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