I am usually underwhelmed by Brian DePalma's movies. He's a stylist who wears his influences - his influence, as in Hitchcock and Hitchcock only - on his sleeve. I've enjoyed Sisters, Carrie, The Untouchables, and Carlito's Way, but schlock like Scarface, Raising Cain, and The Black Dahlia are some of the worst movies I've ever seen by a major director. Too often they rely simply on their relationship to another picture; in this case, Obsession's is Vertigo (1958). But in 1976, long before Hitchcock's film had achieved its status as perhaps his greatest film (or just about the greatest film), not everyone pored over films at home like they can do today. You could get away with this kind of thing back then. I watched Vertigo last year and quite often watch moments of it when it's on cable; people seeing Obsession in '76 probably hadn't seen it in over 15 years. I felt like I was watching a watered-down version of Hitch's movie, not a film that existed independently.
This probably contributes to why it is one of DePalma's least-seen works. The DVD is out of print and it's not available from Netflix. Turner Classic Movies showed Obsession recently, as part of their celebration of composer Bernard Herrmann. Good timing, too, because I'd been rereading Schrader on Schrader and learned Paul Schrader and DePalma had watched Vertigo together and decided to an homage/remake of it. This was before Schrader gained Hollywood ascendancy with Taxi Driver. However the script was rewritten and changed so much that Paul Schrader dropped out of the project.
After his wife and daughter are killed in a kidnapping and ransom attempt that goes horribly wrong, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) remains a grieving widower, although a successful New Orleans businessman. Fifteen years after the event that gutted his life, he finds himself in Italy near the church in which he and his wife had met. He is drawn to it and wanders inside, only to find the his long-dead wife's doppelganger, Italian art student Sandra Portinari (Genevieve Bujold). They begin a tentative romance and Courtland brings Sandra back to the States. Now he sets out to remake her in the image of his dead wife. John Lithgow, a smarmy Southerner, is Robertson's business partner and views this newfound fascination as alarming...
The Oscar-nominated score by Herrmann (someone Hitch used, of course, numerous times), is busy and intrusive; it plays for virtually the entire movie and rather than accentuating scenes, it overpowers them. Herrmann is one of cinema's greatest composers and it's always a delight to hear his work but in Obsession it only makes you think of Vertigo. DePalma's skills are used to good effect in an inventive sequence near the end in which Bujold relives a childhood trauma that brings the movie full circle. The less said about the climactic fight scene between Lithgow and Robertson the better.
"Should we preserve the original or destroy it?" Genevieve Bujold says when Cliff Robertson meets her restoring a painting in the old Italian cathedral. Behind this painting lies another; the artist deemed it unworthy and painted over it. That's the heart of the movie, of course, both for Robertson's character and for DePalma's work in general. A fine question it is, but I never connected with Obsession, never felt Robertson was in the grip of mania like Jimmy Stewart's Scottie conveyed in Vertigo. All of Herrmann's lush, manic, swirling strings, DePalma's feverish camera work, and editor Paul Hirsch's rippling dream effects (to lessen the ultimate implications of the plot twist) can't make this movie rise above a mildly interesting, decidedly minor '70s thriller. This one is for completists of any of the filmmakers or actors mentioned, for fans of Herrmann, or that wonderful '70s era. I'll take Sisters or Carrie any day over Obsession.
Coming September 2017: Paperbacks from Hell!
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