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).

Criterion Sunday 96: Written on the Wind (1956)

Of all Sirk’s vibrantly-coloured over-the-top domestic melodramas of passionate lives curtailed by societal mores, for me Written on the Wind is the very finest. It sets up its privileged setting and protagonists over the opening credits: the Hadley family mansion in small-town Texas, where dissolute son Kyle (Robert Stack) and wayward daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) fight over the affections of stolid lower-class boy Mitch (Rock Hudson), an engineer who works for their oil tycoon dad, and has been friends with them all his life. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy, an advertising executive who gets married to Kyle and is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on the tumultuous story, but really this is about that three-way relationship triangle between the Hadleys and Mitch. This means that the homoerotic readings are certainly available, and there’s plenty of play with phallic imagery (Marylee caressing a model of an oil well is only the most memorable of many), but it all operates on that coyly suggestive level typical of the repressed 1950s. Malone won an Academy Award, but in retrospect her performance seems the very hammiest of the lot. That said, it works well within the film’s seething context, so perhaps those 50s Academy voters were just more aware of the many ironic levels of interpretation on offer here. It’s a masterpiece, in any case, and I love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writer George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 21 July 1999 (also on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 April 2016).

Criterion Sunday 95: All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Douglas Sirk was a director from Germany who was working within mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 1950s, where he had great success though at the time his pictures were largely sidelined as merely ‘women’s interest’. They later came to influence a diverse range of directors, not least his countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose 1974 film Angst essen Seele auf largely remakes the one under discussion here), but his style is perhaps at its most refined in All That Heaven Allows. Certainly it looks spectacular (a palette borrowed by Todd Haynes for his own 2002 hommage Far from Heaven), and boasts some fine acting from Rock Hudson — just coming into his own around this period — as well as veteran A-list star Jane Wyman. The story concerns itself with the repressed middle-classes and the cumulative power of society’s judgement on Wyman’s widowed matriarch Cary, who falls for a younger man, her gardener Ron (Hudson). More than his age, it’s class which is the chief battleground, and Cary’s self-esteem is progressively whittled away by her friends and frightful selfish children. There’s a rather implausible denouement, albeit clearly tacked on where the story really finishes, and little opportunity is spared to heighten the campness of the settings (the appearance of a deer is particularly memorable), but this is a gorgeous, emotional film which still resonates.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by a couple of British academics, who draw attention particularly to the design and lighting of the film, but also favourably towards the acting and draw out some of the meanings of melodrama and camp at work in the film. There’s an hour-long excerpt of a 1979 British TV show Behind the Mirror about Sirk, based around an interview with him at his home in Switzerland, as well as a shorter French TV piece about him from a few years later, again featuring his own words. One of the actors in the film (William Reynolds, who played Cary’s son Ned) talks about working with Sirk from a vantage point of 50 years later. There’s also a rather glorious trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writer Peg Fenwick; Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2002).