Criterion Sunday 457: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I don’t know enough about the career of German expatriate director Douglas Sirk to be certain, but this feels like the first film of his imperial phase of filmmaking, or at least an important milestone in defining that peculiar style of gaudily-coloured, stylistically heightened melodramas of the late-50s, often produced by Ross Hunter and starring Rock Hudson. It’s not to my mind the equal of All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind (or the monochrome Tarnished Angels) but it orchestrates a thrillingly tangled web of obsessions pretty well.

Jane Wyman plays Helen (or Mrs Phillips), a woman indirectly widowed due to wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson)’s misadventures, which prompts him to reform himself and, via a series of ridiculous plot contortions, win the love of Helen (sure) and restore her eyesight (don’t ask) by becoming a world-leading surgeon (look, okay, yes). To say that last half hour is a rush of absurdity heaped upon absurdity is hardly to deny the central power of the film as a full-throated melodrama, and indeed Sirk is attentive to the power differentials between characters (even if Helen’s eventual acceptance of her feelings toward Bob — who initially rather dubiously romances her under a different name while she’s blind — feels a little bit perfunctory). Still, if you like Sirk’s style, it’s all done with an assertive sense of style.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the bonus disc dedicated to a presentation of John M. Stahl’s original 1935 adaptation of the same book (written by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman and George O’Neil, cinematography John J. Mescall, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne). I’ve seen a few of Stahl’s films as director (mostly at Il Cinema Ritrovato) but still don’t feel I really have a grasp on him. That a handful of his films, like this one, were remade by Douglas Sirk is probably unfortunate to Stahl’s own standing but I just wonder if these early melodramas would ever make quite the same impression as Sirk’s gloriously overwrought 50s pieces. I’m certainly surprised at how much is similar in both, mostly all the ridiculous plot twists, but while this is a fine Irene Dunne performance, I am nevertheless somewhat underwhelmed by the sneering arrogant Bob Merrick of Robert Taylor, the poor man’s James Stewart as far as I can tell (both started around this time, so maybe 30s Hollywood just liked that look). Where Sirk brought the saturated colour and equally saturated string section, this plays a little more austerely, largely as a morality play of Taylor grappling with his conscience over the way things have played out and resolving to become a better man. A likeable film without the obvious hooks of Sirk’s but probably that’s down to me.
  • There are a couple of short ten-minute pieces paying tribute to this film (and Sirk) by Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, both of which are effusive in their praise and interesting in terms of each’s own filmmaking, even if neither strikes one as particularly Sirkian.
  • The screenwriter Robert Blees also speaks a bit about his work on the film as the primary writer (there are a lot of credits, including the writers on Stahl’s own film) but clearly Blees was more attuned to what Sirk and his producer Ross Hunter wanted.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writers Robert Blees and Wells Root (based on the screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, itself based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 1 August 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 30 August 2021).

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