Director Brian De Palma borrowed heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking style for Sisters (1973), a perverse story about murderous twins that featured a score by Hitchcock’s best composer, Bernard Hermann. So it was no surprise that a few years later, after the box-office failure of De Palma’s audacious musical fantasy Phantom of the Paradise, the director returned to the crowd-pleasing milieu of Hitchcockian suspense. In fact, De Palma took homage even further with Obsession, which borrows key themes from the Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo (1958). So, by the time De Palma layered in old-school glamour photography (by the great Vilmos Zsigmond) and another moody score by Hermann, Obsession became a virtual copy of Hitchcock’s style, updated for the ’70s with a heightened level of sexual transgression and technical sophistication. Thus, while Obsession is an arresting movie, any appraisal must be somewhat muted given its overtly derivative nature—it’s merely a fine achievement in emulation.
Written by the formidable Paul Schrader (from an original story he and De Palma concocted together), Obsession tells the tragic tale of New Orleans businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Roberts0n). During a harrowing prologue set in 1958, Courtland’s wife and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. Bending to advice from police, Courtland delivers blank paper instead of the cash the kidnappers requested, so the kidnappers flee with Courtland’s loved ones. A police chase ensues, at the end of which the hostages and the kidnappers are killed. The story then cuts to the present day, when Courtland has rebuilt his life but never forgotten the traumas of the past—quite to the contrary, as the movie’s title suggests, Courtland is preoccupied with his dead wife and child. So when he encounters a young woman named Sandra (Geneviève Bujold) who is a living replica of his dead wife, Courtland seizes a chance at reclaiming happiness—he woos Sandra and tries to mold her in the image of the wife he lost. Alas, history repeats when Sandra is kidnapped under circumstances recalling the earlier crime. How Courtland responds to this crisis, and what he discovers while doing so, takes the story down a path only De Palma and Schrader would be nervy enough to explore.
As in most twisty thrillers, the plotting of Obsession isn’t necessarily the strong suit—the storyline is predicated on people making foolish decisions, after all—so what makes the picture effective is its insidious mood. Zsigmond imbues images with haze and shadows that embody the story’s psychological implications, and nobody uses music to create a menacing environment better than Hermann. De Palma contributes elements including elegantly probing camera moves and an appropriately suffocating degree of nonstop intensity. (De Palma also showcases supporting player John Lithgow, in one of his first major film roles.) Bujold and Robertson wisely underplay early scenes depicting their characters’ modern-day courtship, since each character hides dark secrets, and later, they both do well portraying people subject to the cruel vicissitudes of fate. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)