IN CURRENT ISSUE OF CINEACTION (#90)
Issue 90 of Cineaction, available now, carries the theme of authorship. To that end, David Greven has written a terrific essay about Brian De Palma's Obsession for the issue. Titled, "De Palma's Vertigo," Greven starts out by stating that he thinks Obsession "is one of De Palma's finest" films. Greven suggests that instead of playing down the ties to Hitchcock in De Palma's work, as is the tendency of De Palma's supporters, "we should do the opposite." Throughout the article, Greven notes echoes of Hitchcock in Obsession, from, obviously, Vertigo, but also from Rebecca, Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Psycho, Dial M For Murder, Suspicion, and Marnie.
Along the way, Greven makes some keen observations about Obsession, such as this one about Courtland:
"The ostensible hero of this film, Courtland is quite an ambivalently rendered character. While the movie sypathetically evokes his pain over the death of his wife and daughter, it also frequently invites us to regard him skeptically. He is a dark, brooding, disturbing figure, and De Palma's treatment of him is characteristic of the director's critical disposition towards American masculinity in his work generally. In my view, this is the most important political dimension of De Palma's work.
"A telling example of the film's detached position toward Courtland is the brilliant pure-cinema sequence in which he makes the drop-off of the fake ransom money, as a French-accented detective urges him to do, during the first kidnapping. Herrmann's score charges the entire sequence with grandiloquent portentousness. As he journeys on the ferry the 'Cotton Blossom' (which evokes images of the Old South), its huge red wheel churning in the water like the tragic gears of fate, Courtland, in dark sunglasses and dark suit, macabrely tapping his wedding-ringed finger on the black suitcase full of blank paper, seems more like the villain, a coldly impassive hired assassin on his way to a hit. If the sequence can be read as a critique of normative masculinity, an entirely incongruous but also richly symbolic detail reinforces this critique. A troupe of Boy Scouts scamper aboard the Cotton Blossom as it departs. We pull back to see, from a distance, the stoic, impassive, opaque image of Courtland standing on the deck as the Scouts board the ship. Later, after Courtland has hurled the suitcase on the wooden planks of the drop-off point, we see only the ghostly shadows of the Scouts. Here is the payoff of the Boy Scout motif, an eerie dream-image of boyhood and lost promise, suggesting that adult masculinity derives from a corruption of a former state of innocence. Even stranger is the shot of Courtland after he has dropped off the money, standing alone in a passageway, dark sunglasses and dark suit intensifying his dark-haired appearance, as the brown waters beneath the ferry churn. Discordantly, this shot further conveys the sense that he is a dubious, even frightening figure, far from the sympathetic male lead on the verge of losing everything."
In the final paragraphs, Greven discusses potential allegories that can be applied to the climax of Obsession, and suggests that De Palma's chief identification figure in the film is not Courtland, but Sandra/Amy. Greven argues that Courtland should be read "as an allegorical figure of the Hollywood machine, the movie producer and studio head figured as the dark, dubious specter of male power." He's the one who finally "comes up with the money." Hitchock, then, fittingly, aligns with the dead mother. According to Greven, "Hitchcock is... the figure of the dead mother whom Sandra [De Palma's identification figure] obsessively copies but also strives to surpass, of whom she attempts to become the new and desired and, most importantly of all, living version."