ratio.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jul 14, 2001

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