Magnificent Obsession

Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Robert Blees (adaptation by Wells Root; based on an original screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason & Victor Heerman, based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas)
Stars: Jane Wyman (Helen Phillips), Rock Hudson (Bob Merrick), Barbara Rush (Joyce Phillips), Agnes Moorehead (Nancy Ashford), Otto Kruger (Edward Randolph), Gregg Palmer (Tom Masterson), Sara Shane (Valerie), Paul Cavanagh (Dr. Henry Giraud), Judy Nugent (Judy), Richard H. Cutting (Dr. Derwin Dodge), Robert Williams (State Police Sergeant Burnham)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: U.S.
Magnificent Obsession DVD
Magnificent ObsessionBased on a sermon masquerading as a sudsy (and, from what I’ve heard, practically unreadable) 1929 novel by minister-turned-writer Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession was not the first Hollywood film directed by German émigré Douglas Sirk, but it was the first that could rightfully be called “Sirkian.” Of course, no one at the time realized that Sirk would go on to carve a unique niche in 1950s Hollywood with a series of flamboyant, subversive Technicolor melodramas--All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959)--that worked simultaneously as four-hankie weepies and sharp critiques of American excess. If Magnificent Obsession is not the best of the lot, it is nevertheless an effective tearjerker with some outlandish plot twists and beautiful cinematography that announced a new turn in Sirk’s career. He had, for all intents and purposes, found his calling.

Magnificent Obsession was the first film to pair Jane Wyman, who was recently divorced from Ronald Reagan, and Rock Hudson, who was then a rising star (they would be paired again the next year in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, which is, for my money, his masterpiece). The film opens with Hudson’s Bob Merrick, a shallow, freewheeling bachelor who lives the fast life courtesy of his family’s millions (he’s charitably described as a “sportsman”), perilously racing a speedboat to its limit and crashing it. His life is saved because of a resuscitator, but as fate would have it, a much beloved doctor has a heart attack at the same time and dies. Thus, Bob essentially has the good doctor’s blood on his hands because, had he not tied up the resuscitator, the other man might have survived.

Through a series of convoluted plot machinations, Bob crosses paths with the doctor’s good-hearted widow, Helen Phillips (Wyman), who naturally wants nothing to do with the drunken playboy who caused her husband’s death. Bob, however, feels “haunted” by what has happened and is determined to make amends. A few more convoluted plot machinations later, Bob finds himself on the doorstep of Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), the deceased doctor’s best friend and holder of a particularly important secret about the path to a better life. Essentially, he has made it his life’s work to help others in secret, which connects him with a higher power (the slightly New Age-y phrasing of what is essentially acting Christ-like makes the film feel more heavy-handed and silly than it should). Nevertheless, Bob is taken with this new approach to life, but he doesn’t truly come to understand it until tragedy strikes again, this time even more directly because of his actions. To give away this particular tragic turn would be unthinkable, but suffice it to say that Bob dedicates his life to saving Helen and, in the process, an unlikely romance blooms.

Summarizing the plot in this fashion makes Magnificent Obsession sound positively absurd, and in many ways it is. The soap opera theatrics and melodramatic pathos are all pitched at an outlandish level, but Sirk imbues it with such intensity and aesthetic drive that you can’t help but admire it on some level, even if you remain at arm’s length from its emotional core. The film marked the third of the 10 collaborations between Sirk and veteran cinematographer Russell Metty (who shot all of Sirk’s melodramas, in addition to later films like Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus). Together they devised a particularly influential visual style that emphasizes deeply saturated primary colors offset with an intrusive sense of darkness. For all the descriptions of Sirk’s melodramas as visually lurid, it is sometimes understated just how dark they are at times, mixing inky blacks with bruised shades of black and purple to underscore the emotional punishment the characters endure.

Douglas’s novel had been filmed once before, in 1935 by director John M. Stahl, but seeing the original in black and white makes you realize just how essential color is to the material, especially the way the Technicolor hues work in tandem with the story’s overwrought emotions and, for lack of a better word, sermonizing. Wyman and Hudson have a palpable screen chemistry, and Hudson is particularly good at conveying Bob’s conflicted sense of self and convincing us of the character’s eventual turnaround. The film doesn’t come together quite like some of Sirk’s later melodramatic efforts, perhaps because he didn’t stretch the material far enough, but it still offers plenty to hold your attention, whether you get caught up in its maudlin theatrics or view it as the starting point for one of classical Hollywood’s great subversive masters.

Magnificent Obsession Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.00:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty
  • Magnificent Obsession (1935, 102 minutes), a new digital transfer of John M. Stahl’s earlier version of the film
  • From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers (1991, 82 minutes), documentary by German filmmaker Eckhart Schmidt
  • Video tributes to Sirk by filmmakers Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • New essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 20, 2009

    Criterion’s new high-definition digital transfer of Magnificent Obsession was made from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The film is presented in its “Superscope” theatrical aspect ratio of 2.00:1, which was an early-’50s widescreen process that was created by masking the full 1.33:1 negative--essentially the forerunner to Super 35. Whether or not Sirk and Metty originally shot the film with this aspect ratio in mind is up for debate (some framings look a bit tight, but overall the compositions look good to me in the widescreen ratio), but all primary sources, including trade magazines at the time of release, list 2.00:1 as the ratio in which the film was screened theatrically in 1954. As with their previous DVD releases of Sirk melodramas, the picture looks excellent, with bright, bold colors that are representative of the oversaturated, slightly unreal hues typical of three-strip Technicolor (there are a few shots where it looks the registration of the three strips is slightly off, but it’s nothing distracting). Black levels also look excellent, with good detail in the film’s darkest scenes The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm D/M/E magnetic master, is crystal clear.
    This two-disc DVD set is really a double feature since it includes the entirety of John M. Stahl’s 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, which until now has been unavailable in the U.S. on DVD. Stahl’s film has been given a very nice new digital transfer, and its inclusion here allows us to compare how the two films represent different stylistic, thematic, and narrative approaches to the same source material. Sirk’s version of the film has an informative audio commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty, who has spent a great deal of time writing and researching the Production Code and its effect on Hollywood. He has some excellent insight into the film both aesthetically and culturally, and his comments provide great food for thought. Also included on the disc are the original theatrical trailer, two video tributes to Sirk by filmmakers Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, and From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers, an 82-minute documentary from 1991 by German filmmaker Eckhart Schmidt in which Sirk (looking very “Sirkian” in his Ray-Bans and turtleneck sweater) talks about his entire filmmaking career.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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