Serial plagiarist Brian De Palma does Hitchcock. Go figure.
What do you call a mystery/thriller that holds no mystery and even fewer thrills? Why, it's Obsession, a thinly-veiled rehash of Hitchcock's Vertigo. De Palma must be particularly thankful for Hitchcock's work; if Hitch had never existed, De Palma might have had to come up with an original idea or two in his long career.
Facts of the Case
During the opening credits we are treated to a collection of snapshots taken by a young serviceman and his Italian bride in post-war Florence. While we study the pictures we are assaulted by an overblown, portentous, bombastic Bernard Herrmann score that borders on self-parody. Many of the pictures feature a distinctive church, which we find will later play a large role in the events of the movie.
When the movie begins, we are introduced to the people in the snapshots. Real estate developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) is the very picture of success and contentment. He and his lovely wife Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold) live in a luxurious home in New Orleans circa 1959, where Michael has made his fortune as a leading light of the "New South." The movie opens with a party to celebrate Michael and Elizabeth's tenth wedding anniversary, where he is toasted by his close friend and business partner, Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow, doing possibly the worst Southern accent in the history of cinema). Their dream evening ends badly, however, when Elizabeth and the couple's young daughter Amy are kidnapped. The kidnappers have evidently seen almost as many movies as Mr. De Palma has, as they leave an oh-so-original ransom note made up of letters cut out of a newspaper. The note specifies a ridiculously convoluted plan to slip a briefcase full of money to the kidnappers.
Inspector August Brie (no, I am not making that name up) of the New Orleans Police comes up with a harebrained scheme to bust the bad guys by slipping them a decoy suitcase with a radio transmitter in it. The cops track the bad guys to their lair, but their attempted bust goes horribly wrong, and ends in a fiery car crash that appears to kill Elizabeth and Amy. A helpful TV reporter shows up on the scene to tell us that due to the fire and the currents of the Mississippi, no bodies are found. Shocker, that. Curtain, end act one.
In the only impressive directorial trick in the movie, we then move seamlessly forward to 1975. At least that's what the superimposed titles tell us; as near as we in the audience can tell, Michael has only aged about four hours. We see that he still works in partnership with Lasalle, and that John Lithgow has grown a hilariously cheesy moustache to complement his still-ridiculous accent. The prime real estate that they had planned to make their fortune developing so long ago still lies empty, with the exception of a grand marble memorial to Elizabeth and Amy Courtland. The memorial is very conspicuously patterned after the church in Italy we saw in the opening credits; as it turns out, this is where Michael first met Elizabeth. Or so Lasalle tells us, in a helpful bit of expository dialogue. As the second act begins, Michael and his partner are headed to Italy to negotiate some sort of business deal, the nature of which is unclear and probably irrelevant. Once in Italy he naturally stops by the old church to touch base with his past and his lost wife. It will surprise very few of you to learn that he meets a woman there who seems to be the spitting image of his dearly departed Elizabeth. Her name is Sandra Portinari (Bujold, again), and she works as a curator at the church, conducting tours and helping to restore lost masterpieces. She takes the opportunity to engage in some heavy-handed symbolism about restoring the surface paintings or looking to see what the artist painted over in the first place. Michael of course falls for her, even though he is clearly old enough to be her father. She is hesitant to get involved with him, but her reluctance lasts for about five minutes. In no time, we are back in New Orleans, where Lasalle informs us that ol' Michael found himself a sweetie over in Italy, and plans to bring her home and marry her forthwith. Of course things do not go according to plan, and on the eve of their wedding Michael finds a ransom note in Sandra's bedroom—it is an exact reproduction of the note he received so many years ago.
From there events accelerate, as Michael frantically tries to right what he sees as his mistakes from 1959. The movie snowballs to a conclusion that is neither surprising nor suspenseful, although it is pretty darn disturbing if you think about it for a bit.
I like bad movies from time to time. I go out of my way to watch the pathetic excuses for cinema that most sane people avoid like the plague. I'm often much more tolerant than I should be of a weak but well-intentioned effort. It is in this context that I say that Obsession is a terrible, terrible movie. It is mind-numbingly, brazenly, oppressively stupid. It is a rare movie indeed that can arouse actual anger in me; the longer Obsession dragged on, the angrier I got for having to be subjected to it.
I'm not sure how to discuss the movie's ultimate failings without giving away what few surprises I didn't hint at in my description above. Let me just say that no one, not even John Lithgow in a moustache—heck, not even John Lithgow in drag—could cook up the wacky scheme for which he is ostensibly responsible in this movie. I hope that is not giving away too much; on the other hand, anyone who knows anything about Lithgow knows that he spent much of his early career (Footloose, anyone?) playing assorted villains. Why that is, we will never know. Lithgow is one of the most gifted comic actors I have ever seen, and I hear he was very good in TNT's production of Don Quixote, but here he is laughably miscast and completely unbelievable.
Of course, what he, or Robertson, or Bujold, could have done within the confines of this inane plot is open to question anyway. Robertson actually does a fair job with the material he is given, and gives a reasonably believable portrayal of a man obsessed with his past mistakes and his desire to avoid repeating them. Bujold gives probably the best performance in the cast, but she has the heaviest load to bear, and some of the worst lines in this—or any other—script.
Almost as disappointing as the movie itself is the video transfer. It shows the age of the source print pretty clearly. Colors are subdued, blacks are weak, and shadow detail is almost non-existent. Many scenes are quite soft and fuzzy, and white clothing tends to bloom like the Rose Bowl Parade. Fine detail is lacking, especially in textures like an actor's hair, which tends to blur into a solid mass. Obsession comes to us from Columbia TriStar in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, but given the quality of the results they could have saved themselves the trouble.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In defense of the DVD, if not the feature itself, the sound quality on this disc is pretty good. There are a number of options available; I chose the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. It is nothing earth-shaking, but there is some directionality and use of the rear surrounds for atmospheric effects like the insects of a New Orleans summer evening.
There is also a decent selection of extra material, probably more than we really wanted. The main attraction here is a 36-minute documentary entitled "Obsession Revisited." It is pretty standard fare, a collection of talking heads talking about how much they like the movie they made together, but it is reasonably informative. De Palma mentions that he and screenwriter Paul Schrader came up with the idea after seeing a screening of Vertigo together one night; I never would have guessed. He goes on to say that once they had their idea, Schrader wrote the script very quickly. Guess what, guys—it shows. De Palma then goes on to say that Obsession was essentially a "low-budget, independent film™," the ultimate credential to seize if one is trying to salvage one's credibility in today's movie world. Finally, he goes on to compare his work favorably with Vertigo.
Also included is a trailer for Obsession. It is in quite poor condition, but the colors are vibrant, much more so than the movie itself. Full frame trailers are also present for Against All Odds, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Someone to Watch Over Me. I'm not very familiar with any of them, but I would gladly have watched any or all of them rather than enduring Obsession.
If farfetched plots built around impossible schemes and one freakish coincidence after another are your cup of tea, then this movie is for you. If not, stay as far away as you can.
Guilty. I can't even begin to list all the offenses that this movie and its creators are guilty of. I give up. Roll on two…
We stand adjourned.
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