Monday, December 7, 2009

Film Review: OBSESSION (1976, Brian De Palma)

Stars: 4.1 of 5.
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Cliff Robertson (THE TWILIGHT ZONE's "The Dummy"), Genevieve Bujold (DEAD RINGERS), John Lithgow. Music by Bernard Herrmann. Screenplay by Paul Schrader. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
Tag-line: "The love story that will scare the life out of you!"
Best one-liner: Not really that kind of movie.

I guess I'll just go ahead and make this 'Hitchcock pastiche (and rip-off)' week. We'll continue with De Palma's OBSESSION.

You can call De Palma a third-rate Hitchcock hack who hits his mark maybe 25% of the time. Touché. A little harsh...but, touché. You can call this a masturbatory VERTIGO rip-off. Okay. Thats your prerogative, I guess. But it's a VERTIGO rip-off scripted by Paul Schrader (TAXI DRIVER, MISHIMA), shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (THE DEER HUNTER, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS), featuring a smarmy Southern Fried John Lithgow, and scored by Bernard Herrmann himself, so goddamn- it's gonna be pretty good. And it is. And before I concede that it's a VERTIGO rip-off, there is plenty of DONT LOOK NOW rumbling around in here too, and that's a good thing.

The visuals are immaculate. OBSESSION has that lovingly creepy fetishization of ancient, drearily beautiful European architecture.

The ever-present tracking shots are disorientingly classy- a 450-degree or so pan around a dead womans bedroom is a standout, as is the final, ridiculous perversion of the classic 'entwined lovers' wraparound shot. The music is perfect. Herrmann's had a long time (10 years since his aborted TORN CURTAIN score and the Hitchcock falling out) to reflect on his collaborations with Hitch, and he hammers out a score that pays homage to his older ones, yet develops some of his familiar themes in an even grander context. It's spellbinding, dizzying, and vintage Herrmann.

The script is full of that patented, wild-eyed Schrader intensity: after the 1959 deaths of his wife and daughter, a New Orleans businessman (Cliff Robertson of STAR 80 and CHARLY) just might get the chance to do things over again when, in 1976, he spots a woman (smokin' Genevieve Bujold of DEAD RINGERS and ANNE OF THE 1,000 DAYS) who's the spitting image of his dearly departed missus.

Robertson's eponymous 'obsession,' which at times borders on Travis Bickle-style madness, is really the centerpiece here, and it's so forcefully matter-of-fact that it lends itself to extremely uncomfortable comedy- occasionally the look on Robertson's face is so ludicrously psychotic that you laugh- but you laugh not because it's funny, you laugh because you know he's FOR REAL (like William Devane's badassery in ROLLING THUNDER).

We ultimately get to a point where everything depends on the payoff being 'worth it' or not, and I'm happy to report that it's bold, bizarre, and unexpectedly powerful. Four stars.

-Sean Gill


HK Fanatic said...

I think I'm going to have to watch this movie again this week. Now that it's on Instant, I don't really have an excuse not to.

The first time I viewed "Obsession," I couldn't have been a day over 20. My feeble mind wasn't able to process the idea of a PG-rated Brian De Palma movie. It seemed a contradiction. I thought the whole reason De Palma existed was to provide kids like me with Hitchcock movies that had all of the lurid sex and violence that Hitch himself couldn't really film in his day.

Fortunately - I'm older now, I've actually seen more of Paul Schrader's work beyond "Taxi Driver," I've gained even more appreciation for Bernard Herrmann, etc. Hell, I even like Cliff Robertson. So it seems like the perfect time for me to revisit this film and see how I feel about it circa '09.

For the record, my favorite De Palma movie is "Sisters." Second favorite is probably..."Body Double." I'm one of the few, the brave, the strange who likes "Raising Cain" and can appreciate "Snake Eyes."

But "Femme Fatale" left me surprisingly cold, and many De Palma fans felt that was his swansong/return to form at the time.

Sean Gill said...

De Palma's pretty hit or miss for me. Probably my favorites are OBSESSION, BODY DOUBLE, and THE UNTOUCHABLES. Get ready for a review of one I don't like later this week, with HI, MOM!.

I think you'll enjoy OBSESSION much more on the second viewing (thank God for watch instantly)- definitely a product of Schrader and De Palma in '76, and not just a VERTIGO facsimile.

I'm planning on checking out RAISING CAIN soon, and conventional wisdom seems to suggest that I'll either hate hate hate it, or crown it the best film of the 90's. (Or something like that.)

By the way, HK, I read your GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE review and loved it. I may have to check it out sometime soon.

HK Fanatic said...

Thanks! "Graveyard Disturbance" is one of those movies that, by all rights, should be 2-stars but something about its silly charm won me over. I've never seen Lamberto Bava make a genuinely "great" Italian horror film but I've been entertained by each of his flicks I've seen.

My Netflix activity e gonna be a bit screwy because I just re-submitted a few reviews that got firebombed with "Not Helpful" comments all those months back. However, my two actually new reviews are for "Waterworld" and "Ninja Assassin."

I'll post back here with my thoughts after I watch "Obsession" this week.

HK Fanatic said...

I rewatched "Obsession" the other night and Netflix just posted my review. You were absolutely right, I did enjoy this a lot more the second time around. I almost gave it 5/5 stars - in fact, Herrmann's score alone deserves 5/5 stars. I read somewhere that he was unhappy with it but I have no idea why, other than the fact that it really overpowers the movie at times...but in this case that's a good thing.

I ended up watching "Body Double" on instant the other night as well. I remember the first time I saw that, I was renting a ratty VHS from the independent video store down the street. What I love about "Body Double" is that De Palma effortlessly captures the tone and excess of the 80's, without even really trying or commenting on it like "Risky Business" or "Wall Street." He just trains his camera on futuristic apartments, rotating beds with neon lights, malls with underground valet parking, etc. and lets them speak for themselves.

Sean Gill said...

You're totally right about the Herrmann score- And I feel like a more hubristic director (not that De Palma can't be arrogant at times) would have never let his movie play second fiddle to the score during those scenes where the music seems to overpower everything. He's kind of giving himself to the operatic/Italian/Leone style, which may have been a side effect of filming in Italy, who knows. I enjoyed your review, and the special thanks- ha!