70s Rewind: OBSESSION
With Brian De Palma's Blow Out due for release tomorrow in a sparkling new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection (it's my top pick of the week), it's a good time to revisit Obsession, the director's 1976 thriller that leaves no eyebrows unmoved before it's finished.
The film borrows elements from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Yasujirô Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon; screenwriter Paul Schrader frankly admitted: "Before video, it was a lot easier to knock things off because no one else had seen them" (Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, p. 294). It probably helped that Vertigo was one of five films pulled out of circulation by Hitchcock in 1973, and would not return until 1983. In any event, the influence of Vertigo is more immediately obvious than that of An Autumn Afternoon, thanks in good measure to the Academy Award-nominated musical score by Bernard Herrmann, who also composed the music for Vertigo. A couple of lines of dialogue appear to have been taken directly from the Hitchcock film, and one shot of a bell tower looks terribly familiar.
Obsession begins in 1959 with the 10th wedding anniversary celebration for Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his wife Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold). They are living happily in New Orleans with their 9-year-old daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman). Michael runs a real estate development company with his partner Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow), and all seems copacetic.
That night, Elizabeth and Amy are kidnapped. The ransom is exorbitant (especially for the time): $500,000 in cash. Acting upon the advice of the police, Michael delivers a suitcase filled with paper rather than cash; the police try to close in, but the kidnappers make a run for it, and in the ensuing chaos, the kidnappers and their victims are killed in a fiery car crash, leaving Michael a haunted, guilt-ridden man. He erects a stupendously large memorial tomb to his wife and child, on property that was set to be developed commercially by his firm.
Flash forward 16 years to 1975, and Michael seems to be OK. He's still in business with Robert, but has remained single, and still visits the memorial tomb, which sits isolated and lonely on the large tract of land that was never developed. Michael and Robert head to Italy for a business trip, and MIchael decides to visit the church in Florence where he first met Elizabeth. There he spies a young woman who is the spitting image of his dear Elizabeth (as well she should be, since she is also played by Bujold). He's never gotten over the loss of Elizabeth, so naturally he pursues the young woman, named Sandra. With her willing cooperation, he begins to remake her into his memory of the young Elizabeth.
The film premiered in competition at Cannes in May 1976, and was released theatrically in the U.S. on August 1. Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote, also played at Cannes, after debuting domestically in February. Obsession, originally titled Déjà Vu, began as a long conversation between De Palma and Schrader right after they'd seen Vertigo at a local repertory screening. According to Biskind's book, "they [later] had a particularly disagreeable falling out, and Schrader threatened to take his name off it." Somewhere around that time, Schrader realized: "If you wanted to be in control of your own life, you had to be a filmmaker." Later, Schrader would create his own vision of New Orleans for the 1982 remake of Cat People, mostly, as it turns out, on the Universal back lot.
By that point, De Palma, then in his mid 30s, was starting to roll, building on the critical acclaim for Sisters (1973) and the popular interest in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which benefited from additional mileage on the midnight movie circuit. George Litto had agreed to represent him as his agent, though Litto wanted to quit agency work. De Palma brought him the script, and Litto came on board as producer, raising the $1.4 million budget independently (a substantial portion out of his own pocket).
Three months after Obsession hit theaters to profitable, if modest returns -- $4.46 million in U.S. box office receipts -- Carrie would bloody its way into mainstream consciousness. Nowadays, it's Carrie that most people remember, not Obsession, which seems to have received a mixed reaction by the critics (see Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum for two opposing views).
On its own, Obsession is a somewhat restrained dramatic romance for a fair amount of its running time, driven by the quiet, withdrawn character of Michael, portrayed by Robertson with all the tight-lipped self control he can muster. (Is it a measure of his extreme privacy, or a reflection of the differing relationship dynamics, that only his late wife called him Mike, while his business partner calls him Cort?) Occasional stylistic flourishes burst forth; practically the first shot is a push-in by the camera as a waiter approaches and inadvertently reveals a handgun tucked into his pants.
Not much later, the music swells, obscuring a brief conversational exchange by Michael and Elizabeth before the screams of their young daughter cut through. De Palma often brings Herrmann's score into the foreground, allowing it to carry the emotions that the introverted Michael cannot express. In that respect, critic Rosenbaum opined that Herrmann was the true auteur of the film
Lithgow, in his first collaboration with De Palma (their second would be Blow Out), lurks in the background, a proper Southern gentleman in white or cream-colored suits, outwardly all charm, but suggesting a deeper disquiet. Bujold, given a challenging role, pulls it off beautifully, even when she's asked to do things that, yes, vigorously exercise the viewer's eyebrows, due to amazement, incredulity, and/or sheer disbelief. Truly, the ending must be seen to be (dis)believed and/or embraced. (I fall into the latter camp.)
Vilmos Zsigmond, who served as director of photography, had three films with Robert Altman under his belt, as well as Scarecrow, Cinderella Liberty, and The Sugarland Express, so he was well versed in working with New Hollywood directors. In his initial film with De Palma (they too would reunite for Blow Out), Zsigmond uses diffusion to create a dreamy look for the extended 1959 flashback, and then a slightly different kind of diffused vision for 1975. As a result, Obsession feels, at times, as though it is entirely a nightmare built by the guilt-wracked conscience of Michael, and the groundwork that's been laid under the feet of the main characters is sometimes shaky. Obsession also represents De Palma's first foray into the wonders of wide screens, and he takes full advantage of the framing. Zsigmond recalls learning much from De Palma and his preference for constant movement, of the camera if not the characters.
My memory of the original theatrical release is quite hazy, but I'm fairly sure that it looked better than the 2001 Region 1 DVD from Columbia/TriStar, which is awash in so much grain that the backgrounds tend to blur together. Perhaps the transfer was overcome by all that diffusion? Maybe it's the best it could look? The DVD, which is out of print, also includes "OBSESSION Revisited," a sterling 36 minute making-of doc by Laurent Bouzereau that includes interviews with De Palma, Robertson, Bujold, Zsigmond, producer George Litto, and editor Paul Hirsch (but no Schrader or Lithgow), and the original theatrical trailer, in which De Palma is described as a "master filmmaker," as well as trailers for three other movies.
A sweeping and perversely romantic film, Obsession stepped up the thrills from Sisters but in a "classy" way, as described by producer Litto. Without bloodshed, nudity, or profanity, it may feel like an atypical entry in the De Palma canon, but it clearly points the way toward Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double as provocative thrillers with the director's distinctive touch.
As reported by our own J. Hurtado, Obsession is due out on region-free Blu-ray from UK label Arrow Video on June 27, complete with a brand new high definition transfer, a copy of Schrader's original script, and more. Here's hoping that the release will draw new attention to Brian De Palma's best film of the 70s.