Appellate Judge Tom Becker is writing this review during the Magnificent Recession.
"Once you find the way, you'll be bound. It will obsess you. But believe me, it will be a magnificent obsession."
Although he directed nearly 50 films in the U.S. and Germany, Douglas Sirk is perhaps most famous for a quartet of "woman's pictures" he made in the 1950s. These films—Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life—are quintessential melodramas, lush and gorgeous films that elevate the "soap opera" genre to art.
Magnificent Obsession was the first of these four films, bringing Sirk together with frequent collaborators Ross Hunter and Rock Hudson. So successful was Magnificent Obsession that Sirk, Hunter, Hudson, and co-star Jane Wyman teamed up the following year to make All That Heaven Allows.
Now, Criterion gives us an outstanding release of this 1954 classic.
Facts of the Case
Wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson, Giant) is a wastrel, a self-centered man squandering his life on cheap women and reckless pastimes. For a while, he was a medical student, but then he inherited a pile of money and dropped out to have a good time. One day, while speeding his motorboat, he has an accident that requires the use of a resuscitator. The only one nearby is with the beloved and kindly Dr. Phillips, who gladly relinquishes it even though he needs it in case he has a heart attack. Sure enough, while they're resuscitating Bob, the good doctor keels over and dies.
Naturally, this is devastating news to the doctor's new wife, Helen (Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda), and daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush, The Young Lions), as well as virtually everyone else the doctor knew. Dr. Phillips was not just a skilled physician, he was an almost saintlike figure with a curious life philosophy.
Dr. Phillips believed that doing good deeds is a power unto itself that leads to personal fulfillment. After his death, Helen discovers that her husband had given money and services to people in need and had refused repayment.
When Merrick learns about this from one of the doctor's friends, he thinks it's the key to making things right with Helen. She doesn't want to have anything to do with him, however, and when she tries to get away from him, she has an accident that renders her blind.
Now, Bob has a better understanding of the doctor's philosophy and a new purpose to his life. He's going to turn his back on his dilettante ways and return to medical school so he can dedicate his life to helping people. The most important person he wants to help is Helen.
After all, he's now in love with her.
At their most basic, Sirk's melodramas are great "movie-movies," the kind of extravagantly guilty pleasures that just beg you to curl up with your favorite comfort food and wallow. Produced in the mid- to late-1950s, usually under the auspices of Ross Hunter, they were exactly the kind of colorful, glamorous entertainments Hollywood needed to keep people coming to theaters rather than staying home watching their new television sets.
Beneath the sumptuous appearances, Sirk gave his audiences much more. His films were strong in social commentary, taking an unflinching view of subjects like racial politics, class distinctions, and small-town pettiness. His work has influenced a number of filmmakers, most notably Todd Haynes, whose Far From Heaven was a virtual remake of All That Heaven Allows, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who also remade All That Heaven Allows as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and whose Veronika Voss can certainly be described as "Sirkian."
Magnificent Obsession was based on a 1929 book by Lloyd C. Douglas, a minister who would later write The Robe. It had been filmed before, by John Stahl in 1935, with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne in the Hudson and Wyman roles. That version had strayed from the book, which was focused more on spirituality and morality than on a redemption-heavy love story. Sirk couldn't get through the book, and he'd never seen the earlier film, but Jane Wyman wanted to do the remake, so the director worked with an outline from the Stahl film.
While the two films are very similar—some scenes are lifted whole from the 1935 version—what's different is the tone. The earlier version, which is in black and white, seems somehow lighter than Sirk's telling. Both have their merits, but Sirk's surrender to melodrama, stunning Technicolor set pieces, lush score, and charisma-heavy leads draws in the viewer in a way that the earlier version can't quite match.
Rock Hudson had been making films for years and had already worked with Sirk a couple of times, but Magnificent Obsession was the one that put him on the map and vaulted him to stardom. Audiences were already aware of his great looks and masculine-yet-sensitive presence; Magnificent Obsession showed that not only could he act, but that he could carry a film, as well.
Although it's considered a "woman's picture," this is really Bob Merrick's story. Not only does he go through enormous character changes, he spends much of the film fooling the now-blind Helen into thinking he's someone else. Hudson pulls this off like a pro, and it's easy to understand why he quickly became an audience favorite.
As Helen, Wyman brings a gravity and sensitivity to the role that helps keep the film grounded. With its operatic plot twists—Death! Blindness! A secret lover! A lover's secret!—plus a climactic, life-saving medical procedure performed by a nervous and inexperienced doctor, this film could easily have spun out of control. Wyman (Oscar nominated for this) is so believable that you find yourself buying into it all and waiting for the next plot development.
Incidentally, the "Obsession" of the title isn't Hudson's almost stalkerish pursuit of Wyman, it's a reference to Dr. Phillips' belief system. Apparently, Lloyd C. Douglas' obsession was putting forth his own theological theories, which mixed science, religion, and what would now be called "new age thinking" into a slightly uncomfortable stew seasoned with the melodramatic plot devices. No one involved here seems to really have a handle on this combination of "pay it forward," Eckanker, and Zen, but you know it's working when you hear the celestial choir (literally) and see the beaming face of the newly enlightened Bob.
Criterion's work on this one is exemplary, starting with an absolutely astonishing transfer. I'm not even going to qualify it by adding "…for a 55-year-old film." This transfer would look amazing if the film had been released yesterday. If you are a Technicolor aficionado, you will certainly want to check out this disc. The audio is the remastered mono track, and it sounds great.
This is a two-disc set, and while it's not crammed with extras, the ones we get are terrific. "Film scholar" Thomas Doherty provides a commentary, and it's a very good one. He offers an excellent mix of analysis, history, and appreciation that really does enhance the experience of the film. I've heard so many sub-par commentaries recently—either empty chats or dry academics—that it was really refreshing to listen to the informed and entertaining Doherty. Less exciting, but endearing, are "video tributes" to Sirk from filmmakers Allison Anders (Border Radio) and Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days). The film's trailer is also on Disc One.
The second disc contains only two features, but they're both very well chosen. First up is the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, so you can decide for yourself which is the superior film. The black and white print doesn't look nearly as good as the main feature, but it's still in very good shape and includes optional English subtitles.
A 1991 German documentary, From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers, features Sirk in a 1980 interview reminiscing about his career and discussing Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels. This interview is in German with English subtitles, and it is a fascinating piece. Rounding out the set is an illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Magnificent Obsession is an engrossing film, and it's beautiful to look at, but it's easily the weakest of Sirk's soap quartet. It doesn't have the social subversiveness of All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life or the decadent delirium of Written on the Wind.
A big problem is that Wyman and Hudson just don't make a believable pair. Hudson was in his late 20s and handsome beyond words. He was a superstar in development and already seemed larger than life. Wyman was a mere eight years older, but she might as well have been his mother. It's not just that she looked older, her whole demeanor was of an older, settled person. Hudson's declarations of love ("she's the most beautiful girl I ever saw") just ring false. Their courtship is frustratingly chaste and honor-bound. Their pairing the following year, in All That Heaven Allows, makes much more sense, because in that film, Wyman is supposed to be older than Hudson and of a different class; here, they're supposed to be a logical match, and they just are not.
The idea that, early in the film, Hudson's a "bad guy" also doesn't really come across. The tragedies visited on the Phillips family are caused by him, but indirectly—he didn't intend to crash his boat and deprive the doctor of the "resuscitator" (a made-up medical device, by the way), and, yeah, he should have just left Helen alone when she asked, but it's not his fault that she jumped out of a vehicle and got mowed down. Hearing people suggest that Bob should have died (or been blinded) instead is creepy. What kind of "respectable citizens" are these? Strangely, Sirk passes no judgments on these people, even their catty resentfulness that Bob chose to leave medical school and have a good time with his money. Again, take a look at All That Heaven Allows for a different take on churlish, gossipy upright citizens.
Magnificent Obsession is what was once known as a Four-Hankie Weepie. I don't know if it'll exactly bring you to tears, but it's certainly worth a look, and this Criterion edition is excellent.
Criterion has also released top-notch editions of All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, and there's a Universal set that includes Sirk's Imitation of Life and (again!) John Stahl's 1930's version, so if you're looking for a wallow week end, this is a good place to start.
Despite some reservations, Magnificent Obsession is well worth your attention.
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Scales of Justice
• 1935 Version
• IMDb: Magnificent Obsession (1954)
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