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Brian De Palma's "Obsession" is an overwrought melodrama, and that's what I like best about it. There's no doing this sort of thing halfway, and De Palma knows it: We get gloomy vistas down wet Italian streets, and characters running toward each other in slow motion, and low-angle shots of tombs, and romantic music breaking suddenly into discordant warnings, and -- best of all -- a surprise ending which manages at the same time to be totally implausible and totally satisfying.
The movie opens in New Orleans at a party celebrating a 10th wedding anniversary: Michael and Elizabeth Courtland are still deeply in love, so right away we know they're in trouble. A butler moves through the room with drinks on a tray, and as he walks toward the camera his jacket hitches up and we get a huge close-up of a gun tucked into his belt. There's ominous music on the soundtrack and no wonder -- Michael's wife and daughter are about to be kidnapped.
A ransom note demands $500,000, but Courtland allows himself to be talked into a harebrained scheme by the police. They spike the money with a little radio transmitter and follow the signals back to the house where the kidnappers are holed up. There's a confused escape, the police chase the getaway car, it crashes into a gasoline truck and in the resulting explosion, the wife and daughter are killed. At least that's what Michael Courtland believes for 18 long years, during which he erects an enormous monument in an otherwise empty cemetery.
But then, during a business trip to Italy, he visits the church in Florence where he first met his wife. And there on a scaffold, mixing some paint and helping with a restoration project, is his wife! She looks exactly the same as she did 18 years ago. There is a courtship, a romance, plans for marriage and a return to New Orleans. And then Paul Schrader's screenplay starts a series of incredible double-reverses and shocking revelations, which of course it wouldn't be fair for me to reveal.
The ending, as I've suggested, is totally implausible -- we can think of at least a dozen questions in the last five minutes alone -- but who cares? De Palma and Schrader, and Bernard Herrmann with his beautifully overdone music, and Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold with their mutual obsession, are all playing this material as broadly as possible. This is a 1940s melodrama out of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater by way of a gothic novel. If you want realism, go to another movie.
Material like this needs a certain tone, and De Palma finds it. He starts with two of the most romantically decadent cities on earth (New Orleans and Florence - although Venice would have been better), and then he lets his sound track drip with portentous music and his characters roam through deserted and vaguely menacing locations. The photography, by Vilmos Zsigmond, is darkly, richly sinister: as two men sit talking in a Florentine cafe, the camera changes focus as it sweeps from one to the other so that we're forced to look beyond them into a square and wonder who we'll see there.
Robertson's first visit to the church, in which the camera's deep focus makes him seem to climb those stairs forever, is another nicely disturbing visual moment. And, in a movie that owes a lot to the Hitchcock style, there are a few well-chosen exact quotations from the Master (as when Genevieve Bujold tells the housekeeper: "There's a door upstairs that's locked. Where is the key?" And then . . . well, You know how these things develop.)
The movie's been criticized as implausible and unsubtle, but that's exactly missing the point. Of course the ending is out of a lurid novel, and of course the music edges toward hysteria, and of course Robertson goes from mad to worse (wouldn't you, if you saw a ghost?). I don't just like movies like this; I relish them. Sometimes overwrought excess can be its own reward. If "Obsession" had been even a little more subtle, had made even a little more sense on some boring logical plane, it wouldn't have worked at all.
Today in 1978 I saw a favourite Brian De Palma, THE FURY, at the Century Preview Theatre. It was at this screening I sat behind Amy Irving, didn't know, raved about her performance, and she turned to me to say thanks. Classic!
Perpetual room tone: Gate Notting Hill IIRC. Pipe-smoking lunatic in the audience challenged De Palma.
Neil Irving: Yes, it was an 11.15pm screening. That must have been a very late-night Q&A?!
Perpetual room tone: De Palma was ultra-patient with dumb/fawning/rambling "questions" (mine included)
When BLOODY MAMA opened at my dad’s Plaza Theater in Asheville, NC, in March 1970, AIP sent a 26-year-old actor who played one of Shelley Winters’ sons in the movie. He drove a vintage 1930’s car like the one in the film. He parked the car out in front of the theater, right under the marquee, for photo ops with the local newspaper and TV station. He signed autographs but nobody knew who he was. At age 13, I said to him, “It’s so cool to have a real-live movie star at my dad’s theater.” He smiled sardonically and said, “I’m just an actor, kid. Shelley Winters is the star.” My father and I took him to lunch and I was riveted as he talked about working for director Roger Corman — whom I idolized for all his Vincent Price / Edgar Allan Poe movies. I wanted to ride off into the sunset with this guy but after lunch, he left me in the dust. Five years later, in 1975, this same guy won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in THE GODFATHER: PART II. His name was Robert De Niro.
Among the great American film-lovers of his generation (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg…), Brian De Palma is the one whose relationship to image is the most complex. Working from pre-existing images to create his own, he himself has dissected the films of his masters, starting with Hitchcock of course, whose sequences, narratives and motifs (visual, sound, musical) come back tirelessly in his work, like obsessions that haunt him and give it all its depth and originality. Here, the image is more than a simple reference, and the filmmaker never ceases to reaffirm its cogency, its powers, its potentialities (aesthetic, political, moral). The image for De Palma is a source of pleasure, but also of horror. It is vital, but funeral. Luminous, or twilight. Obsession, Phantom of the Paradise, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible ... films populated by ghosts and dead on borrowed time. The hero, in De Palma, is a tightrope walker ready to fall into the void at any moment, like the young Vietnamese girl from Casualties of War, whose tortured body could single-handedly embody the tragic dimension of her cinema. Casualties of War and the representation of the war at De Palma will be at the heart of this retrospective with a day hosted by Nathan Réra, on the occasion of the release at Rouge Profond of his book, "Outrages, from Daniel Lang to Brian De Palma".
Are Snakes Necessary? When filmmaker Brian De Palma arrived in Paris in 2018 to promote this noir novel written with his co-author and companion, Susan Lehman, the couple slipped a confidence to AFP: "Our favorite TV program? A French Village!" Frédéric Krivine, the creator of this series broadcast on French Televisions from 2009 to 2017, leaps from his chair. He has a project in his boxes. "If Régine Deforges could have done this crap with The Blue Bicycle, which during the Occupation transposed a history of the Civil War, I told myself that we could do the same in the opposite direction ..." From one national trauma to another, there are indeed similarities: comparable durations, torn families… “I sent a five-page note to De Palma. Half an hour later, I had an answer. He engaged directly."
So here is A French Village, which has sold in 65 countries, being adapted both in Spain at the time of the civil war, in the Italy of the Republic of Salo (September 1943 - April 1945 ), and in the United States… “Great filmmakers rarely make pale copies, reassures Frédéric Krivine, who watches over his baby. Personally, I prefer The Magnificent Seven to the Seven Samurai. "In terms of remakes, De Palma is a kind of specialist: Passion (2012), Mission: Impossible (1996) and, of course, Scarface (1983) ..." I saw the original, continues Krivine, that of Howard Hawks: It's another movie."
Attractive poster, project in progress, but nothing is won. "The United States is complicated," sighs Frédéric Krivine. He has already written the pilot, christened Clarksville 1861, named after an imaginary small town in Kentucky, a state cut in two during the Civil War. "To write a series about this period is to put the racial question at the center. From here, we do not realize how in the United States nothing is settled. And how narrow is the path whenever fiction is harnessed."
The adaptation highlights the cultural differences, the moral values that prevail from one country to another, from one era to another.
As a consultant, the Frenchman sought out Sundiata Cha-Jua, professor of African-American history at the University of Illinois. “Without him, there is little chance that the series will happen. We go back and forth. We get along very well, but he keeps telling me that I think like a white man, that I write like a white man, that I understand absolutely nothing about slavery… We'll see. Either way, Clarksville 1861 will only happen if there is a prominent black figure who supports the project. In the United States, you need an Oprah Winfrey or the Obamas, who are consultants at Netflix, to validate your project… ”
Our Principal Archivist, in collaboration with Exhumed Films and PhilaMoca, will be presenting what we promise will be a very special screening of our favorite film in Philadelphia at The Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, on October 6. We expect this event will sell out, so get on it! Tickets and info here.
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE with the Swan Archives’ Principal Archivist, Ari Kahan!
About this event
Nearly fifty years after its release, Brian DePalma’s bizarre 1974 horror rock opera Phantom of the Paradise stands as one of the most beloved and joyous films in the realm of genre cinema. Join Exhumed Films and PhilaMoca for a very special screening of the cult classic, introduced by Ari Kahan! Kahan is co-producer of the acclaimed documentary Phantom of Winnipeg and curator of The Swan Archives, an extensive online resource devoted to the tragic tale of doomed musician Winslow Leach and his nemesis, the mysterious impresario known only as Swan. Ari will introduce a rare and unique screening of the movie, after which we promise you will never look at Phantom of the Paradise quite the same way again!
PhilaMOCA currently requires proof of vaccination and masks.
“For two weeks, we worked at [De Palma’s] apartment in Hollywood. I remember [Travolta, Allen, Irving, Spacek, and myself] would all go there and work. At the time, we were using a reel-to-reel tape-recorder because video had not yet come about,” said Katt.
“Brian’s entire apartment was filled with these 3-by-5 cards with all the scenes on them. He would get up periodically and move cards around for his shot list and what not. It was a fun experience. He really sculpted those scenes to fit the actors he was working with. By the time we’d got to the set… he was really all about the camera and the components of filmmaking. I just thought he was a terrific director.”
After that George Lucas/Brian De Palma casting session, we had three more casting sessions that pretty much everyone who ended up in the movie went to. It was three weekends in a row at Brian’s apartment. We all sat around the coffee table; we all took turns reading the script from beginning to end, and his dining room had storyboards of practically every scene of the movie. I thought, Wow. He was so invested in this film. And Sissy was never there. I think Amy Irving was up for the role of Carrie [at that point]. She was the one who got Sue. And I think Nancy was up for Sue but then she got Chris Hargensen and I was up for Chris but I got Norma. So it was very interesting.