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


  1. Hi Ken,

    I totally agree with what you wrote about how a good ending can redeem the lacklustre scenes that precedes it. I've seen so many films that start out very promising but can't tie the loose ends when the film ends. A good ending compensates for many pointless and excessive scenes shown earlier in the film. That kind of ending seem to be so hard to create! Very rarely do films end in a satisfying way.

    Thank you for the great essay, Ken! I've seen this film twice. Both times I looked forward to seeing it. I was expecting a good thriller but each time the film left me little cold. Maybe I was expecting something like "Coma" which also stars Genevieve Bujold, a film I'm a great fan of. All I remember of "Obsession" is Genevieve in the dual role. I have no memory at all that Cliff Robertson had the other lead role in the film!

    It's true what you say about the film being a catalogue of Hitchcock references without the masters controlled craziness. I wonder what Hitchcock must have thought of it. Maybe he was pleased to see that this homage to him. I do like "Family Plot", mostly because of Barbra Harris.

    I laughed when you wrote about Rex Reed's cream-colored suits!

  2. Hi Wille
    Yes, the bane of the suspense/thriller genre is that all too often, the more intriguing the setup, the lamer the payoff. I'm not one who thinks bigger is better and that every suspenser has to have a bombastic ending (for example, I'm one of those who would have preferred the more subdued original ending to "Fatal Attraction"); I just like it when it feels both worthy and germane to what has preceded it.

    In "Vertigo" (perhaps because I'm so anal) I never liked that the guy who masterminds the whole deception gets away with it. I'm sure Hitchcock and the writers all felt that no one in their right mind would be thinking of that guy, but it has always bugged me.

    I'm glad to know you've seen "Obsession" and it amuses me that Robertson proved to be every bit as forgettable for you as he was regrettable for De Palma. "Obsession" is a mood piece, to be sure, not really a thriller, but the plot has the stuff of tragedy had someone figured out a way to make us feel something of what Robertson's character lost when his wife and child died. We know so little about how they really felt about one another, his Obsession could just have easily been deep-rooted remorse (it's hinted but not dwelled upon that he was a workaholic who perhaps neglected his wife) as Endless Love (not a lot of passion in the movie...expressed or depicted).

    De Palma is not exactly one of my top directors, but he can be interesting. Considering how De Palma's other films all reveal what I perceive to be a rather weird attitude towards women, and how emotionally trussed up Paul Schrader is from his Calvinist upbringing- you'd think "Obsession" would be a slam dunk for these guys. Personally, i think they spent too much time trying to channel Hitchcock and not enough putting themselves on the page or the screen.

    I remember not really liking "Family Plot" very much when it came out, although I was over the moon that both Karen Black & Barbara Harris were in the same film (I don't recall is they share any scenes together, though. More's the pity). I have a copy of it, I need to look at it again. It might play better now without all the baggage of expectations it came with back in '76.
    Thanks for commenting, Wille, and for always being so kind in revisiting the sire and reading these posts. Much appreciated!

  3. I always return to this site to read your engaging reviews of those wonderful movies of the 60s and 70s. I enjoy what you write whether I've seen the film or not. Keep writing, Ken!

    Do watch "Family Plot" again. It may not be one of Hitchcock's classics but it has a small charm of its own because of the four off beat actors in the leading roles: Harris, Dern, Black and Devane.

  4. Great review for one of my favourite De Palma movies 9it was the first of his I saw), not least for the magnificent score and the great performances by Bujold and Lithgow. I have the UK release and heartily recommend it - the script extends into the future in Schrader's original, with the kidnapping plot replayed to try and unlock Courtland's near catatonic state after believing that he is lost his wife again! I don;t think it could have worked but it is worth looking at FEMME FATALE, which re-used the same structure (and makes direct reference to Deja Vu incidentally).

    1. Hi Sergio
      Thank you very much. This is a wonderful introduction to De Palma, I think. You get to appreciate a more subtle taste of his talents before he gets into his more grandiloquent displays in later films.
      I always wish I saw "Obsession" during it's original release (before I ever saw "vertigo") for I wonder how it would have played to me without all those thoughts of Hitchcock running through my mind.
      I'm so jealous you have the UK release! not only because I believe it is a Blu Ray, but the extras sound fascinating, and I've only read the Schrader script that takes us to the ending included in the film. What you describe of the 3rd act does indeed sound like something best left on the cutting room floor; which is curious given how strongly Schrader seems to have believed in it.
      If I can get my hands on Femme Fatale, I think I will give it a look. What's curious is that when I Googled it, it seems as though I DID see it, but I'm not entirely sure. Hmmm...hate when that happens!.
      Thank you so much for visiting the site and taking the time to share the contents of that elusive 3rd act with us.

    2. Ken, this article also elaborates further on that M.I.A. third act. BTW, I always loved the way Genevieve looked (in the comparatively brief) role of the wife. So elegant.

    3. Thanks, Poseidon!
      And I too love the way Bujold looks as the wife. Perhaps the most elegant she's ever appeared onscreen (even as Anne Boleyn her young features were more boyish and cute than glamorous).

  5. Hi Ken - so happy that you chose this little-known De Palma gem! I was 10 years old when it came out, saw it with my Dad, loved it, and went and saw it a couple more times...was NOT allowed to see Carrie that year because it was rated R - didn't see that one for about 20 more years, in fact. I bought the DVD of this one recently and enjoyed it a lot, though my favorite De Palmas are still Carrie, Body Double, Dressed to Kill and Sisters...

    Bujold is the raison d'etre for this film, I agree. Genevieve was a 1970s GODDESS to me, between this film (and her well-played dual role) and as heroine-in-distress in the highly entertaining Coma a couple years later. Another favorite is opposite Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days. Also, later on in those peculiar 1980s Alan Rudolph films...Choose Me, was one of them called?

    Thanks as always for transporting me with your wonderful essays - now I must pull this DVD out and watch again!

    1. Hi Chris
      How wonderful you had the experience of seeing this with your Dad (I love when kids and parents see "grown up" movies together. I always think it's such a great safety net should a film become scary or confusing). And you had the chance to seeing this with "fresh eyes" before you had the opportunity to see VERTIGO.
      I of course share your adoration of Bujold in this and all of the films you name...few even remember her as that call-in radio DJ in the film CHOOSE ME! Nice memory!
      (Although I have to say, Bujold's performance in MONSIGNOR was one of my camp/hammy favorites until Faye Dunaway knocked her out of the box with MOMMIE DEAREST).
      Thanks, Chris. I always like that you give us little glimpse into your past via the movies you comment upon here. It's nice knowing how movies come to play a part in people's lives.

  6. Hi Ken,

    I am surprised that you didn't praise Bujold more for playing a very underage girl during one sequence in the movie - and selling it!

    I saw the movie on TV while I was 8 or so and that sequence utterly creeped me out. I've always had a hard time watching the 'incest movie' again because the switching to a dream sequence for the consummation of the act was never terribly convincing and it always seemed to me that it happened for real, to the characters at least.

    Add that little-girl-in-peril scene and I will always remain kind of shell-shocked by the movie.

    So watching De Palma as a young kid is a big no-no in my book, even if he did refrain from his usual grand guignol in this one. (A little older, I watched The Fury again on TV - French TV got off De Palma for some reason - and this one I loved. I guess it was more attuned to teenage tastes with its bad-guy-gets-it over-the-top theatrics). De Palma is good for a lasting kindertrauma...

    1. Hi Mangrove
      Trust me, in essays as long as mine, if something is left out, it's by design and not oversight.
      As remarkable a job as Bujold does and as virtuoso a bit of cinema magic De Palma achieves with that marvelous flashback device; after I posted the disclaimer at the top of the piece, I found I was able to write about the movie at length and not give away as many of the film's surprises as I'd initially thought.

      Note I didn't feature any screencaps from any of the kidnap sequences. Those sequences are, for me, as chilling as those kidnap scenes from "Murder on the Orient Express" and an aspect of OBSESSION that's particularly well-done. And as you note, Bujold's performance, and the chosen perspective the scenes are shot from, is remarkable. She does indeed sell it.

      I can well imagine how scary it must have appeared to a kid. The device De Palma used in Bujold's case, giving the revelation scenes the kind of bizarre kick the film needed all along.

      Although it was no doubt traumatic when you were 8, it's good to know the scenes were so effective for you. It's an odd quirk of youth that the psyche can process the explicit (say the over the top violence of THE FURY) better than it can handle the suggested (the deployment of one's own imagination serving to sear those images into our minds forever).
      Also, I agree with you that the dream sequence device doesn't undercut the incest theme as much as the filmmakers might have hoped. Not when we have just seen the two kiss passionately before they sequester themselves away for the quickie wedding. It always felt as though that were a real part of the narrative for me, too.
      Thanks for sharing your enlightening child's-eye-view memories of this De Palma film; where the kidnapping and child in peril angle would be understandably stronger than the romance angle.

  7. Felix Gonzalez, Jr.April 16, 2017 at 9:27 AM

    Hi Ken,

    Great review as always! I think you're pretty spot on here concerning De Palma's stylish mechanics as well as Bujold's performance. I like Cliff Robertson here, though I think it may be his natural saggy dog face that makes him convincing. But my absolute favorite element of this film is Bernard Herrmann's score. You write of the film's lack of crazy until the end, but to me, Herrmann's music fills in the passion and underlying insanity that may be missing from the narrative. Much as he did for Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451," Herrmann gives us the emotional heart of a film that is otherwise basically cold. I could watch the final minutes of this movie on a loop for hours just to hear the operatic conclusion of the score!

    1. Hello Felix
      First off, you win the prize for evocative description with "natural saggy dog face" as playing a part in the persuasiveness of Robertson's performance.
      Plus, I think you hit on something in citing how Bernard Herrmann's score provides the "crazy" the movie needs. I think you're totally right. His brilliant score is ten steps ahead of the action, cluing you in on the madness before you even know it's madness. I'd never thought of that, but I think that's why this score is one of my favorites of his. "Emotional heart" is the apt, ideal description of his contribution to the film.
      Thank you so much for such an insightful comment!

  8. I remember as a kid this movie being advertised to come to my small town...and it never did! And I forgot about it. Now, I am on the hunt for it : )

    I always thought it was strange that Pauline Kael was one of DePalma's fans, while she derided Hitchcock!

    Another fine read, especially regarding "homage" over "original!"

    Cheers, Rick

    1. Hi Rick
      I know a couple of people who say they never saw this because it come and went from theaters so quickly. you're the first one to make mention of a promise never kept!
      I think it showed on TCM a while back, but it's almost never talked about or even remembered. I hope you get to check it out.
      And that's a great point you make about Kael being such a huge De Palma enthusiast and yet had such a reserved attitude towards Hitchcock. She's a favorite of mine, but she certainly had her "pets."
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Rick (& take care of that knee!)

  9. Oh, Genevieve! I watched two movies with her ("Coma" and "Obsession") and in both performances she was engaging, emotionally charged, compelling and beyond charismatic, but both movies failed to cath my attention. I read the "Coma" novel and while the movie was probably good it was nothing near a decent adaptation and it really disappointed me. As for Obsession, I agree with you, it lacks passion and craziness and even a sense of danger. You can feel they were holding back a lot, script wise and acting wise, and why I understood everything that was happening and wanted to care about Sandra, I could only feel sad about the missed opportunity. Also, it was really too much Vertigo vibes for me to take - I love when De Palma references Hitchcock in his movies but in this case it's just too much for me. Maybe if there was more character development I could get past that, because when the characters don't get their proper amount of light the script becomes way more evident, for better or worse.

    But I agree with you in two things: 1 - This is a directing class for anybody who's interested in the craft. It's just too beautiful and even if half of me wanted it to be over, the other half loved every frame. They really did Genevieve beauty and rich expressions justice, I even have some frames for reference here, just love those colors. 2 - The ending scene made me say "THAT WAS WORTH IT!" and i was thankful for enduring the experience. It's just beautiful and emotional. It's big as the film didn't had a chance to get which is a shame. I love it when De Palma goes full De Palma and works the film out of that camera, uses slow motion, close ups and etc, he's just great at that!
    I don't think I'll watch it again soon but it surprises me that even if I didn't feel emotionally attached to it, I remember it always as a great technical acchievement.

  10. Hi Joao Paulo
    Your comments shed light on how multilayered a medium film can be. The creative confluence of so many elements (script, performances, music, visual style) illuminates how frequently we can find ourselves liking separate elements of a film, yet can still find the end product wanting.
    like many who've commented, you seem to appreciate the craft of "Obsession" but bemoan not being more emotionally drawn in by the film. What seems to be consistent (at least in this particular forum) is that the music, Bujold, Zsigmond's cinematography, and De Palma's operatic style compensate fora script that could have probably benefited from a little less Vertigo-derived homage and a few more story meetings.
    Thank you again for reading my post and contributing your well-considered thoughts on OBSESSION.

  11. It's still frustrating to recall how Hollywood largely wasted the talent of Genevieve Bujold during the 1970s and 1980s. I think that she and fellow Canadian Margot Kidder deserved much better use of their offbeat beauty and considerable acting skills.
    Bujold is even fun to watch in "Earthquake" (She may be the only reason to watch "Earthquake"!)

    1. Indeed. For all the uniqueness of so many '70s films, there certainly were a paucity of really good roles to go around. Especially for actresses who didn't fit easily into the glamour/leading lady mold.
      Thank for mentioning Margot Kidder because she is a perfect example of the kind of quirky appeal of so many of my favorite actresses. It' something of a miracle both Bujold and Kidder were assigned to such high-profile "popcorn" pictures like SUPERMAN and EARTHQUAKE. Margot hit paydirt, BUJOLD had to made cuddling up to Charlton Heston look plausible.
      Boy, when I watch EARTHQUAKE, she really seems like she wandered in from another film. Yet I've never heard her say anything but gracious things about the experience. Go figure!

  12. You couldn't find a bigger 70s DePalma fan than I was, but I only saw this one once, on TV, and don't remember much. I came to film as a huge Hitchcock fan, so I didn't care if he was being aped, as long as it was done well.

    My love of DePalma peaked with Dressed to Kill (although I recognized how off the rails he went with The Fury), but I've found his later work only OK. Often very well-made, but not engaging.

    Sorry to say, I think my favorite DePalma is still Sisters. The low-budget style, coupled with good performances, unfamiliar (Staten Island!) locations, a good script, blatant subtext, and 70s cynicism really works for me.

    While the violence here is in check, I think there's some giallo creeping into his work at this point.

    I'm also a sucker for Zsigmond's (and Kovacks') cinematography in the 70s, though for a real eye-opener, check some of the movies they worked on when they came to the US in the 60s. Lots of guilty pleasures there.

    1. Hey, MDG
      De Palma is an interesting case as a director because those who really love his early films can barely find him in his latter works; and those who like him for Scarface and Mission Impossible have little interest in his early stuff.
      Sisters is a wonderful film. One I came to rather much later (I saw it only after I had given up on De Palma with Body Double).
      Perhaps it's a testament to something about him that he managed to appeal to a wide variety of tastes, albeit few of them intersecting.
      And thanks for calling attention to the eye-opening wealth of oddball 60s titles from those classy '70s cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Their work during this period is a wonderful testament that it's important for artists to have tme to discover and hone their gifts.
      Today when it comes to providing behind-the-camera opportunities for women and ethnics, too often they are called upon to "prove" themselves right out the gate, having to hit a homerun right away and never having the chance to build their skills through experience and failure. No one looking at Rat Fink or Psyche-Out would ever guess what distinguished career lie in store for those artists.
      Always great to hear from you, MDG, thanks for reading and always taking the time to offer thoughtful comments!

  13. Absolutely gob smacked by this terrific analysis, Ken. For once, I have nothing to add. You said it all.

    And what's amazing is I didn't know how I felt about this film until you put it into words for me. Particularly your take on that stunning ending. Whenever I found myself, as I read this, trying to mentally form an argument to contradict your opinion that the film is slightly marred by an academicism, images from that ending, ONLY, began swimming before my eyes. And then, as I mentioned before, you said it all for me.

    Great, great job. And thanks.

    1. Hi Rick
      Your words are very flattering and gratifying. You always have such interesting additional insights into the films I write about. To think I've captured a thought or two of your own regarding OBSESSION is a fine thing to hear.
      I'm especially delighted to know you share a similar fondness for the film's concluding scenes! I've seen OBSESSION many times and the ending has yet to fail to produce waterworks. I find it so touching and haunting. And marvelously cinematic.
      In this instance I miss out on the opportunity to read another of your well-considered, keen observations, but my reward are the kind words you expressed in your comment, and my thanks to you for always returning to the scene of the crime (this blog). Thanks so much!

  14. I share the love for Herrmann and Bujold in this film. The feeling was mutual between the two of them. The actress came to the London recording sessions, and as related by Charles Gerhardt in Steven Smith's Herrmann biography: "She told [Herrmann] of all the trouble she'd had with Cliff Robertson. . . . 'Mr. Herrmann, he wouldn't make love to me, but you made love to me with your music.' And Benny started to cry. He would tell that story over and over at dinner, and start crying again every time." He carried a photo of Bujold in his wallet until his death.

    1. Hi John - That's absolutely fascinating! And such a lovely story about two artists finding an unlikely creative rapport on the parameters of the project on display. What makes it better is that its fully understandable in context of what so many people take away from "Obsession." Thanks for sharing that charming and little known (at least to me) behind-the-scenes anecdote!

    2. Herrmann had a significant influence on this film, even though De Palma and editor Paul Hirsh were initially wary about working with him again. His was the key influence in the discarding of Schrader's "third act." According to conductor Laurie Johnson (another quote from Smith's wonderful biography), "During lunch one day Benny stopped eating, went straight to the phone, and called De Palma. . . . He said, 'This is Benny. I've got the idea for the main titles. Don't argue, just listen.' And he outlined the whole sequence, telling De Palma the number of frames for each shot."

    3. I've got to check out that biography. I love stuff like this.
      Thank you!