DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Obsession

Tuesday 8 March 2011


Obsession (1976) dir. Brian De Palma
Starring: Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams, Wanda Blackman, J. Patrick McNamara


By Alan Bacchus

Looking back on the filmography of Brian De Palma, 1976’s Obsession is one of his most important. It was made prior to Carrie, his breakout film, but after Sisters, this was the first of his Hitchcock-homages, a style of filmmaking he would return to numerous times in his career.

Like many of his pictures Obsession is a deliciously dreamy thriller, enjoyable on a number of cinematic levels. In terms of story, the title represents the state of transcendant experienced by De Palma’s hero Michael Courtland (Robertson),who, years after his wife and daughter’s kidnap and apparent death, obsessively courts a young girl who looks strikingly similar to his former love. The title also resonates with the methodology of filmmaking from De Palma, his own personal obsessions with Hitchcock from whom this film and many others have heavily borrowed.

Enjoyment of a Brian De Palma requires buying in to these many levels, however sensational and shameless. And most certainly the De Palma experience is helped by one's knowledge cinema and seeing where his films link up to others throughout history (for example, watch Jules Dassin's Topkapi together to Mission Impossible!). In particular to this film, the fun of linking Obsession to Vertigo. For example, in the final shot, it would be difficult to accept and appreciate the circular camera shot spinning around Bujold and Robertson embracing. The shot is so excessively long it calls attention to itself, but knowing it apes the dramatic kiss between Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in the middle of Vertigo adds a specific context which is not present on the page.

The plotting of Obsession is very traditional for two thirds of the film, the opening takes place in 1959, wherein we see the kidnapping of Michael’s family, an event dramatized not unlike the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Robertson’s performance as a grieving man who becomes obsessed with Sandra (Bujold), a doppelganger for his wife, is understated and terrific – rare qualities for a De Palma film. Robertson is quietly heroic and sympathetic, and arguably more grounded than Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

The relationship between Michael and Sandra is the stuff of soap opera plotting but emotionally engaging thanks to Robertson and Bujold. Where the film falls off the rails, is in the second half, when the ulterior motives of Sandra and Michael’s wily partner La Salle (Lithgow) are revealed. It all becomes rather silly and outlandishness very quickly, but there’s inspiration in De Palma's grand plans for Robertson’s redemption. He pays off a number shots established in the first of the picture, cleverly doubling back over the some of the same scenes to show an almost divine chance for redemption for Michael’s character.

Viewers also need to buy in the mood and tone of De Palma’s works. It’s not hard to be swept up by Bernard Herrman’s grandiose score, which recycles many of his themes from his Hitchcock pictures, but there's no doubt this score is amplified by De Palma’s own tastes for the excessive. Herrman’s score in this picture is front and centre, driving the film harder than Hitchcock’s films ever did.

The redemption of Michael is obviously played out on the nose by De Palma, but without the sumptuous aural and visual experience, Vilmos Zsigmond’s hazy-romantic photography and Bernard Herrman’s score, the film would die an awful death. Instead it remains to be a mesmerizing early De Palma classic.

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