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Saturday, September 16, 2023

At The Film Bee Reviews, filmbee89 is currently watching select films from the 1970s. Earlier this week, one of those films was Brian De Palma's Obsession, "a film that most casual cinephiles have properly overlooked," filmbee89 writes in the introduction. "In fact," the Film Bee continues, "I wasn’t aware of the film myself, until I was introduced to it by the guys over at At the Flicks. I had always considered myself somewhat as a De Palma fan, but I had dismissed Obsession as simply a copy cat, second-hand version of Vertigo. Oh, I was so very, very wrong."

In the following passage, filmbee89 delves into a couple of key moments between technique, score, editing, and performance:

Fast forward to 1975, and Courtland is still very much obsessed with his late wife and often visits a monument he has had built in her memory, a replica of the church (the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte) in Florence, Italy, where the two of them first met. To show the transition of time, De Palma’s cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Paul Hirsch (who frequently collaborated with the director), pan the camera across from Courtland in 1950 then across to the monument and back to Courtland in 1975. Coupled with Bernard Herrmann‘s beautiful but haunting score and the sound of the howling wind, De Palma manages to capture Courtland’s feelings of sorrow, loss and regret.

Courtland’s business partner Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow) manages to convince the widower to accompany him on a work trip to Florence. While there, Courtland revisits the church and finds a young woman named Sandra (Bujold) who resembles his late wife. Courtland is very much taken aback by Sandra’s appearance and begins to court her. In a touching scene, Sandra asks Courtland what happened to his wife, and he ‘admits’ that he killed her. Much has been said about Robertson’s performance, but his deadpan delivery helps to reflect how ‘zombie-like’ and ‘out-of-it’ his character is.

Later in the post, filmbee89 gets into the film's ending, as well as box office and critical reception:
Reading up on the final third act proposed by Schrader, I can’t help but think that it would have been a complicated and convoluted third act that ultimately would have completely ruined the emotional impact of the film’s conclusion. (For those interested in reading Schrader’s full three-act script, it was released as part of the Arrow video Blu-ray in 2011).

The ending we do receive is gut wrenching and heart-breaking, so much so, that it reduced me to tears. Bujold’s performance in the film’s end scene is so impactful that you’re left reeling once the credits start rolling. She successfully manages to encapsulates the fragile mental condition of her character, and we feel her sense of pain and longing to be be loved unconditionally.

There are a lot of positive aspects to “Obsession” aside from the stunning performance by Bujold. Firstly, the film’s score is magnificent. After the film had been completed, Herrman declared it as the finest film in his musical career. He manages to capture the emotional state of both Courtland and Sandra without being too over-sentimental. Even though Cliff Robertson’s performance is very lacklustre in many scenes, there are moments where he manages to shine, especially in the film’s climax. And, when he does underperform, other aspects of the film such as the score; the editing, the cinematography and Bujold’s performance, manage to save the film from being an utter disaster.

In the 2015 documentary “De Palma” (by directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach), Brian De Palma stated that he felt the film’s major flaw was the casting of Robertson. He strongly felt that the actor couldn’t capture the anguish of the character and that Robertson was quite difficult to deal with on-set. Apparently, the actor insisted on a dark tanning makeup, inappropriate for his troubled character. It made lighting him so difficult that at one point cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shoved him against a wood wall and shouted “You! You are the same colour as this wall!”

De Palma may be dismissive of Robertson’s acting ability but he has sung the praises of Bujold who he felt had the more difficult role, which she played admirably, giving the film the emotional resonance needed for the project. I can’t help but wonder if Robertson felt like he was being overshadowed by Bujold and as a result this impacted his performance. Sandra is by far a more interesting and complex character compared to Michael and I can’t help but wonder if the film would have been more impactful if we had seen more from her point-of-view.

The film was an unexpected financial success. Columbia held on to the movie for almost a year before deciding to release in late August of 1976. August is usually considered the “dog days” of movie attendance, so it was a bit of surprise for the studio, and it earned the distributor over $4 million in domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals.

Upon its release, the critical reaction was very mixed. Some critics like Roger Ebert sung the film’s praises. He wrote in his review that “Obsession is an overwrought melodrama, and that’s what I like best about it…I don’t just like movies like these; 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.” I’m inclined to agree with him, the film works because of its melodrama and its unbelievable plot. With certain films like “Obsession” there must be a suspension of disbelief.

Other critics were quick to compliment the stylish cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and Herrmann’s beautiful, highly romantic score. In fact his score for “Obsession” was one of the more acclaimed in his distinguished career, and earned him a posthumous Academy Award nomination (the composer died in December 1975, a few hours after completing the score of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”).

Surprisingly, one of the critics who should have loved “Obsession” turned out to be very dismissive of De Palma’s film. Pauline Kael had praised many of the director’s other films in the past, but she wrote in her review that the film was “no more than an exercise in style, with the camera whirling around nothingness…”. I’m not quite sure why she was so dismissive of “Obsession” but I can reassure you that it is not “an exercise in style” or a “Vertigo” copy-cat, it is very much a film that can stand on its own legs and has plenty of its own uniqueness and beauty. It is well-worth a watch. And, if you happen to get obsessed with it like I did, then I did try to warn you.

Posted by Geoff at 8:25 PM CDT
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Wednesday, August 2, 2023

At Moving Pictures Film Club, Johnny Restall provides analysis of Brian De Palma's Obsession:
Obsession consciously creates a ghostly dialogue with Vertigo, constructing a similar labyrinth of deception, desire and derangement. Like Hitchcock’s film, it is an ambivalent interrogation of haunted memories and male fantasy, exploring an almost necrophilic love through its increasingly unstable lead, with its psychological traumas lashed to a far-fetched mystery plot. Despite ostensibly realistic settings (in San Francisco and New Orleans respectively), both films require viewers to immerse themselves in their rich, dreamlike atmosphere. Their narratives are driven more by recurring images and repeating patterns than by objective logic, building a maelstrom of uncertain identities and uncanny echoes.

The opening of Obsession serves to establish the tone and visual motifs of the film. If Saul Bass’s celebrated title sequence for Vertigo emphasises the perfidious qualities of speech and visual perception, focussing on a female mouth and eye before spiralling into the depths of her pupil, Obsession highlights the unreliability of recollection, while preparing us for the slippery notions of time and fate that will define the story.

Various snapshots slide into the frame alongside the credits. Weathered and a little blurred, they fill only a small portion of the dark screen; like memories, the images are partial and incomplete. Interspersed with the photographs is a full-screen view of a grand Italian-style church, the camera drawing ominously towards its densely geometric exterior as if it were a carefully designed trap. The church also appears in the snapshots, creating a jarring effect that undermines any attempt to understand when the different images are from and how they are related – they share a location, but do not seem to belong in the same timeframe. We are given no context or identification for the pictures until a hand-written note appears in the final one: Florence, 1948. Yet as soon as the date seems settled, we move elsewhere, gradually creeping towards a mansion whose windows lighten and darken rhythmically. As we realise that the occupants are watching the very slideshow we have just been viewing, onscreen text identifies the year as 1959 and the place as New Orleans, a world away from Romanesque churches and post-war Europe. Less than three minutes have passed, but already our sense of time and destination have deliberately been confused, and not for the last time.

The prominence of the church in the opening credits alerts us that it will be important to the story (much like Vertigo’s Mission San Juan Bautista), but the way in which we next see it is both revealing and unexpected. The slides we saw depicted Michael and Elizabeth in Florence at the start of their relationship, with the church (San Miniato al Monte) the venue of their first meeting. Following the loss of his wife and daughter, Michael builds a reproduction of the church front as their tomb. The ‘San Miniato’ we now see is a replica located in Louisiana, forcibly enshrining the past in the present, no matter how out of place. Tellingly, as the finished memorial is revealed to us, a further onscreen title abruptly moves the date forward from 1959 to 1975, blurring period and location yet again: like the eternally grieving Michael, we are becoming unmoored, struggling to stay afloat in a stream of visual repetitions and sudden shifts in time. The false landmark also illuminates the story’s core themes of deceptive appearance and flawed resurrection. While undoubtedly a sincere tribute, the façade is not the original (perhaps also suggesting a self-referential wink towards inevitable criticisms of the film itself). The morbidly grandiose monument symbolises Michael’s almost religious faith in his romantic memories while hinting that such fervent belief may be fallible and unhealthy, blinding him to reality and the passing of time.

Inevitably, Michael’s 1975 trip to Florence leads him back to the real San Miniato for his first encounter with his wife’s doppelganger, Sandra. She is helping to restore a 14th century painting of the Madonna – an idealised supernatural vision of femininity that mirrors the sanctified role his own late wife has assumed in Michael’s mind. When Sandra explains the dilemma faced by the preservation authorities, her words also serve to neatly summarise the emotional conundrum posed by the film. Damaged by moisture, the paint has begun to peel, revealing an older, cruder image underneath; should they investigate this new finding, or “should they restore the original, but never know for sure what lies beneath it?” Michael favours the latter option, once again declaring the preference for romanticised perfection that is the cause of his torments, choosing to overlook uglier truths until it is too late.

The recurring spiral motif central to Vertigo is recreated in Obsession by the revolving paddle of the riverboat in the ransom scenes. Its bright red wheel relentlessly churns the murky water as the tension ratchets up, a visual warning of the dangerous depths to come. As in Hitchcock’s film, the camera encircles the characters in several key scenes, creating a dizzying sense that events are spinning out of control. The roving camerawork also creates a powerful sense of symmetry between the opening and closing sequences, as if the end were also the beginning. During the first scene, we waltz around Michael and Elizabeth as they dance at their anniversary party. For the finale, we loop round and round a final embrace, with the use of slow motion giving every movement a choreographed grace as though, once again, we were dancing.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s diffused cinematography lends the film a slippery, soft-focus edge, perhaps best utilised in two quietly stunning 360⁰ panning shots marking apparent shifts in time. The first is a literal move forward in chronology, drifting around the construction site of Elizabeth and Amy’s tomb in 1959 to return to the finished article in 1975, with a barely noticeable cut covering the transition in scenes. The second, which occurs when Sandra unlocks the sealed bedroom and discovers Elizabeth’s diaries, suggests a psychological step back through the years, prowling round the room as she begins her apparent regression in time to ‘become’ Michael’s late wife. Meanwhile, Sandra’s eventual breakdown recalls the opening slideshow to ingenious effect. She moves along a corridor of bright windows broken by intervals of thick darkness, with each alteration in lighting mimicking a changing slide and marking a further descent into her past thanks to Zsigmond’s photography and Paul Hirsch’s brilliant editing.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Friday, July 28, 2023

"Located in America’s sixth most populous metropolitan area," begins MainLine Today's Ben Silver, "the Main Line area has experienced a healthy dose of fallout from the cultural hub that is the Philadelphia movie scene. With dozens, probably hundreds, of movies filmed in the Philadelphia area, the Main Line region is well represented in film from the classics to modern-day Oscar winners." One of the films featured in Silver's article is Obsession:
This classic ‘70s thriller stars Cliff Robertson and John Lithgow, both of whom are involved the aftermath of a kidnapping. Though none of the film actually takes place on the Main Line, it’s notable for its mention of Bryn Mawr.

While reminiscing about his late wife, Michael Courtland, played by Robertson, talks about his wife’s “Bryn Mawr walk. A Bryn Mawr walk is a kind of a glide, you know? Those girls used to wear long polo coats in those old days, long raincoats. They kind of glide, like they’re late for class. They move fast and just kinda glide.”

Director Brian De Palma was raised on the Main Line and graduated from Friends Central in 1958.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Friday, February 24, 2023

Thanks to Christian Hamaker for sending along this profile of Jim Gaffigan from The Wall Street Journal's Marc Myers, in which Gaffigan talks about seeing Brian De Palma's Obsession when he was ten years old:
Mom was the most im­por­tant per­son in my life. When I was 10, in 1976, she took my brother and me to see ‘Ob­ses­sion,’ a movie that wasn’t es­pe­cially age-ap­pro­pri­ate. It’s about a guy whose wife and daugh­ter are kid­napped. The res­cue fails and his wife dies. The guy be­lieves his daugh­ter died, too, but she dis­ap­peared. Years later, he meets and falls in love with a young woman who looks just like his wife. It turns out to be his daugh­ter. Yeah, I know. A fast track to ther­apy. But I was more cap­ti­vated by the film’s act­ing and sto­ry­telling, so much so that I knew then what I wanted to do with my life.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
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Thursday, December 22, 2022

"Filmmakers were working in the Hitchcock style when he was operating at his peak, and they’re still doing so today," states Vince Keenan in the intro to an article posted today at CrimeReads. "Time for an appraisal of Alfred Hitchcock movies that were not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, although his spirit hangs over each and every one of them." In his "A Survey of Hitchcock Films Not Directed by Alfred Hitchcock," Keenan includes Brian De Palma's Obsession:
C’mon, you knew Brian De Palma would appear on this list. The only question is which Hitch-influenced De Palma movie to select? His filmography is studded with them, from Sisters (1973) to Femme Fatale (2002). I opted for the one that is, in a sense, the most Hitchcockian. De Palma and screenwriter Paul Schrader concocted the story for Obsession—about a widower who meets the doppelganger of his late wife—out of their admiration for Vertigo, and the film features one of the final scores by frequent Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann. It is also the most De Palma of De Palma movies; the plot, when all its twists are revealed, is both preposterous and deeply, deeply disturbing, yet De Palma’s technical skill—aided immeasurably by a bravura performance from Geneviève Bujold—vaults past the inconsistencies and unsavory elements to conjure an overpowering atmosphere of doomed romanticism.

Posted by Geoff at 10:15 PM CST
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Monday, October 10, 2022


Posted by Geoff at 10:32 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, October 10, 2022 10:53 PM CDT
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Friday, August 27, 2021

After opening in New York City in early August of 1976, Brian De Palma's Obsession began to open in more cities in the weeks that followed. In Chicago, Obsession opened 45 years ago this weekend, and Roger Ebert's 3-star review was published in the August 27, 1976 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times - it's archived now at RogerEbert.com:
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.

Posted by Geoff at 8:05 PM CDT
Updated: Friday, August 27, 2021 8:06 PM CDT
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Monday, August 9, 2021

Last week, Nola.com's Kristine Froeba posted about a visit to the historic cornstalk fence house in New Orleans, also known as Col. Short's Villa, and which appeared in Brian De Palma's Obsession (1976). The house is currently owned by Scott Rodger, who, according to Froeba, is "known in music circles as the successful manager and producer for artists including rocker Paul McCartney and operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli." More from Froeba's article:
The Henry Howard-designed house was built in 1859 by Col. Robert H. Short, on a tract split in 1832 from the Livaudais Plantation.

"These classic old New Orleans houses, big and small, you're often just the caretaker," said Rodger. "You know you're going to have your time for a while, but ultimately, you pass them on to someone else."

But with new ownership comes change.

A quick glance lets you know the new owner is not one to follow the design lead of the preservation set. The new interior is bold and eclectic, yet cohesive. It leans into several historical periods rather than recreating just one.

Memphis decorator Gwen Driscoll was selected to lead the revamp after Rodger purchased the home sight unseen in 2018.

"I'd seen a couple of projects that Driscoll had done here in town," said Rodger. "I chose her because her work isn't one particular style. She's just really great at interpreting what the individual owner wants."

Rodgers respects the period restoration work done by previous owners and mentions them often when discussing the house. The interior design, though, was simply not his style. In its latest incarnation, the house has become an homage to the talents of local artists and artisans, not the period in which it was built.

Local pop artist Ashley Longshore's vibrant work hangs in the kitchen above a diner banquette. Around the corner, the rouge-lacquered back stairs are adorned with a Clementine Hunter gallery — a nod to the South and the house's roots. From the front door to the back, Rodger's support of Louisiana artists is on display.

Beneath the double parlors' 19th-century arcade, now the music room, sits a streamlined Shinola turntable. It's here that Rodger spins the vinyl he produces or the classic albums he hunts in neighborhood record shops. Almost every piece of furniture and art has a personal story.

But it's Timorous Beasties, a contemporary Scottish textile and wallpaper firm located in Rodgers' hometown of Glasgow, that best encapsulates the Italianate mansion's new vibe. The firm, which describes its designs as both surreal and provocative, is featured prominently on both the house's walls and its soft furnishings. The sometimes multidimensional patterns run the gamut from pearlized branches to vibrant red brocades and pink aviary scenes.

On the other end of the spectrum, a bayou mural in ethereal muted gray and green tones by New Orleans artist Ann Marie Auricchio envelopes the center hall with its sweeping grand staircase. Its mist-covered cypress trees evoke a haunted effect and rise to the second-floor ceiling above the stairway. For continuity, the mural also covers the room's pocket doors, which lead to the dining room.

When opened, the doors reveal a startling transition to a scarlet-lacquered dining room. The dining table is itself a piece of art: wood and moss captured in resin from Mint in London. An antique bar reminds one of a chic club in Kensington.

The room is anchored with a window seat under a semicircular bay window added circa 1900. Rodger is quick to note that the window was featured in director Brian De Palma's 1975 New Orleans thriller "Obsession." It's one of many movie references that Rodger, a film buff, relates about the fixtures, decor and the house itself.

Posted by Geoff at 11:31 PM CDT
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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Posted by Geoff at 11:47 PM CDT
Updated: Sunday, August 1, 2021 11:23 AM CDT
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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Robert C. Cumbow will give a Cinema DNA class, "Children Of Vertigo", as a Seattle International Film Festival event on Tuesday, May 4th. A tweet from SIFF reads, "David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, Christian Petzold's PHOENIX, Brian DePalma's OBSESSION: All are indebted to Hitchcock’s highly influential VERTIGO. Expand your appreciation of the power that VERTIGO brought to the cinema in this virtual class". The SIFF event page provides the following description:
This three-hour Cinema DNA lecture/discussion, led by Robert C. Cumbow, will examine a few of the films that owe the greatest debt to Vertigo and have done the most to honor its continuing place in film culture. Among the films to be discussed-in passing or at length-are works as diverse as Chris Marker's landmark short film La Jetée and his feature-length meditation on memory, Sans Soleil, which works in part as a commentary on the staying power of Vertigo; Brian DePalma's Obsession; Robert Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare; Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid; Christian Petzold's stunning Phoenix; and several others. Some of the films will be represented by selected clips. There may be an occasional spoiler; but whether you have seen all, some, or only a few of the many films influenced by Vertigo, come and join the discussion, and expand and enrich your appreciation of the power that Hitchcock and Vertigo brought to the cinema.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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