Magnificent Obsession?

Directed by Brian De Palma, with a score by Bernard Herrmann, Obsession came out 40 years ago today. Blake Backlash watches it again and experiences déjà vu.

Obsession Park

Obsession is a film about not being able to let go of the past. I first saw it ten years ago at the National Film Theatre and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. For better or for worse, it’s always seemed to stir people’s emotions. When Alfred Hitchcock saw it he was incensed and thought Brian De Palma (who directed it) and Paul Schrader (who wrote it) had ripped off Vertigo. When Bernard Herrmann saw it, he wept because he could not remember composing the score he had written for the film. And when distributors saw it they got anxious that the film would be tricky to sell.

We won’t go into detail about what was at the root of those worries, that would mean spoilers and I’ll try and keep the film’s secrets. But here’s a warning: I guessed a twist when I read the programme notes that night at the NFT and, depending on how your mind works, it might be that the few plot details revealed in this piece could be enough for you to figure it out as well.

The film begins in 1959 (after Vertigo but before Psycho). Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his wife Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold) are celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. Michael dances with Elizabeth and their daughter Amy. That night Elizabeth and Amy are kidnapped. Luckily for Michael he has the support of his best friend and business partner, Robert LaSalle. LaSalle is played by a Southern accent, thick as bayou water, poured into the shape of John Lithgow and a white suit – so there’s absolutely no reason to doubt that this man will be anything other than an honest confidant to Michael in his time of need.

Michael calls in the police, who arrive in the rotund form of Inspector Auguste Brie (the most exuberantly French name in cinema, until A View To A Kill gave us Achille Aubergine in 1985). Brie hatches a plan to apprehend the kidnappers by throwing them a suitcase containing torn-up bits of paper and a radio transmitter. But the plan goes wrong, there’s a car crash and Elizabeth and Amy are killed. Michael blames himself, decides to build a memorial park for them and… years go by.

How the film marks this passage of time is special. De Palma’s camera starts on a medium close-up of Michael, watching as the memorial to his wife and child is being built. Bernard Herrmann’s score deploys organ chords that come on in waves, like the shuddering pain of grief. The camera pans right, away from Michael, taking in the mud and diggers of the construction site around him. A few lonely trees sway in the wind. And on the soundtrack we hear a harpsichord, emerging so naturally from the images we see that it could be being plucked by the same breeze that blows those trees. This is still the same shot, or at least it looks like it is, but as the camera pans over the memorial, there’s a hidden edit. Herrmann introduces strings, still mournful but more melodic than the organ. And when the camera completes the 360 degree pan it returns again to Michael, but he’s an older man, not standing in the upturned earth of a building site but in a pristine park, clipped grass and neat rows of stately trees.  Nearly twenty years have passed in one fluid shot, the memorial is finished and Michael is still in pain. De Palma’s career is not lacking in show-off moments but this might be his finest, most emotionally resonant bit of bravura camera work. (Credit must also be given to Paul Hirsch, whom De Palma often turns to when he needs a great editor.) The music and images carry us through grief, we move from something raw and harsh to a different, more longing kind of sadness.

Obsession would not work without the music. Herrmann thought it was ‘a very strange picture, a very beautiful picture, with a Proustian, Henry Jamesian feeling to it’. Golly, Proust and Henry James! Even De Palma’s fiercest defenders would have to concede that these writers are known for a degree of subtlety not normally associated with the man who brought us this grandiose and leathery sequence from Body Double, which is not only built around ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but also throws in a Holly Johnson cameo for good measure.

If there are echoes of James and Proust in Obsession,  Herrmann put them there. Robertson turns in a fairly bland performance, so it’s Herrmann’s music that provides all the despair, desire and delirium that Michael endures. Many sequences are free from dialogue and the camera seems to wait for permission from the score before it moves. The music seems to carry the images, dictating when things will speed up or slow down, the film going where the music needs to go. The music is a river and the film is a lost collection of Polaroids strewn over its surface.

Anyway, what happens next is Michael and LaSalle (who has reaffirmed his basic decency by growing a moustache in the elided twenty years) go on a business trip to Florence. In the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, where he first met Elizabeth, Michael sees Sandra, a young Italian woman who looks so like Elizabeth, he becomes obsessed with the idea that this is second-chance to save her. He takes her back to New Orleans and wants to marry her. Sandra is, of course, also played by Bujold.

Obsession House

Herrmann said that he identified more with Bujold than Robertson. And in these New Orleans scenes, Herrmann’s sympathies seem to change the film before our eyes. As Sandra walks from room to room in Michael’s big Southern house, we switch protagonists and we’re watching Rebecca rather than Vertigo. Sandra is lost in a world of looming portraits, locked rooms and secret diaries. Bujold puts in a more lively performance than Robertson but again, it’s Herrmann’s score that suggests what may be going on below the surface.

I guess Hitchcock thought that what was going on below the surface was plagiarism. You can see why but the way the film is (and isn’t) like Vertigo seems to me to be very deliberate. The film was originally titled Déjà vu – so it makes sense that it is haunted by the cinematic past. Vertigo is there but not there, like the first Mrs de Winter or Carlotta Valdez. Or like Elizabeth Courtland for that matter.

It was one of the last scores that Herrmann wrote. If his score for Taxi Driver is the late work that does something new (the kind of youthful work geniuses sometimes produce late in their life) his score for Obsession seems to look to his past. It quotes directly from his Vertigo theme and evokes so much of what he wrote. It’s a constant presence in the film, unseen but inescapable, changing how we see things, the same way regret and loss change how we see the world. Bernard Herrmann, building his own memorial.

You can buy Obsession on DVD or Blu-ray, or get it on iTunes.

2 thoughts on “Magnificent Obsession?

  1. DePalma’s always believed in giving music space in his movies, for better of worse (in that case of Ennio Morricone’s work on “Mission To Mars,” much, MUCH worse.

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