Brian De Palma & Paul Schrader combine, activate their powers
For some strange reason, despite all of my previous experiences with the work of Brian De Palma, I wasn’t prepared for how seedy and twisty 1976’s Obsession was going to be. There are probably a few factors that got me there. One is that the plot description (and PG rating) sounded fairly straightforward. Another is that it starred a young(er) Cliff Robertson. I mean, Tobey Maguire’s Uncle Ben is just so squeaky clean in my mind. And finally, 1976 felt quite early in the director’s career and I guess my suspicion was that he hadn’t come into the wholeness of his powers just yet. Of course actually looking at his career, he’d already made Sisters and Phantom Of The Paradise by this time, so I was simply mistaken in my assumptions there.
Obsession gets moving at a breakneck pace with Cliff Robertson’s Michael Courtland breaking into a huge business partnership with Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow) in New Orleans. His adoring wife and daughter surround him as the community welcomes him at a huge party in his honor. He’s the man of the hour, quickly to be struck down by a double kidnapping and the ransoming of his family. Relying on the police to assist with the case, things escalate quickly and as the kidnappers are cornered, they take Michael’s wife and daughter on a high speed chase that results in their deaths. Years later, Michael is a shell of his former self, mourning his family and plugging away at his work. When Lasalle convinces him to take a business trip to Italy, Michael spies a young woman at the church where he first met his wife many years before. The spitting image of his wife Elizabeth, Sandra (Genevieve Bujold in a dual role) instantly entrances Michael in the most Brian De Palma of ways. Rushing headlong into the dangerous belief that Sandra is somehow a replacement for Elizabeth, Michael rushes to marry Sandra and reclaim the vibrant life he once had. The twists and turns have only just begun, however, and while I won’t spoil the outcome, one does not simply cast John Lithgow without putting some meat on the bones of that role. And the grossness of the relational dynamics will swell all the way to an Oldboy-like crescendo of seedy double crosses.
Obsession has that “Hitchcock by way of porno” lurid aesthetic that only Brian De Palma has ever truly mastered. It feels wholly and completely within De Palma’s oeuvre even as early as 1976. And Schrader, that great explorer of the American identity (and our uniquely American psychoses) does a great job layering corruption and obsession indictments on top of a highly entertaining and fast-moving murder-mystery thriller. Robertson never quite feels like entirely the perfect fit for the role, but the character is a bit of a blank canvas upon which the various plot machinations are just sort of painted. Bujold and Lithgow do some of the more showy work, and they do feel like they belong in a De Palma film through and through.
This was a fantastic first viewing and a friendly reminder to never underestimate the power of Brian De Palma. His collaboration with Paul Schrader here fit like a glove, and together they crafted a breakneck thriller that implies a darkness and meanness shocking even today. Scored with the grand operatics of an Italian giallo and heightened by incredible lighting, camera work, and a taut running time, De Palma displays his mastery of the thriller with Obsession and it comes highly recommended.
De Palma films generally look amazing, and DP Vilmos Zsigmond worked together with De Palma to truly suck you into this fast-paced world instantly with their incredible visuals. Often using soft tones to evoke a heightened fantasy and to visually depict the state of obsession, this is one of those films where it MATTERS that you’re watching it on Blu-ray and that the film looks so fantastic. One feels almost dirty watching a De Palma film such as this, as though you’re overhearing conversations not meant for you. It is, frankly, awesome. And since this is a Collector’s Edition release from Scream Factory, you’re also getting a load of bonus features. Anyone who considers themselves even a marginal Brian De Palma fan would do well to pick up Obsession.
- Audio Commentary with Douglas Keesey (Author of Brian De Palma’s Split Screen: A Life In Film)
- Interview with George Litto (producer) and Paul Hirsch (editor)
- Obsession Revisited Featurette including De Palma, Robertson, and Bujold
- Trailers, Radio Spots, Still Gallery
And I’m Out.
Obsession is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory