DePalma’s Way, The Selected Films Of Brian DePalma: Obsession DePalma’s Way, The Selected Films Of Brian DePalma: Obsession
I know, I know, I was supposed to talk about Carrie this week. I mean, I did mention that at the end of the... DePalma’s Way, The Selected Films Of Brian DePalma: Obsession

I know, I know, I was supposed to talk about Carrie this week. I mean, I did mention that at the end of the last article after all. However, while watching Obsession (one of the few films of DePalma’s I hadn’t seen), I realized that I had to write about it, as it’s one of the cornerstones of his career. DePalma, as most critics and fans note, was heavily influenced by Hitchcock, and with Obsession, he and screenwriter Paul Schrader crafted the quintessential Hitchcock movie. Even though both writer and director claimed to be heavily inspired by Vertigo, Hitch saw it as a pale and broken imitation, and hated it. Was he right to feel that way? As the man behind Vertigo, probably-no artist likes to see others ape their work; however, taking Vertigo out of the equation, Obsession would fit very well in the master filmmaker’s oeuvre.

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I could make comparisons to Vertigo throughout, but feel it would be giving DePalma’s work short shrift. For those interested, Vertigo is easily available, and you can for your own opinion. All opinions are welcome in the comments, and it’s certainly up for debate. Obsession was also the first of two movies to be released in 1976; the second movie was a little film titled Carrie. Though Obsession made a profit, it was clearly overshadowed by the mega hit horror flick.

 

While the credits are standard title card shots interspersed with shots of a church, it’s Bernard Herrmann’s score which sets the tone for the rest of film. With each shot of the church, the music becomes overwrought and dramatic, and gets much softer and romantic when the titles appear. With a very slow tracking shot into a large New Orleans home, we see Michael Courtland, a real estate developer celebrating his 10 year wedding anniversary with a lavish party. His best friend and business partner Robert LaSalle is there and offers a heartfelt toast to the couple, and everyone is filled with joy. It’s a beautiful scene, which won’t last as we see that one of the waiters has a concealed gun.

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After the soiree ends, and the couple are getting ready for bed, the wife and daughter are kidnapped, and the perpetrators ask for $500,000 (a huge sum of money in 1959 when the story starts). After consulting with the police, a rescue of the victims goes horribly awry and results in a getaway car exploding in a ball of flame, killing the kidnapper and Courtland’s family.

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Fifteen years pass as they often do when tragedy strikes in the first 10 minutes of a movie, and Courtland seems a shell of a former self. Haunted always by the guilt he feels about his wife;s and daughter’s deaths, he makes regular pilgrimages to their grave with a tombstone that replicates the church where he and his wife met.  Lucky for him, that his old pal LaSalle is around, and gets him to go on a business trip back to Florence, Italy, where the couple met. Though he says he’s looking forward to it, it’s pretty obvious his heart isn’t really into the overseas excursion.

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Unable to help himself, Courtland returns to the church where he met his wife, and while there, sees a young woman who looks exactly like her. As she’s prepping paintings to be restored, Courtland watches from the shadows, and then follows her over the next few days. He takes LaSalle with him, so his partner can see for himself and he’s as shocked as Courtland. When LaSalle returns to the states, Courtland remains behind and begins to court her.

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Shortly after they begin a romance, Courtland and his bride to be return to New Orleans so they can marry.  Courtland’s friends worry about his mental health, and on their wedding night, Sandra is kidnapped, and a replica of the first ransom note fifteen years prior.  Rather than let the police deliver the money this time, Courtland handles it himself. He signs everything he has over to his partner so he can get the cash needed. Things don’t go quite as planned, and as befitting this type of thriller, things and people aren’t always what they seem. While I won’t spoil the ending, I think most people today, will figure everything out within half an hour if not sooner.

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Obsession is very much a product of its time, and I mean that in a good way. While today’s audiences might consider it a bit slow, I found it refreshing that DePalma took his time in setting out the story like a multi course, several hour buffet. At its heart, Obsession really is a love story, an overwrought, Southern Gothic Romance. From the antebellum mansion Courtland lives in, to the gorgeous scenery in Italy, Obsession is gorgeous to look at and steeped in atmosphere.

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Perhaps a bit surprising, it’s DePalma’s most commercial movie to this point. While the camera work at times is certainly no one else’s but his, the direction is retrained, a sharp and I think purposely made contrast to the high drama. AS I said earlier, this is a movie Hitchcock could have made, everything is pitch perfect. Well, almost everything. While Vertigo had Jimmy Stewart as the leading man, Obsession has Cliff Robertson as the star.

 

Now, I’ve never been a big fan of Robertson’s. Aside from his award winning performance in Charley, I’ve never thought he was a particularly good actor. He’s dependable to give a good performance, but he rarely stands out. I find him to be too stiff and wooden, and in Obsession, where he takes center stage, I think he was the wrong choice. There’s nothing wrong with his work here, really, but I think Obsession could have been so much more effective with someone else. A small case in point, there’s no difference in how he looks in 1959 when the story opens, to when it’s picked up again 15 years later. He looked too old for the role then, and too old for the role now. Rather than coming off as obsessed and slowly becoming unhinged, he comes across more as a creeper than anything else.  You wonder what the young Sandra sees in him, as she comes across as genuine, and not the gold digger type. And then when everything starts to unravel, he comes across as disturbed rather than anguished.

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Playing the dual role of wife and new found bride to be is a face easily recognizable for those who read my Dead Ringers article, it’s Genevieve Bujold. Her time as the happily married Mrs. Courtland is quite short, and she doesn’t say a word, but like the best actresses you can see everything in her eyes. As Sandra, Bujold shines, and really carries every scene she has with Robertson. There’s a scene where she’s visiting her dying mother in the hospital, and though it’s a throwaway scene, I’m glad it’s kept in as it’s a wonderful bit of acting. Even though things aren’t as they appear, Bujold always infuses her character with a raw vulnerability that makes you unable to dislike her.

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Long time DePalma regular John Lithgow plays Courtland’s business partner Robert LaSalle. Obsession was his first big movie role, and while it’s not a bad performance, it’s certainly his weakest. Lithgow has always been one of my favorite actors, and it was interesting watching him so early in his career. The biggest problem I had with him, aside from some really awkward delivery, was his horrendous New Orleans accent. He’s certainly improved his dialects since then, but at times it’s almost painful. The other issue though, has little to do with his acting. Though no one knew him when Obsession was released, his record of playing the villain in DePalma’s movies ruins some of the suspense in Obsession. While he doesn’t seem like a bad guy…it IS John Lithgow, so you never know.

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Paul Schrader’s script is top notch, and though DePalma truncated it (and Schrader never really got over that), it’s strong enough to stand on its own, in spite of any heavy handed editing. H starts it off with a bang, and takes his time in getting the leads to the exciting final act. Schrader would go on to write several scripts for Martin Scorsese, as well as for The Cat People (one of my favorite underrated horror movies from the ‘80s), so he shouldn’t feel too bad about Obsession, he’s done pretty well since then.

 

What would a Hitchcockian film be without a score from Bernard Herrmann? While many speak highly of his work here, it’s far from favorite of his, and I think in part, my dislike is it’s mixed in so loud, it’s very distracting. I know it’s almost heresy to mot like any of Herrmann’s work, but this particular project, I really didn’t think worked. I understand why he was used, but I think Pino Dinaggio would have been a better choice.

 

Because Obsession was released three months before Carrie hit the screen, it’s probably one of his more overlooked and lesser known films, which is a shame, as in spite of some flaws, Obsession is a great 70’s era thriller that deserves some attention.

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Next time I promise to talk about that bitch Carrie who sole Obsession’s thunder.

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Scott Colbert

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  • This was a great thriller with some great fucked-up twists. I do agree about Robertson looking a bit too old for the part though.

  • Spinkles

    I’m really enjoying the DePalma series so far. Along with “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Scarface,” “Obsession” reminds the critic that DePalma’s dedication to an almost formless style of cinematography works in seamless fashion(s) because the angles, lighting and cutaways are almost always synchronized with the emotional support of scene after scene.
    .It was no surprise to me to find out that Hitchcock may have been less than enthusiastic about “Obsession” and that he would levy charges of obtuse,.overt and empty plagiarism. Hitch was never known for magnanimity in his assessments of tributary work. His aura of superciliousness’ absolutely absorbed any chance of objectivity or flattery in the face of imitation.
    .”Obsession” (of which the author has provided an excellent summary,, so much so that I’ve added it to my “Watch Again” playlist) is, in my mind, not merely a progression of technique in DePalma’s storied career, but a wonderful story about the complexity of the misunderstandings we all allow ourselves to endure in our attempt to come to grips with unhealthy, well…obsessions.

    On an unrelated note: Have you seen Val Lewton’s original “Cat People?” I’m putting together a VL piece for SN. But it’s so damn long I’m wondering if SN would be okay with a series such as this one. I ask because because if it is the “Cat People” you’re referencing, I need to see it; ????

  • I’m a huge fan of Val Lewton’s work, and the remake, while barely recognizable as a remake, brings a lot to the table. Schrader also directed it, as well as writing the screenplay.

    Glad you like the series!

  • Tarmac492.1

    Great article. Havent seen this in a long while, but this is a good one. Yes, Robertson seems to old for the role, but I think that is just a “Hollywood” thing. Also, 20 year olds looked like they were 50 in the 70’s for some reason. Must have been the hair and awesome fashion!!! Liking this series Scott, as I have enjoyed all your others.

  • Tarmac492.1

    Can’t wait until the Carlito’s Way and Scarface articles. Yeah, Carlito’s Way is the superior film. (Jumps under table to avoid massive gunfire from Scarface fans waiting to introduce me to there “little friend”)

  • You guys might live about Robertson’s casting, but he is living the dream.

  • We are okay with everything!

  • We’d love to see some horror reviews in October!

  • You should rather laugh about his hair.

  • Spinkles

    That’s my plan. I’m one of those “writers” who has to finish one thing at a time or nothing gets done! I’ve got most of my notes prepared. I also want to watch “I Walked with a Zombie” and my favorite “The Body Snatcher,” one more time! ????

  • We are short on classic horror, bring it on!

  • Tarmac492.1

    Witchfinder General?

  • This was also Robertson’s first role in awhile after being blacklisted in Hollywood for some whistle blowing and I think DePalma simply wanted to revive his career.

  • Sure!

  • I used to think that the constant complain about De Palma being a cheap immitator of Hitchcock was unfounded and absurd. And then i watched OBSESSION and finally it made sense. And funny enough, Obsession is the last movie of De Palma’s filmmography i discovered, just last year.

    Still, i think the acusations of De Palma being a cheap rip-off of Hitchcock just because of Obsession is unfounded and unmerited. One movie does not a whole career make!

    And i also quite enjoyed Obession too. There is one shot in the film which must had been incredibly hard to pull off especially with the technology of the time. It’s a circular shot that shows the passage of time, showing the tomb and Cliff’s character. There is a dissolve editing in the mid of what it looks like a single shot camera movement that’s practically invisible even by today’s standards. Today with CGI it would be a matter of fact to achieve this, but back then it took incredible camera work and editing skill to pull off.

  • I think it’s otherwise, it’s today that people look too young for their ages.

  • Full Frontal Throttle

    Hey Asimov, how you been? Been awhile…

  • Full Frontal Throttle

    Agreed

  • Tarmac492.1

    genetics aside, we may age better now as a whole and I think less people smoke–which really ages your face. I still say those crazy amounts of hair and bad fashion age you badly.

  • Tarmac492.1

    Favor gonna kill you faster than a bullet.

  • Stalkeye

    Hey, that’s blasphemy!! (8<

  • Oh yeah. Today’s more widespread casual dressing style does make people look younger as well.

  • Not too bad, thanks for asking. Lately work has been far more tiring than expected and i have been feeling a bit more tired than usual so i have been chilling put more by watching some TV series i have previously negleted. I bingewatched VIKINGS and that show is awesome, a few historical mistakes aside!

  • Tarmac492.1

    A light lunch in ’76 was six cigarettes and two martinis. We have become more sensible in some ways. Nice to see you back, dude. I dont think I have seen you post for a week or two.

  • ErnestRister

    Asi! Have you seen Rose McGowan’s first pop song and music video which quotes Blade Runner (heavily)?

  • Full Frontal Throttle

    I have been wanting to watch that one too. I am glad to hear u think it’s awesome. I will move up my que

  • Great to see you asi! We talked about you on the podcast yesterday, so check it out on Monday. I know the shot you mean and it’s that kind of work that makes him far more than a Hitchcock rip off.

  • Can’t say that i have. And now i must.

  • Yeah, something like that. I have decided to keep a lowe profile lately together with my more than usual tireness from work.

  • ErnestRister

    I’ve been trying to alert you to it for a day…we must swap some email spit one of thsee days.

  • Definately. You can ask my email from Puck.

  • That’s cool. Waiting for Monday.