I've slowed to a little bit of a crawl on new release films and find myself looking back more and more, perhaps as part of my full-blown transition to an old. On the positive, it does give me the chance to take a first look at films from people who others have revered for years, and this time it turns out to be German director Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession.
Robert Blees (Frogs) adopted the Lloyd Douglas novel that served as Sirk's imprint on American audiences. Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson, Giant) is a businessman/playboy who loses control of his speedboat and finds himself in the hospital and on a respirator. The doctor who provides the equipment for Merrick dies of a heart attack, and is without use of the machine to keep him alive. Merrick is left conflicted by these events and runs his car off the road, where the doctor's friend, an artist named Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger, High Noon). Randolph explains why people liked the doctor so much and dislike Merrick, and Merrick decides to try and be a doctor and help people. He falls in love with the Doctor's widow, Helen (Jane Wyman, All That Heaven Allows), who rebuffs his attempts and gets hit by a car in the process leaving her blind. Merrick continues to pursue her, using an alias in the process. She eventually finds out who he is and doesn't want much part of him, despite his support to find solutions to her blindness.
There is a sense of wonder that you experience when you watch Magnificent Obsession, in that it's remarkable some of the things that are covered in a film like this given that it was 1954. You've got grouchy nurses, Merrick smoking cigarettes in his hospital bed, cynicism from Helen's friends abou her new potential beau. These are all things that had to have been pretty damned complex for a film of the time and it's navigated nicely by the material.
Along the same lines, the performances are all top notch. Hudson convincingly reveals a core of vulnerability as the alpha male machismo is ebbed away, Wyman's playing a wife who loses her husband and her security, and yet exhibits a certain amount of strength to not completely fall for Merrick through the course of the film. Kruger is an unexpected source of strength for Merrick but the story focuses on Bob and Helen and it's handled to good degree from both.
Having seen Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and having a peripheral knowledge about the broader strokes of films of Sirk's, I had that base knowledge coming into the film. And even that, he manages to paint an immersive portrait onscreen, and his exploration of Merrick into the feelings he has for Helen bears a sophistication that people still infer in Sirk's films upon multiple viewings. I respect Kirk's work much more now having experienced it and the films of that Universal/Kirk era are ones I have to check out more and more.The Blu-ray
Criterion's presentation of Magnificent Obsession is in 2.00:1 high-definition and struck from a 35mm interpositive, and the results are good. Color reproduction is natural and when viewing closer shots between Hudson and Kruger even have a bit of image detail to them. Film grain is present through the film and lacks general concerns on smearing. Wider exterior shots look sharp and for a film of this age, the overall result is a nice job by Criterion.The Sound:
A lossless one-channel LPCM track adorns the film, this remastered effort sounds fine, dialogue is consistent as much as can be, dialogue doesn't require much compensation, and the overall product is solid.Extras:
A two-disc set by Criterion which looks like a port of the 2009 Criterion standard definition release. The second disc has the 1935 adaptation (a notably more optimistic film in tone), but moves the 83-minute "From UFA to Hollywood" documentary to the other disc with the remaining 1954 material. The documentary features Kirk reminiscing in German about his time with UFA, and success and failure in movies and the legacy of that period in his life, and some of the American films as well. A worthy companion, as it the commentary with Thomas Doherty, where the Brandeis professor discusses the historical and social context around the 1954 film at the time, explaining the story dynamic and comparing the 1935 and 1954 versions, and the 1954 version's place against the Production Code and Studio System, and the film's impact post-release. Both supplements are excellent.
The remaining extras include the director tributes to Sirk from Allison Anders (9:10) and Kathryn Bigelow (13:17), where they talk about how they found Sirk's films and what they liked about him, and Bigelow recounts her time interviewing Sirk for a 1982 article. An interview with Blees (19:19) discusses he work on adapting the novel and on working with Sirk in general, and the trailer (2:25) completes the package.Final Thoughts:
If you have held onto Magnificent Obsession since the standard-definition release, you probably have little incentive to double-dip; the transfer isn't jaw-dropping though the audio is fine. If you have not picked up Sirk to this point yet, you have a good transfer and the usual above average to excellent work Criterion does in putting supplemental material together, serving as a backdrop for a fascinating movie well-acted by actor and actress. Definitely worth viewing if you have not seen Sirk's work, with an eye towards purchase because, well, Criterion.