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OBSESSION

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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, John Lithgow
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, Dolby Mono, French Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Documentary, Theatrical Trailers
Length: 98 Minutes
Release Date: June 26, 2001

Film ***1/2

Upon the release of Obsession in 1976, Brian De Palma had yet to reach the status of the master suspense moviemaker that he has reached today. It would be later that same year, however, when De Palma released what many consider to be his breakthrough hit, Carrie. Prior to Obsession, he had only made two movies, Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise, and this movie, which was a moderate success, helped build up the reputation as the next master of suspense following the late great Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, it was a viewing of Hitchcock’s Vertigo that inspired De Palma to make Obsession, as the plot does resemble a bit of the 1958 classic.

The story begins in 1959, at a party hosted by real estate developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his beautiful wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold), who are celebrating their tenth anniversary. After the guests have gone home, the two settle in for the night and begin to make love, when they are interrupted by the screams of their only child, nine-year-old Amy. Elizabeth goes to the girl's room to investigate, and when she doesn't return, Michael follows to find that both mother and daughter have been kidnapped. A ransom note demands that he pay $500,000 for their safe return -- and not contact the police. Which is where Michael makes a tragic mistake. He's persuaded by a detective to help set up a trap for the kidnappers, then watches helplessly as his family is lost in a disastrous rescue attempt. Tortured by guilt, Michael abandons most of his career ambitions, choosing only to erect a tomb for Elizabeth and Amy on property once planned for commercial development.

Segue to 1975, when Michael's more ebullient partner, Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow), talks him into coming along on a business trip to Florence, Italy -- which, as it turns out, is where he met his late wife 27 years earlier. Visiting the church where he first saw her, Michael encounters a young restoration worker, Sandra Portinari (also played by Bujold), whose resemblance to Elizabeth quickly grabs his attention. Before long, she's all he can think of.

To reveal anymore would be unfair as far as suspenseful movies go. The only thing I can say is that if you haven’t seen Vertigo, you will be on the edge of your seat for the entire viewing. What’s strange is the fact that I have seen Vertigo, and yet I was still amazed by how much the suspense got to me. This was the first movie that De Palma shot in widescreen format, and you can tell right then that he wanted to use the camera like no one had ever used it. Take one of the key scenes in the opening, which is a 360-degree circle shot, which helps leap the plot from 1959 to 1975. It completely blew me away, and thinking I knew so much about De Palma, I had no idea he ever pulled off a shot like that before. There is also sort of a slight Hitchcock homage as the pulse-pounding music score is done by none other than Bernard Herrmann, who scored many of Hitchcock’s movies, including Vertigo and Psycho. This was one of the final films he worked on before his death.

Obsession simply has to be seen to be believed. I truly think that it is here where De Palma made a name for himself as the master filmmaker that he is today. Since this was his first stab at elevating the work of Hitchcock, there couldn’t have been Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, or Snake Eyes if this film wasn’t made, and it is a grand, suspenseful experience to say the least.

Video *1/2

I wish I could deliver the same amount of praise for the video department, as I may have seen by far the worst video transfer for any of De Palma’s movies, other than the unbearable transfer that Sisters got. Columbia Tri Star, a usual pro in this field, has delivered a flat anamorphic transfer for Obsession, with the image looking thoroughly grainy and continuously soft. Part of me thinks that it just may be difficult to give a movie from this time period a sensible look when transferred to disc, but at the same time, I expected better.

Audio ***

I was actually surprised to see how well the audio transfer for this twenty five year old movie turned out. The 5.1 presentation is particularly impressive by how extremely well Bernard Herrmann’s music score is picked up. The individual moments of suspense also payoff very well in this presentation. It almost makes you wish the video quality was of the same caliber.

Features **

Not many, but acceptable ones. Included on the disc is a documentary titled Obsession Revisited, which includes interviews with the cast and crew on the making of the movie. Also included are trailers for this movie and three other Columbia Tri Star releases: Against All Odds, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Someone to Watch Over Me.

Summary:

A pure illustration of how a suspense film is supposed to be made, Brian De Palma’s Obsession is a remarkable breakthrough in a brilliant director’s career. It’s been hard to locate in video stores, at least for me, so now is the time to discover the movie newly on DVD.