Obsession (1976)


1959, in sultry New Orleans, businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Roberston) celebrates his wedding anniversary at a lavish party with family and friends. After the party is over however his wife Elizabeth and nine-year old daughter are kidnapped. A ransom of $500,000 is set and a warning not to turn to the police. Michael chooses to ignore that warning and a chain of events unfold with tragic results.

Sixteen years later, and still haunted by the loss of his wife and daughter and blaming himself for their deaths, Michael visits Rome, where he first met his wife long ago. He visits old haunts and finally the church where he and Elizabeth first met. Within the church he meets Sandra, a young Italian woman who looks the exact double of his dead wife. The two fall in love and intend to marry back in New Orleans, but Michael is to find that history is about to repeat itself, giving him an opportunity to correct his past mistake…

There’s not much I can say about Brian De Palma’s fascinating film Obsession without dwelling too long on the film’s bizarre twist. The twist itself is not such a big surprise -my wife and I guessed it before the big reveal- but rather it is what the twist means to the film itself when you look back on its events. You are forced to re-evaluate pretty much everything you have seen, from the earliest shots from the party, in which something originally innocent begins to have darker connotations, to the film’s main romance, which suddenly feels subversive and shocking. But I won’t slip into spoiler territory here. Suffice to say that Obsession is quite a good film and indeed De Palma’s best in my opinion. It’s certainly been running and re-running in my head over the past few days, a sign of a good movie.

Having never seen the film before, what drew me to the film was the fact that it was inspired by one of my very favourite movies, Vertigo, complete with a provocative score by Bernard Herrmann, who of course wrote a wonderful score for Vertigo itself. Basically Obsession is a reworking of Vertigo with a more modern. seedier undercurrent typical of 1970s American Cinema. Obsession dates back to 1976, and its interesting to note that at that time Vertigo itself was out of public circulation, withdrawn I believe by Hitchcock himself who at that time owned the film (Vertigo would not be available to the public until some three years after Hitchcock’s death). De Palma is famous/infamous (delete as you feel fit) for mimicking Hitchcock’s style in several of his films, particularly Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, but nowhere is it so obvious or successful as in Obsession. Part of it must surely be down to the Herrmann score, that echoes the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s masterpiece as much as the visuals do. The cinematography of  Vilmos Zsigmond is particularly wonderful- many shots are works of art in themselves. Indeed its a beautiful to look at and listen to.

It is far from a perfect film, and De Palma is nowhere near the director he aspires to be, but its a fascinating film nonetheless and Obsession is a far better film than I expected it to be.

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