In 1959 New Orleans, the tenth wedding anniversary of successful businessman Michael Courtland (Robertson) is rudely interrupted when his wife Elizabeth (Bujold) and daughter are kidnapped and a note is left demanding a $500,000 ransom. Courtland is willing to pay but the police intervene and attempt to rescue the hostages; an attempt which goes wrong and ends in bloodshed. Sixteen years later, Courtland is still grieving for his wife and daughter and has used a valuable piece of land as a memorial to them. His business partner Bob (Lithgow) takes him on a trip to Florence to jerk him out of his obsession but the plan backfires when Courtland visits the church where he met Elizabeth. Standing on a ladder, restoring a painting, is Sandra (Bujold), the exact double of his late wife. This plunges Courtland into an obsessive love affair with this woman, but their plans for marriage are destined to end in disaster when history appears to be repeating itself.
It will be apparent to anyone who has the vaguest knowledge of Hitchcock that Brian de Palma's 1976 film Obsession is heavily inspired by Vertigo. The borrowed elements are plain to see - it came about after De Palma and screenwriter Paul Schrader had just watched Vertigo - and the whole tone of Courtland's obsession is also straight from Hitchcock's masterpiece. He's less intense than Scotty admittedly and he doesn't explicitly try to turn Sandra into Elizabeth, although there is a dream sequence when the two women's identities merge in his mind and a moment when he teaches Sandra to walk like Elizabeth. The problem is that Cliff Robertson, while being perfectly competent and sometimes quite touching, is not an actor in the Jimmy Stewart class and fails to make the obsession sufficiently heated for the story to work properly. This leaves something of an emotional hole at the centre of the film. Luckily, Genevieve Bujold is superb in a difficult part and even manages to nearly bring off the utterly insane twist towards the end of the story. John Lithgow isn't bad in this, his debut film, but he's much better in his later collaborations with De Palma.
On a technical level, the film is astonishingly well made. It's here that De Palma really demonstrates his imaginative brilliance as a director. This was present in large portions of Sisters and Phantom of The Paradise, and even in his early features like the obscure Get To Know Your Rabbit and the underrated Hi Mom, but it flowers in Obsession into a signature style that he has been using ever since. Right from the start, where a tracking shot takes us inside the Courtland house and then picks out a waiter hiding a revolver, the camera rarely stops moving. De Palma made a conscious decision to cut as little as possible in order to acheive a flowing, dream like motion and this results in lots of medium length tracking shots, lots of rhythmic camera movements and a couple of truly extraordinary 360 degree pans which are very effective. The first is the best, as we are taken from 1959 to 1975 in one apparently seamless shot which actually features an invisible cut that had to be pointed out to me and is explained in the documentary. The second, in Elizabeth's bedroom, is incredibly emotional, serving the material rather than simply showing off the technique. We also get lots of crane shots, track/zooms which flare out with meaning, split focus effects and the interesting decision to use diffusion throughout the film but increase it for the scenes in the past. Just when you think nothing more can be packed into the visual scheme of the film, the last five minutes feature a great slow motion shot and a mad spin around an embrace, an image that De Palma uses again and again in his later films. For the first time, he's working with an ace director of photography - Vilmos Zsigmond - in the kind of mutually beneficial relationship that he later found with Stephen H. Burum.
The albatross around De Palma's neck has always been his enormous dedication to the spirit of Hitchcock and there are scenes here which come directly from The Master; apart from Vertigo there are bits of Dial M For Murder here too and the visual style resembles parts of Marnie and Spellbound. However, there is a sense in which it is these elements that work best and are most enjoyable. De Palma isn't a cheap rip-off merchant and he obviously loves the films he is emulating. Consequently it's entertaining to see what he does with the familiar material. But I strongly feel that De Palma and Hitchcock are very different types of directors. Hitchcock's style is cool, detached and ironic while De Palma's is warm, sensual and heavily involved. Both directors play cruel jokes on their characters but I always feel that De Palma likes his victims more than Hitchcock does. Fundamentally, I think De Palma is a romantic while Hitchcock is a cynic.
The problem with Obsession for this viewer is that De Palma hasn't quite found his voice yet. He is using pulp material but can't quite transcend it the way he did with Carrie and especially The Fury. The identity of the villain is pretty easy to spot from the beginning and the mechanics of the plot are a little too obvious thanks to the slow pace of the film; a pace which is actually quite effective most of the time, creating a dreamlike sense of dislocation - helped enormously by Bernard Herrmann's quite sensational music score. If you've seen Vertigo there is pleasure to be had in spotting the references and also the deviations and if you haven't, there's enough tension and exciting filmmaking to justify a viewing. We're not talking classic De Palma, but even above-average De Palma is better than most films can hope to be.
Obsession was originally released on DVD back in 2001 in a somewhat hit and mix transfer. This new Arrow Blu Ray is a definite step-up from that SD edition. The film is presented in 1080p at its original aspect ratio. The look of the film is deliberately soft and this BD transfer replicates that so if you're looking for pin-sharp detail, you'll be disappointed. But the colours are very faithful as is the level of grain on the image. The thorny issue of the use of DNR - one of Arrow's vices - doesn't seem to be a problem here.
There are two soundtracks on offer. The best, by far, is the original mono mix which comes as an LPCM track. Everything is beautifully in balance here with no distortion and Herrmann's score only dominates when it needs to. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 remix is well done and will please some people but I found it unsatisfyingly artificial.
The disc contains several interesting special features and comes in a package which also contains a bound volume of Paul Schrader's original screenplay. It's fascinating to read this and to see the ways in which the film diverges from it. Certainly, Schrader's script pushes the whole situation much further and De Palma's decision to omit the final act is probably as much a failure of commercial nerve as a serious artistic disagreement; whatever it was, it made Schrader disown the movie. I'm not sure Schrader's climax works to be honest but it would have been fascinating to see it filmed. The more I watch the film, however, the more I love the disturbing, weirdly perverse final shots. So, my feelings are mixed on the matter.
The extras on the DVD begin with the 2001 documentary Obsession Revisited, produced by Laurent Bouzereau. It's a good piece, running 37 minutes, which looks at the making of the film in a fair amount of detail with particularly interesting contributions from De Palma, DP Vilmos Zsigmond and editor Paul Hirsch. There are too many film clips, as is the way with Bouzereau's work, but it's still well worth watching. I especially enjoyed the sections about the use of architecture to comment on narrative.
Additionally, there are two of Brian De Palma's early short films - Woton's Wake and The Responsive Eye. Neither of these is for the faint hearted as they are unapologetically experimental movies which are made by a filmmaker still searching for a style and a subject. Woton's Wake, from 1962, concerns one Woton Wretchichevsky, a sculptor who kills people with a blow torch. He's played by William Finlay, an actor who has appeared in eight of De Palma's films and also did the voice for Bobbi on the answerphone in Dressed To Kill. There's no dialogue in the film but there are songs which comment on the action. It all ends with an orgy and the outbreak of war. Needless to say, this is hopelessly pretentious but it's also - presumably intentionally - quite funny and the black and white compositions are striking. The second film, The Responsive Eye is a documentary about the 1966 opening of the 'Op Art' exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It was shot in the space of four hours with three cameramen and it was edited by De Palma. How interesting you find it will depend on how interested you are in art but the basic theme - the interrelationship between image and eye and the ways in which the image can deceive - is very relevant to De Palma's later work. It's particularly fun to see various artists and critics having their egos punctured by a one-line putdown from David Hockney. These films are both presented in 1080p but the quality of the prints used leaves a lot to be desired. Still, it's great to have them in this format. Fans of early De Palma may be interested to know that The Wedding Party can be found on UK DVD, Dionysus in '69 is on You Tube and Murder A La Mod is, of course, on the excellent Criterion edition of Blow Out.
The disc comes with a slipcase, a choice of covers, a two-sided poster and an excellent essay by Brad Stevens.
It's been a great year for De Palma fans wanting the director's work on Blu Ray and we still have Scarface and Dressed To Kill on their way in September. Arrow's Blu Ray of Obsession is a lovely release which is unreservedly recommended.