Saturday, April 22, 2017


Neo-noir is the inevitable by-product of 1970s nostalgia-craze sentimentality colliding with post-Watergate pessimism. If inflation, the gas crisis, and a culture in constant flux (sex, religion, Women’s Lib, civil rights, drug use, youthquake) prompted much of America to seek comfort in the pop-culture romanticizing of the past and a so-called “simpler” time, then post-‘60s cynicism and Vietnam War malaise most certainly inspired many a filmmaker to outfit their rearview spectacles with a filter of healthy skepticism. A filter not at all certain that the Good Ol' Days were really all that different (or better) than the here and now.

With its distinct visual style and built-in fatalism, the 1940s film noir—particularly the ’40s private eye movie—proved a perfect fit for '70s revisionism. There were serious entries in the field: Chandler (1971), Chinatown (1974), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Robert Mitchum’s aging take on Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1978); some were seriocomic spoofs: Gumshoe (1971), Pulp (1972), and Peeper (1975); some were updates: Night Moves (1975); and some were broadly comedic: The Black Bird (1975), The Cheap Detective (1978), Murder by Death (1976). America's appetite for retrieving and redrafting the past was insatiable in the 1970s, and the updated film noir remained a plentiful and popular sub-genre, even if the results were sometimes wildly uneven.
One of the better films to come out of this era is Robert Benton’s The Late Show. Robert Benton is the 3-time Oscar-winning director/writer behind Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984) in addition to being a collaborator on the screenplays for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Superman (1978), and What’s Up, Doc? (1972). The Late Show is Benton’s second feature as director (his debut was the 1972 western Bad Company) and his first solo screenwriting effort.

I bring all of this up because the first time I saw The Late Show (it opened at my then place of employment, San Francisco's Alhambra Theater, and was one of the last features I recall playing there before I quit to move to LA) I honestly thought I was watching a Robert Altman movie. In terms of tone, structure, appearance, and cast, The Late Show looks and feels like the best Robert Altman film Altman never made. To be fair, Robert Altman did produce, but like that strange alchemy that occurs with actors who appear in Woody Allen movies--resulting in all of them taking on Allen’s speech inflections and mannerisms--directors working on films produced by Altman (Alan Rudolph - Welcome to L.A. 1976; Robert M. Young - Rich Kids 1979) tend to make films that look exactly as though they were directed by Altman himself.
Art Carney as Ira Welles
Lily Tomlin as Margo Sperling
Bill Macy as Charlie Hatter
Thirty years ago, retired Los Angeles private eye, Ira Wells (Carney) was—to hear him tell it—one of the best in the business. A hard-boiled detective in the mold of any number of '40s tough-guy gumshoes dreamed up by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Ira is still possessed of a steel-trap mind and continues to pepper his speech with the outmoded shamus slang of dime-store pulp novels. But Ira Well’s glory days are behind him.

Gray-haired, paunchy, outfitted with glasses and a hearing aid, Ira downs Alka Seltzers for his ulcer, limps due to a bum leg, and gets around town—a Los Angles he barely recognizes—by public transit. A self-styled loner, Ira rents a small room in the home of an elderly widow, one Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson), and spends his time reading the racing forms and writing his memoirs: “Naked Girls & Machine Guns: Memoirs of a Real Private Detective. 
Eugene Roche as Ron Birdwell
When former partner Harry Regan (Howard Duff, who, in the '40s portrayed Sam Spade on the radio series) suddenly turns up at his door, mortally wounded from a gunshot to the stomach, yet talking of a sweet deal that could mean “a lotta dough” for the both of them; loyalty compels Ira to embark on an investigation to uncover the identity of his friend's killer. This decision almost immediately brings him into contact (though not entirely by chance) with two fringe L.A. types not-so-tangentially connected to the mystery of the murder: oily Charlie Hatter (Macy)—a sometimes talent agent, full-time bartender, and equal-opportunity informant; and eccentric Margo Sperling (Tomlin)—one-time actress, now jack-of-all-trades dress designer, pot dealer, transporter of stolen goods, and would-be talent manager. 

At first glance, this motley trio of mismatched associates appears ill-suited to even tackle a task as elementary as unearthing the whereabouts of a kidnapped pussycat (which, as it turns out, is precisely the CATalyst [heh-heh] for the film’s labyrinthine murder mystery plot); but, much like The Late Show itself, the disparate tonal contributions of these brought-together-by-circumstance individuals makes for a uniquely harmonious alliance.
Circumstances propel this unlikely trio into situations that put them increasingly
at risk or in way over their heads. More often than not, both.

In retrofitting the tough guy conventions of the private-eye film to the laid-back rhythms of Los Angeles in the Me Generation ‘70s, The Late Show deftly juggles tonal shifts in the narrative accommodating mystery, comedy, and character study. The Los Angles depicted is a seedy, morally relative wasteland of faded Hollywood glamour populated by wannabes and small-time operators living unstable, anything-to-make-a-buck existences. 
By way of contrast, Ira Wells is a living throwback to another time. Amidst all the L.A. denizens chasing trends, half-hearted careers, and try-on-for-size identities, Ira is constancy personified. In fact, he’s consistent to the point of fossilization.
One senses that not much has moved forward in Ira’s life for some time, and he likes it that way. Ruled by a principled moral code and a personal sense of dignity that brands him old-fashioned from the outset, he lives a smallish, solitary existence that hasn’t made much room for the passage of time.
The Big Nap
Aging private eye Ira Wells has to remove his hearing aid before firing his gun,
ride the bus to his stakeouts, and do his own washing at the launderette 

The Late Show, with its irresistible blood-orange color scheme and glimpse back at the Los Angles I remember when I moved there in 1978, is at its best in its culture-clash scenes where the cool-headed Ira has to work closely with the excitable and rather spacey Margo. Ira's world of girls, gats, and goons seems an ill-fit for the faddish world of psychoanalysis, mood rings, crystals, and biorhythms, but Robert Benton's script and the film's exceptional cast do a remarkable job of making the incongruous blending of these two worlds as amusing as it is affecting.

Mismatched partners are a timeworn staple (read: cliché) of cop/detective films, but the generation gap sparring matches between Ira and Margo--conflicts born of both gender and personality--have genuine spark; much of which I attribute solely to the onscreen chemistry of Carney and Tomlin. (Although mutually respectful, apparently it took some time for the actors to settle comfortably into each other's method of working.) It certainly isn't lost on me that at times Tomlin's talkative Margo feels as though she could be the offspring of Art Carney's hyperactive Ed Norton character from The Honeymooners, and Carney's convincing underplaying of the hard edges of his character is reminiscent of how good so many comics can be when tackling drama (The Honeymooner's Jackie Gleason in The Hustler).
The Late Show is extremely funny and human, with witty, character-revealing dialogue and performances that ring so true-to-life that when the film occasionally explodes into unexpected bursts of violence, it’s not only startling, it’s upsetting. Without knowing it you've found yourself really caring about these people.
Joanna Cassidy as Laura Birdwell embodies the contemporary update of
the vulnerable-yet-dangerous femme fatale

Familiar to an entire generation as Jackie Gleason's sidekick, Art Carney was a Tony-nominated actor (Lovers - 1969) and multi-Emmy-Award-winning star who earned an Oscar for Harry & Tonto (1974), his first starring role in a feature film. In The Late Show Carney is simply a marvel. Not exactly an actor known for his tough side, Carney convinces as the aging, street-wise, former gumshoe compelled to solve just one more caper.
Although Robert Benton is said to have based the character of Ira Welles on his father, Carney—who was 59 at the time and did indeed wear a hearing aid and suffer a limp—brings so much strength, dignity, and frustration to the role, it’s hard not to feel as though it were written expressly for him.
Bill Macy (then riding high on the popularity of the TV series Maude) is The Late Show's most valuable player. In the tradition of supporting actors who enrich a film by supplying first-rate performances that rarely get the attention they deserve, Macy's double-dealing Charlie Hatter is pure gold. That's actor John Considine on the right, playing sadistic enforcer Jeff Lamar. Considine wrote and appeared in Robert Altman's A Wedding

I’ve been a fan of Lily Tomlin since first seeing her on the short-lived 1969 TV show Music Scene. From Laugh-In, to seeing her onstage in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, to Netflix’s Grace & Frankie, she is a truly inspired performer and gifted actor who always finds the humanity in humor. As per Grace & Frankie, seeing Tomlin in The Late Show portraying the kind of psychobabbling enlightened type we used to call a “granola,” Margo Sperling is like getting a look at Frankie: The Early Years.
One's enjoyment of The Late Show might depend on whether or not one finds Tomlin's character appealing or annoying. To me, Tomlin is nothing short of a comic genius (1978's Moment by Moment notwithstanding). She is an endless source of delight in this film and her scenes with Carney have a sensational, oddball rhythm

Art Carney won the National Society of Film Critics Award for his performance, and Lily Tomlin was nominated for a Golden Globe, but when Academy Award time rolled around only Robert Benton's excellent screenplay nabbed a nomination.
Like many a good detective thriller The Late Show has at its center a complex, if not convoluted, crime caper, one which I was only recently able to make sense of thanks to the replay benefits of DVD; but Benton's dialogue is the real star. The almost musical rhythms of the divergent speech patterns of Ira and Margo (a great deal of the latter attributed to Tomlin's not-always-welcome-to-Carney improvisational skills) is superb.
“Mr. Welles, I can understand your feeling that way. I mean, as an actress I understand it as a motivation…”

“My shrink says I’m a very conflicted personality…plus my astrologer.”

“And Brian’s not very evolved, in fact, he’s rather de-evolved. I’m very sensitive to the vibrations he gives out and I know what kind of karma he has."

"Do you know that people who play with guns are generally impotent?"

“Mr. Welles, a truly evolved person doesn’t go around ratting on her friends, if you catch my drift.”

"I am finished! Finalisimo!"

“It’s very lucky for you that I just happen to be a very self-destructive person.”

“This car is not only a toilet but you are the attendant!”

"Everything’s copacetic."

"If you lay a hand on me I’m telling you, you’ll pay for it in your next life.”

"I really cannot relate on this level." 

 The Wit & Wisdom of Ira Welles:
“Somebody puts the breeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly and a song and a dance about a stolen cat and all that hot comedy. What’s it all got to do with Harry?”

 “Put that thing down Charlie, you haven’t got the ass to swing it!”

"Back in the '40s this town was crawling with dollys like you. Good lookin' coquettes tryin' their damnedest to act tough as hell. I got news for you...they did it better back then! This town doesn’t change; they just push the names around.”

The only real point that I can see behind making a film about the past as seen through a contemporary prism is to ruminate on the differences (if any) that time has wrought in people and places; to contemplate the advantages/disadvantages of youth vs. aging; or to ponder what has been gained and what has been lost culturally, with the inevitable passing of time. What’s remarkable about The Late Show is that it manages to hit on all of the above while weaving a pretty nifty crime caper.

Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) featured a movie hero who stepped out of the screen and tried to live in the real world with the same idealism and values his character possessed on the screen. Ira Wells in The Late Show is very much like that character. Wells is a self-styled throwback to the 1940s private-eyes in the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe mold who somehow managed to survive into the ‘70s with his old world values intact. But Ira's problem is that he's well aware of having outlived his time, and worse, he senses that he's also outlived his usefulness. 
The Late Show—humorously, with heart, and a good deal of bloodshed—makes the case that no matter how much time passes and how significantly things appear to change, all of's misfits, dinosaurs, and fringe-dwellers, have something unique to bring to the table. 

The film's credits sequence provides brief glimpses into Ira Welles' past.
In the photo on the left, Ira and partner Harry proudly stand before the offices of Welles & Regan: Private Investigators.  On the right, Ira and a woman we can assume to be his wife (whom we learn eventually left him) pose with their friend Harry
The woman in the photo that sits framed on Ira's desk beside his typewriter is actress Martha Vickers, who played Carmen Sternwood in the granddaddy of all private eye films, Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946).
Her entrance is particularly memorable

“That’s just what this town has been waiting for; a broken down old private eye 
with a bum leg and a hearing aid…and a fruitcake like you”

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. 

It’s Déjà vu All Over Again 
I’m not sure which is worse: being a living, still-functioning film director and having to endure reading about every film school upstart and wannabe hailed as the “new” you, “next” you, or heir to your throne; or being a young filmmaker striving to make your mark, only to have your work evaluated exclusively in terms of homage, pastiche, tip-of-the-hat-to, or outright rip-off of an artist you admire.

For as long as I can remember, from Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique) to William Castle (almost everything he’s ever done), Alfred Hitchcock has been the go-to name of comparison for directors working in the suspense thriller genre. Director Brian De Palma, from the days of his breakout 1972 feature Sisters (whose poster prominently featured the Hollywood Reporter quote: “The most genuinely frightening film since Hitchcock’s Psycho!”) has been saddled with—and openly courted—comparisons to Hitchcock.

In our label-centric, brand-driven culture this certainly makes it easier for critics and studio marketing departments to pigeonhole artists and brand them with an identity; but for film fans, it’s all a bit like settling for a tribute band after the genuine article has cut back on touring. You may enjoy how much the tribute band sounds like the original and how it evokes fond memories, but no matter how good they are, they’re an imitation. Plus, in focusing so much on how successfully the tribute band has approximated the sound, feel, and experience of the real deal, you never give yourself the chance to appreciate how talented the tribute band is (or isn’t) in its own right. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but making do with a copy can sometimes feel like an act of willful self-deception.

As it just so happens, willful self-deception describes both the theme of Brian De Palma’s Vertigo-inspired film Obsession and my own personal viewing experience. 

Cliff Robertson as Michael Courtland
Genevieve Bujold as Elizabeth Courtland/Sandra Portinari
John Lithgow as Robert Lasalle
Following on the heels of the sleeper success of Sisters (which openly culled from Psycho, Rear Window, and featured a score by Hitchcock-associated composer Bernard Herrmann), and the undeserved flop of 1974s Phantom of the Paradise (a De Palma departure from type that seized upon the glam-rock zeitgeist mined in 1973s The Rocky Horror Show); the relatively high-profile Obsession gave Brian De Palma his first mainstream commercial success. A modest success, to be sure, but in grossing $4.47 million on its $1.2 million budget, Obsession was a surprise hit. A hit that flew in the face of Columbia Studio’s over-cautious distribution strategy, which saw the studio releasing the film after having sat on it for almost a year, with an indifferent ad campaign and during the “dog days” of August.

Alas, before Obsession had the chance to build up much steam or word-of-mouth, Carrie, De Palma’s second 1976 release, opened in November, its overwhelming critical and boxoffice success (the film grossed $15.2 million against a $1.8 million budget) fairly obliterating Obsession from theater screens, and, until very recently, a great many people’s minds, as well.
Florence, Italy 1948

Written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) from a story by Brian De Palma after the two had taken in an L.A. County Museum screening of the then long-out-of-circulation Hitchcock classic Vertigo, Obsession is a romantic thriller about love, loss, grief, guilt, deception, and emotional fixation. Pretty much everything you’ve come to know and expect from Hitchcock and those who seek to sincerely flatter the Master of Suspense through imitation.

But while Paul Schrader’s derivative screenplay borrows copiously from Hitchcock, calling Obsession a romantic "thriller" (the film was promoted with the tagline: “The love story that will scare the life out of you,”) would be a bit of a stretch. Inarguably romantic in theme and possessed of several intense moments of emotional conflict; anyone coming to Obsession expecting the kind of excesses of violence associated with De Palma after Dressed to Kill or Scarface would do well to be reminded that Obsession is rated PG and its thrills (mercifully) on the restrained side. So if I'd have to label it at all (oh, and I do) I’d call Obsession a romantic suspense film or romantic mystery.

Changing Partners
Paul Schrader's original screenplay for Obsession (titled: Deja vu) called for the prescient use of Patti Page's 1953 song "Changing Partners" for this scene in which Michael, Elizabeth, and Amy waltz together at their 10th wedding anniversary party. Perhaps it was initially used and eventually overscored by Bernard Herrmann's sweepingly romantic "Valse Lente" 

The time is 1959. Michael Courtland (Robertson) is a successful New Orleans real estate developer whose beloved wife Elizabeth (Bujold) and 9-year-old daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman) are kidnapped. A botched effort to capture the kidnappers without paying the ransom results in the violent deaths of both wife and child, a tragedy for which Courtland blames himself and is haunted by for years.
A great many of Brian De Palma's by-now trademark stylistic flourishes are in full evidence throughout Obsession. His familiar swirling camera effect is put to particularly effective use in a 360° pan that takes Michael Courtland from grieving widower in 1959 (top) to morose obsessive in 1975.

A broken man consumed with guilt over the role he perceives himself to have played in his family’s death, Michael is stuck in 1959 and unable to move on with his life. Even going so far as to thwart the desires of friend and junior business partner Robert Lasalle (Lithgow) by allowing a prime piece of valuable New Orleans real estate lie undeveloped for the sole purpose of erecting a doleful monument to his wife and child on the site.

In an effort to dislodge Michael from his crippling depression, Lasalle persuades Michael to accompany him on one of his frequent business trips to Florence, Italy. It’s there that Michael, while sentimentally/morbidly visiting the church where he and his wife met in 1948, catches sight of an art restorer who (wouldn't you know it) happens to be a dead ringer for Elizabeth. 
Restore the Original or Uncover the Copy?
This is the question - both literal and existential - put to Michael Courtland by Italian-born art restorer Sandra Portinari (Bujold, again) as she preps a Madonna and Child altarpiece by
Renaissance painter Bernardo Daddi. Clues aplenty, folks!

Upon being reassured by Lasalle that the Italian-style doppelganger was no mere hallucination or trick of the brain, Michael, thrown into a tailspin by the uncanny coincidence of locale and resemblance, becomes consumed with the idea that fate has offered him both a second chance at love and a stab at redemption.

Embarking on a whirlwind course of seduction consisting of stalking, persistent courting, and matrimonial proposal, Michael in due course whisks Sandra back to his New Orleans home where whatever remaining line between fantasy and reality can only become even more blurred. And it does. While awaiting their rushed wedding day, Michael, happy at last, exhibits a marked improvement in disposition and demeanor that his friends and associates interpret (with good reason) as his becoming more detached from reality by the day. Meanwhile, Sandra, ensconced in his shrine-like home and left on her own to study Elizabeth’s old photos and diaries for hours upon end, cultivates an obsession of her own. She becomes so immersed in the past life of the dead woman that she begins progressively making herself over in Elizabeth’s image.

Love and desire figure into all this somewhere, but it takes a backseat to the morbidity of Michael and Sandra's escalating Folie a deux. A double-fantasy/shared-delusion speeding headlong on a collision course to an inevitable, preordained destination: the reenactment and hoped-for reversal of that fateful night that changed Michael’s life forever. But can one really repeat the past? And if so, how wise is it to do so?

I’m not sure if you can make a really riveting film about obsessive love if you approach the material academically. I have no idea what Schrader and De Palma had in mind after they watched Vertigo and struck on the idea to collaborate on a film, but I would hope that each had something particular and personal to say on the topic of love unending that turns into an all-consuming fixation. Not having read the entire original screenplay (said to have included an entire third act which was jettisoned before filming began), I can only say that the finished movie plays out like the most expensive film school thesis project ever made.

And mind you, I say that not as a put-down, but from my personal impression that Obsession came out of Schrader and De Palma being impressed with Vertigo from an intellectual perspective, not emotional. It's clear they wanted to try their hand at a similar style of film, but forgot to add either intensity of urgency. Their success in achieving their academic goal impresses me, for Obsession is a fine, handsomely-mounted romantic mystery that does all that I believe it sets out to do. From a filmmaker’s perspective, that is. From the perspective of a guy sitting in the audience waiting to be swept up in madness by proxy, Obsession is what I call a transfusion film: it has no blood of its own. 
Sandra immerses herself in Elizabeth's past 
Obsession has all the technical and stylistic pluses of Vertigo, but what it lacks is the crazy. Michael and Sandra are characters caught up in something neurotic and deeply rooted in pain, but the film kept me at an emotional remove. I don't feel it. I didn't feel any of the eerie undercurrents one would expect from a story this unusual.
Vertigo, for all its late-1950s restraint, is one weird movie. There's a creep-out factor in Jimmy Stewart's portrayal of the character of Scottie which informs all of his actions. An actor I've never felt comfortable admitting I've never warmed up to (I mean, who doesn't like Jimmy Stewart?), to me  Stewart always came across as disturbed and creepy even when he's supposed to appear normal. But chiefly Vertigo benefits from Hitchcock’s personal demons and obsessions seeping in through the edges of every frame. Hitchcock himself doesn't seem to be aware of it, but by his very treatment of the story he keeps providing inadvertent peeks into the darkest corners of his own psyche. All of this gives Vertigo that quirky, kinky kick which didn't exactly sit well with audiences in 1958.
Obsession on the other hand, is a meticulously crafted genre film that manages to hit all the right stylistic marks, but comes off short by lacking the requisite feverishness of its overheated premise. Robertson's Michael Courtland looks tortured and haunted, but he never seems like a man capable of being out of control. Perhaps this is due to the discarded third act, which begins where the current film ends and would have placed the characters in 1985, involving them in a third episode of obsession. Or maybe it’s the studio’s insistence that the unappetizing incest subtext be removed and reworked through editing (a pivotal scene that was to occur in real life has been changed into a dream sequence). Whatever the source, there’s a big hole at the center of the rather sumptuous package that is Obsession, and it feels like the film functionally sidesteps touching on an aspect of Courtland's passion that intersects with perversion.
Sandra visits Elizabeth's grave

Brian De Palma had this to say about making Obsession in the 2015 documentary De Palma: “I think the weakness of the movie is Cliff and the greatness is Geneviève. I mean she carries the movie.”

Citing Robertson’s awareness that Bujold was taking over the film, De Palma states that Robertson resorted to tricks intended to sabotage her performance, and that overall he found Cliff extremely difficult to work with. Clearly having an ax to grind, De Palma goes on to relate an anecdote conveying his frustration over Robertson -- playing a man who is supposed to look drawn and pale from having locked himself away out of grief -- insisting on applying coats of bronzer to his face. So much so that the cinematographer one day forcibly placed Robertson against the mahogany set, shouting “You’re the same color as this wall! How am I supposed to light you?”
While I don't share De Palma's opinion that Robertson is the weakness of the film (he hasn't much range, but his Michael Courtland is rather heartbreaking), I wholeheartedly agree that without Bujold, I'm not at all certain Obsession would have worked for me at all. A longtime favorite, she is an endlessly resourceful actress of intensity, warmth, and complexity. An intelligent, natural actress like Bujold doesn't have the ethereal vulnerability of Kim Novak, but what she brings to the table is an emotional verisimilitude that does wonders for making the implausible feel real. And in this film, this quality alone is worth a king's ransom. Bujold (as always) is a stunner, and gives Obsession its mystery and ultimately its poignancy.

In this, the first of three films he would make with De Palma, John Lithgow plays a character described in the script as "The slightly souring cream of the old south."  I mention this because, without that knowledge, Lithgow's performance comes off as a tad overripe. Southern accents have to be pretty solid not to sound like dinner theater Tennessee Williams, and if Lithgow's doesn't exactly convince, its inauthenticity fits the potential duplicity of his character. Not helping matters much is that he's also saddled with an absolutely terrible fake mustache (at least I hope it's fake) and an arsenal of cream-colored suits straight out of Rex Reed's closet. That all of these potential drawbacks more or less work in Lithgow's favor has as much to do with the actor's talent as it does with his character needing to come off as both smarmy and charming in equal measure.

Without a doubt the most persuasive obsession on display throughout Obsession is Brian De Palma’s love of film and reverence for Hitchcock. When it comes to the De Palma arsenal of visual tricks (split screen, swirling camera, weird angles, deep focus through use of split diopters…) I honestly don’t know which are genuinely his or which are attributed to Hitchcock’s traditional style. In essence, it shouldn’t really matter, but the problem presented by the rash of young 1970s directors who built their careers on paying homage to the films they grew up on, is that they invite you pay attention to such things. 
Making A Spectacle
The thick glasses worn by Courtland's therapist (Stocker Fontelieu) in Obsession evoke
Kasey Rogers' pivotal eyewear from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train

When, under normal circumstances, all I want to do is sit back and enjoy a film on its own merits, this league of self-conscious, self-aware, and self-referential filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich comes to mind) invites me to participate in an insider’s game. One side of my brain is supposed to watch the film as a direct narrative, while simultaneously the other side of my brain is induced to play “catch the reference.”
Keeping track of all the cinematic references, comparisons, re-creations, and outright thefts can be a lot of fun for a film geek like me, but it comes at a price: all that attention to style keeps me at an emotional remove from the story being told. Each visual nod to a well-known film, each insider homage to a beloved filmmaker's technique is like a tap on the shoulder reminding me not only that I'm watching a movie, but of the director drawing attention to him or herself. I watch the film, even enjoy the film, but since the filmmaker is "toying" with the technique of cinema...I never surrender to it. 
Scissors figure prominently both in Obsession and Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder

Obsession is a film bursting at the seams with style. It looks great: Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) bathes the film in a dreamy, diffused-lit glow that creates an appropriately unreal reality.  It sounds great: This is perhaps my favorite Bernard Herrmann score. It’s a compelling mystery, well-told: distracting as it may be, no one can say Obsession's showy visual style isn't perfectly suited to the story. 
But for all the engaging performances and cinema storytelling savvy, for the life of me I can’t say the film ever swept me up in the obsessions that are the key to making the film really work. There's a lot going on that keeps you in your seat and keeps you wondering (and even caring) what will happen next, but a film like Obsession should be haunting. Once the film is over there should be something about this eerie narrative that is difficult to shake off. Personally, I think if half the care lavished on the look and atmosphere of the film had been applied to the characters and performances, Obsession would have been the De Palma film you couldn't forget instead of the De Palma film almost no one remembers. 
The Vertiginous Circle
The camera swirling around two individuals locked inside their own world is easily my favorite effect

In writing about the Hitchcock style that runs throughout Obsession, I suppose it's worth noting that the real Alfred Hitchcock released his 53rd (and final) feature film Family Plot, that very same year, just four months before Obsession was released. I don't recall if critics made any comparisons between who was more Hitchcockian at this point: the pretender or the real-deal; but I do remember that so much nostalgia was attached to the release of Family Plot (Hitchcock was 77 and ailing) that few dared hint that his latest effort was not really all that memorable, either.

There's an old axiom in film that goes something like: They'll forgive you anything if you have a good ending. Paul Schrader has been on the outs with Brian De Palma ever since (under the insistence of Bernard Herrmann) he dropped Deja vu's third act. I've no idea how the original ends (the uncut screenplay is featured with the UK DVD version of Obsession) but for my money, the ending as it stands is sheer perfection.
Many a good thriller finds itself fizzling out to a so-so or anticlimactic conclusion after a promising buildup. Obsession is the exception. Starting with a great, albeit familiar, premise, the film builds methodically and atmospherically throughout, even managing to sustain suspense as the key to the relatively easy-to-figure-out mystery reveals itself.
Late in the film, things grow worrisome as it appears as though Obsession's measured pacing is to be abandoned in favor of a hasty denouement; but De Palma has one more trick up his sleeve and it proves to be so good that you honestly do forgive the film its implausibilities (big and small) and its short-shifting of character and motivation.
The ending is a suspenseful, startling, and very moving bit of pure cinema. Pure cinema because it is gratifying in ways that have nothing to do with narrative logic or reason, but everything to do with the overwhelming power of the mechanics of style. The sequence works simply because it visually fulfills, in those final minutes, all the romance, passion, and mystery its premise had always promised. Perhaps it's an example of too little too late, but it's only during the film's final scenes that Obsession finds its "crazy." And when it does, it's simply beautiful. Too bad that crazy passion took so long to rear its head.
Past or Present? / Original or Copy?

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2017