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The new DVD series Twilight Time emphasizes the role of composers and film scores in Hollywood moviemaking. Its newest entry is 1959's Woman Obsessed, a sturdy studio programmer that showcases actress Susan Hayward by placing her opposite a hot new leading man of the day, Stephen Boyd. The film itself is a basic emotional workout comparable to a silent film drama. It's also an excellent example of creative studio economizing, as I'll explain later. Veteran director Hathaway had worked with Ms. Hayward at least three times before, on Rawhide, White Witch Doctor and Garden of Evil. His direction plays to her strengths, giving Woman Obsessed a strong leading role immediately after her Oscar-winning angst-fest I Want to Live!
The story is meant to play out in Canada's Saskatchewan province. Hardworking farm wife, ex- schoolteacher Mary (Susan Hayward) loses her husband Tom (Arthur Franz) to a wildfire. The prospects of keeping the farm and raising her gentle, nature-loving boy Robbie (Dennis Holmes) look pretty thin until hunky lumberman Fred (Stephen Boyd) comes along to do the heavy work as a hired hand. The three get along famously, and the quiet Fred seems like a prize -- he's polite, gracious and humble. Mary marries Fred, but the new dad and Robbie clash immediately. When Robbie balks at skinning a deer, Fred becomes violent. When Fred insists that the kid toughen up, Mary violently attacks him; Fred refuses to be locked out of his own bedroom. The new family is soon miserable. The formerly carefree Robbie hates Fred and wants to kill him. That's when Mary discovers that she is pregnant!
Woman Obsessed is perfectly adequate as a standard 'women's' soaper, and less troublesome than most. The central conflict is rather tardy in showing up, and by that time we like the characters enough to tolerate some very conventional plotting. Temperaments clash and the domestic dispute escalates, and no problems arise that couldn't be solved by a good sit-down over coffee. But no, Fred becomes a stubborn cuss over a trauma from his past -- hmm... he's the only obsessed character in the story, actually. Mary makes things fifty times worse by torturing Fred with her hostile silence -- she cannot see that her dear little boy might benefit from some toughening up, if Fred were a little less rough, of course). In the end, it's the woman's role to cave in and be the first to admit wrongdoing ... a "given" with soapy stories of this vintage. If Fred has problems buried in his psyche, Mary is to blame for not digging them out.
And how about that kid Robbie, anyway? Unlike most children he's in a perfect position to see where the bacon on his breakfast table comes from. He's grown up on a farm but can't stand to see animals killed? That's not too believable. In its courtship phase Woman Obsessed hints at discrimination from the town folk, from both the bluenoses and the local hussy (talented Barbara Nichols once again called on to act cheap). But neither thread goes anywhere. Instead, we become aware of Mary's schizophrenic attitude toward Fred -- she holds him at arm's length with the standard "let's be friends" line, while buying dress material that Nichols' character describes as being a "clingy" provocative fabric. Things are pretty hot up there in "the North Woods", although I had no idea that a fairly blah dress with a blue flower pattern is supposed to drive men wild.
Woman Obsessed only shows its seams in producer/writer Sydney Boehm's script, which seemingly puts Emotions in a cause/effect relationship with Natural Disasters. Fred has a full-time career rescuing Mary and Robbie, from a flood, from freezing in the snow, from a dire medical emergency. This gives matinee attendees the thrill of watching Mary wake up naked and realize that good ol' Fred has undressed her and put her to bed (discreetly, chastely) while she was unconscious. Is this some kind of universal female fantasy? The screenplay does have the decency to let Fred say that all those rescues don't mean that Mary should love him in return ... but that's how these stories function. The only real instance of eye-rolling BS writing comes when Fred falls into a deadly quagmire. While desperately clawing his way to safety, the formerly inarticulate Fred suddenly feels like re-examining the trauma that caused him to become so loony about cowards who can't stand the sight of blood. There's nothing like falling into quicksand to inspire insightful personal revelations.
As I said before, Hayward and Boyd click on enough of an emotional & physical level to keep Woman Obsessed up on its feet. At the beginning we think this is going to be a story about people with a lot in common -- both lost mates in runaway fires! The child actor Dennis Holmes is particularly good when called on to act traumatized or enraged. Asking him to express understated jealousy over the favors of his mother is a bit awkward, though. What we've really got here is an inverted The Night of the Hunter: new daddy Fred has a screw loose here and there, but he's a good guy and his suspicious new family needs to be more understanding.
As a production Woman Obsessed also has points of interest. The promotional materials all say it was filmed in 'the great North Woods' but the real location was Lone Pine, California, a favorite stomping ground for director Hathaway. What's more, it looks as if Ms. Hayward never ventured far from Hollywood. The entire farm set out in the country was rebuilt on a sound stage, very convincingly. The movie uses matching look-alike doubles to put Hayward into the mountain vistas, and also lots of rear-projected imagery. Hathaway and cameraman Mellor do this work quite well.
The show also uses quite a bit of stock footage. Animal shots have been reformatted to 'scope from various formats, including what looks like washed-out 16mm. Many shots of running deer and a bear come from MGM's 1946 Technicolor show The Yearling. I can't be certain, but the "look' of a number of firefighting scenes make me think they were also sourced from an earlier Technicolor film, perhaps Fox's Red Skies of Montana. Woman Obsessed knows how to save money.
The shoddy design of the original poster for Woman Obsessed is a match for the equally anemic ad campaign for next year's Fox feature Wild River, a hands-down classic. Both posters slap together figures swiped from production stills. Fox didn't know how to sell Wild River, and now I can see that they went with a similar campaign that promised "raw emotions" against a background of "wild, erupting nature."
Twilight Time's DVD of Woman Obsessed is a beautiful enhanced transfer with excellent color and no sign of fading. The audio is strong and vibrant. The disc cover artwork tells us little but is far more effective than original theatrical art. The show begins with trailers for the upcoming TT offerings The Egyptian and The Flim-Flam Man. An Isolated Score Track gives us an opportunity to appreciate the unsung composer Hugo Friedhofer. His fine musical score ties together the eclectic mix of stock footage in the good fire scene up front. It also supports the emotional scenes without going overboard, which in this kind of movie is easy to do.
Julie Kirgo again supplies entertaining liner notes for the disc's insert booklet, a nice extra that Twilight Time is keeping up. She details the personalities behind the movie and fills in more information on composer Friedhofer. The original trailer is a real hoot. It repeatedly tosses the words "Academy Award Winner Best Actress" up on screen and includes a big chunk of news film showing James Cagney and Kim Novak giving Susan Hayward her golden statuette. We get the message -- I don't think that even Joan Crawford was ever promoted in such a brazen manner.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Woman Obsessed rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.