Obsession (1976)


Brian De Palma’s Obsession is his ode to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It concerns a man’s relentless preoccupation with the memory of his deceased wife and his subsequent attempts to recapture that forever lost relationship with a different woman. However, try as it might, Obsession film lacks the layers of depth that made Vertigo into the masterpiece that it is. Nevertheless this is still a decently fun little movie, even if it drags a bit in some parts.

Cliff Robertson plays Michael Courtland, a New Orleans land developer whose wife and daughter are kidnapped and killed at the start of the film. Fifteen years later and Michael makes a trip to Florence with his business partner Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow). He goes to visit the church where he and his wife had met and runs into a woman, Sandy, who looks strikingly similar, played by Genevieve Bujord in a dual role as both the wife and the new woman. 

Immediately Michael is attracted to this woman, seeing promise in her of returning to his old life before the tragedy. Much like in Vertigo there are scenes where Michael attempts to get Sandy to act the same as his deceased wife. He has her walk a certain way and asks her to call him Mike, just like his wife used to.

I have to say that this all comes off as creepy. In Vertigo it was obviously gross behavior as well, but by the time it was occurring in that film you’d spent so much time with Jimmy Stewart’s character that you could easily empathize with his behavior. There was a good amount of effort put into personifying Stewart’s anguish at the loss of his loved one so that when he rediscovered someone similar you could feel his desire to recapture that fleeting romance.

It’s also the fact that Michael in Obsession is trying to recapture the love of a marriage, a relationship far more complex than the romance at the center of Vertigo. It’s a bit stranger for someone to attempt to reestablish a lost marriage, rather than rekindling a courtship extinguished at the climax of affection.

There’s also the fact that in Vertigo Hitchcock makes known the identity of the doppelganger as soon as she is discovered. That gives an added layer of depth to each interaction between the characters. In Obsession the reveal takes place at the end of the film: standard thriller stuff. It makes the preceding interactions a duller affair.

Now it may not be fair to compare this movie to one of the greatest works in cinema history, but the film invites the comparison every chance it gets so it is inevitable that one might contrast the two. Mirror shots of Sandy putting on the dead wife’s jewelry, dream sequences, and even a scene where a man is pulling Sandy along unwillingly to a place she doesn’t wish to go. The references are near constant, so the comparison becomes unavoidable and obviously Obsession doesn’t hold a candle to the great masterpiece that is Vertigo. 

I also have to say that I guessed half the plot twist pretty early on. John Lithgow is basically a walking spoiler. The man is just far too menacing to convincingly play a good guy in a Hitchcockian thriller. It was clear early on that he was the perpetrator.

What was very enjoyable about this film was the music and direction. First off, Bernard Hermann is an absolute master composer. The musical swells at moments of emotion conjure a dreamlike atmosphere, much like the dream Michael now walks through where he finally gets a chance to revive his lost love.

De Palma is also a stylistic genius and he fills this movie with some gorgeous shots of Florence from dark back alleys to a mass zoom out of a cemetery the couple walk through. Also included is some interesting photography during the dream sequence and great shots of Sandy moving about the house. You get a great feel for space from De Palma’s shots, allowing you to sympathize with poor Sandy attempting to fill the shoes of an idolized figure in Michael’s life.

This isn’t De Palma’s best work, but it is a bit unique for him. It carries the classic twists and turns of one of his thriller films, but also contains a style and emotion rarely seen in his films. The central idea for the story doesn’t come off as well as it did in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and that’s really the crux of the problem with this movie. Thankfully some excellent music and De Palma’s stylistic choice of overwrought melodrama make this into an enjoyable experience.


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