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Columbia Tristar
1976 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 98m. / Street Date June 26, 2001 / 24.95
Starring Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Art Direction Jack Senter
Film Editor Paul Hirsch
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Writing credits Paul Schrader
Produced by Harry N. Blum, George Litto
Directed by Brian De Palma

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Good, bad, or indifferent, Brian De Palma's movies haven't been very interesting for a while, which is a shame because when he started in the late '60s, he showed as much if not more promise than either Coppola or Scorsese. In his most fertile period, he fell into the mode of parroting Alfred Hitchcock's films, right down to situations, camera angles, and mechanical gimmicks. Sisters intentionally catalogued Hitchcock touches but did so with boundless creative energy; ditto this feature-length hommage to Vertigo, originally entitled Deja Vu.


New Orleans real estate developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) suffers a terrible loss when his wife Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold) and daughter are killed in a bungled kidnapping, in which he followed the police strategy of substituting plain paper for the expected ransom. Fifteen years later, encouraged by his business partner Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow),'Court' returns to Florence and revisits the same church where he met his long-lost love ... and finds a doppelgänger: Sandra Portinari (also Geneviève Bujold), a young Italian woman that he becomes compelled to transform into the image of Elizabeth.

For the record, Savant was floored by Obsession when it came out, perhaps more because it personally had the perfect elements for that time period, the bicentennial year. It played like opera. I was crazy about Bernard Herrmann, and his overpowering score was the movie, almost as if the emotions had been composed first as music and the movie directed to fit. The fact that the story was a reworking of Vertigo was no detriment; in 1976 Vertigo was completely unseeable, and I was totally obsessed with it.  1

Phantom of the Paradise had been merely okay, neither as funny nor as clever as it thought it was. The crass Carrie I never liked a bit. But I was utterly transported by Obsession, a full-blown melodramatic tour-de-force of wild noir gimmicks and unrestrained emotions. De Palma alternates between starry-eyed closeups of his leads, and smooth moving-camera shots. There's only one instance where the camera action seems gratuitous, in a Florentine cafe where he pans ping-pong back and forth between talking heads. But Savant thinks everything else works fine. In this high-pitched, hyped emotional context, even the double-turntable circular dance shot, the Hitchcock 'gimmick' cribbed from Vertigo, seems appropriate.

(spoilers, big ones, until the big * further down the column.)

Obsession succeeds because it isn't so much a remake as a transposition. The romance is so intensely observed, I've never really analyzed the plot. The John Lithgow character clearly conspires against Robertson, but I don't know how that scheme is supposed to benefit him, or why he confesses all to his patsy. This picture is emotionally also an answer to The Searchers (Schrader was one of the 1970s crop of young filmmakers intrigued by the Ford film), with its near-heavenly reunion of father and child. Schrader's script is full of sly jokes, such as one the first words out of Sandra's mouth being 'Dadi' -'Daddy.' Courtland recreates Elizabeth in Sandra as Scotty recreated Madeline in Judy. In this case his obsession is resurrecting a fallen golden age of marriage and happiness. For 70s types like Savant, this has further resonances - Robertson was mildly associated with JFK because of a previous movie role. We spent a couple of decades fantasizing some kind of utopian Camelot that might have come to pass had Kennedy not been assassinated.

Cliff Robertson is appropriately subdued and does a great job with the deranged Michael, never losing our sympathy. Ms. Bujold takes the acting honors, turning more than one moment into a classic. De Palma and editor Paul Hirsch's airport flashback owes nothing to Hitchcock. Its 'bravura' cutting suits the scene perfectly, but the focus is on the amazing Geneviève, who transforms into a child without a cut, in one amazing shot that must be seen to be appreciated. In one of his first roles, John Lithgow is pompous and puffy as the oily LaSalle. This guy was ready to play any role from the very beginning of his career. I think at one point, while pinned to his own desk by Robertson, he's channeling the distinctive delivery of Hans Conreid!

The docu on the disc goes thoroughly into the alteration of De Palma's original script during preproduction, eliminating a (really far-fetched) fourth act, in which the kidnap scenario would be replayed once more in the future after Courtland's release from prison ... he did kill his business partner in anger, remember. This coda didn't make it to filming and it doesn't sound like a good idea, as Obsession already asks the viewer to buy a lot of strange contrivances, and the hoary 'psychological shock cure' gag has rarely worked in movies. But the docu's big revelation is that the movie was finished with Michael and Sandra actually marrying and sleeping together, going way beyond his merely dreaming about it. As true to Schrader's intentions as that would be, it sounds as if it would have transformed the movie greatly, introducing an incest motif (or an incest-apology motif?) that would make the soapy story far too serious. Kidnapping and cruel psychological plots are hard enough to sell an audience. The idea of moving heaven and Earth to revive a dead lover, and getting a daughter instead, makes for an ending that is already bizarre and emotionally mixed.  2 (spoiler)

To de-incest the film (cheat, detractors would say), an optical was added to make the wedding scenes a dream of the possibly drugged Courtland. The show was remixed, hiding the changes, but there remains an audio transition that has always stood out like a sore thumb, until now. When Sandra returns from Elizabeth's tomb, Courtland sweeps her in his arms. The picture dissolves to a tilt up the side of an office building. On film and on previous video incarnations, the Herrmann score rises in intensity, and then makes an abrupt and awkward change. The remix track on this DVD drops out the music, smoothing the transition somewhat. This rising note might once have led into the original 'real' marriage scene. Because Columbia Tristar has thoughtfully provided an original mono track, we can compare the two mixes.


Columbia Tristar's DVD of Obsession is a visual reprieve for the film, which has looked like a bleary, smeary, greenish mess for 25 years. Another reason Obsession isn't a classic is Vilmos Zsigmond's ill-conceived photographic style. Everything is diffuse and colors are subdued. The 70s were the age of filter effects, and what might have looked good in the original photography didn't dupe well. Original 1976 theatrical prints looked terrible - green and grainy. This soft imaging plays havoc with DVD mastering, as scenes with fog, etc, require lots of finessing to avoid looking even more out of focus. (1941 suffers from this problem on DVD).

Obsession on DVD is fairly grainy, but still looks good. Previous videos looked as if they had been printed on warm wax ... or as if someone had coated your monitor screen with Vaseline. The DVD actually has a range of color, and it's the first time I've seen more than two shades of green on the painting Sandra is restoring. There's a choice of an original mono track or a Dolby remix. Savant could not tell if the Herrmann music is recreated in true stereo or was a Chace simulation, as with The Magnificent Seven.

The substantial extra on the disc is an informative but longish docu by Laurent Bouzereau. It displays what he does best - great interviews with key people, even Star Wars editor Paul Hirsch. But there is far too much of the movie on view. It's redundant if you've recently watched the film, spoiler-bait if you haven't.

The cover art is okay, but the garish red portrait of Court and Sandra on the disc, makes it look like "Blood Lovers" or something. Then again, the original poster art was nothing to write home about!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Obsession rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English 5.1 (new) English mono original, French Mono original
Supplements: docu: 'Obsession Revisited', trailers, filmographies
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 1, 2001


1. Vertigo was almost completely out of circulation for the entire decade of the '70s. Filmex had shown it in 1971, and we were knocked down by its Technicolored power. The County Museum of Art showed it once in 1974, and judging by De Palma's commentary on this disc's docu, De Palma and Schrader may have been in the audience with me. For the record, the other two films that were virtually unseeable at the time and therefore grew to immense proportions in Savant's imagination were Eyes Without a Face and The Seventh Victim.

2. (spoiler) The last time Savant paid attention to idiotic television reviewers was with this film. The NBC Los Angeles critic dismissed it in about three sentences, laughed at the camera, and even said out loud, "...and you won't believe it, she turns out to be his daughter!" I wanted to smash the television. Luckily I'd seen the movie the night before.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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