The music strikes an ominous chord and, so doing, literally sets the tone. From the opening refrain of Bernard Herrmann, and the relatively mundane yet oddly foreboding low angles of a Venetian church intercut with slides of a seemingly happy vacation there as the opening credits play. This sets the stage for an overwrought melodrama of such epic proportions that anything less than a psychological bloodbath by the end would be a letdown.
Sure enough, Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976) delivers. Taking sultry New Orleans as its setting, and entwining its characters in a sinewy plot, De Palma manages to spring a few startling surprises on a jaded, burnt-out audience. The plot concerns, at its “heart,” a land grab on the part of a cynical businessman named Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow in a delicious early villain role), who has long worked with his friend and partner Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson). Michael, you see, is married to Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold), and has a daughter, Sandra. Both Elizabeth and Sandra are kidnapped one night and, due to some terrible police advice, Michael fails to pay the ransom money and instead tracks the kidnappers to a hideout, resulting in an explosion which appears to kill both wife and daughter. Yes, I’ve described things a bit backwards because this film makes the most “sense” in retrospect.
Flash forward 18 years and he’s built a monument in a cemetery. Further, Michael’s business is tanking, which LaSalle takes umbrage with. This leads to his meeting and courting of a woman in Venice (Bujold) who looks – wait for it – JUST like his wife! They intend to get married, but LaSalle appears to be opposed and has more than a few tricks up his sleeve (and did all along!) – and for good reason. The last shock isn’t exactly a shock, it doesn’t cheat, and yet it is in such poor taste that you can hardly believe your eyes upon first viewing (and it doesn’t get any easier over time and repeated viewings).
This is the kind of material made for an audience that either accepts melodrama (I grew up with soap operas, so it worked for me), or dismisses it as laughable excess. What I feel most audiences miss out on these days is: that’s ALL part of the fun. Any reaction is valid, from acceptance to laughing (which is, in a way, its own form of acceptance of this material). An audience that takes this with a somber resignation, as opposed to engaging with it and having as much fun as the filmmakers clearly are, is missing out on the “entertainment value.”
As Hitchcockian homage/pastiche goes, De Palma tosses in some Vertigo (1958) here, with Courtland trying to remake his wife from the remarkable visage of his new bride (it’s remarkable for a reason, hint, hint). There’s also a quarter tablespoon of Rebecca (1940, widely viewed as a David O. Selznick picture, not a Hitchcock film; ironically it won Best Picture, one other Oscar, and 9 other nominations!) in that De Palma has the young bride investigate the home of Michael Courtland and look at the master bedroom, the dead wife’s clothes, etc. Perhaps a Mrs. Danvers redux would’ve been too much, but then again “too much” is where this film lives and breathes.
I find it interesting to note that Paul Schrader wanted to make a 3-hour film of his screenplay, with more reversals and double-crosses and repeated sequences sending Cliff Robertson further into insanity. I can’t say if it’d be watchable, but if you’re a fan of overwrought melodrama you’d probably be full as a tick after, no?