Magnificent Obsession: Criterion Collection
January 26, 2009
Technicolor melodramas don’t get much better than the ones Douglas Sirk made: All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959). It was Magnificent Obsession (1954), however, that paved the way for those later masterpieces. Sirk’s film was based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1929 novel of the same name – a sudsy romance novel that became a best seller. The book was first adapted onto film in 1935 but the author wasn’t too happy with the results. Sirk did not like the source material and hadn’t seen the 1935 film and later described his own version as a “combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness.”
Bob Merrick (Hudson) a selfish, rich playboy who crashes his speedboat recklessly and requires emergency attention from the town’s only resuscitator. At that moment, the town’s beloved Dr. Phillips suffers a fatal heart attack but he could have been saved if only he had access to the resuscitator. His wife Helen (Wyman) is understandably devastated – they had only been married for six months.
Bob and Helen cross paths when he escapes from the hospital before he’s healthy enough to be discharged and they find out who each other is – she’s mad at him for taking her husband away from her and he’s wracked with guilt over what happened. Bob thinks that writing a check for thousands of dollars will make everything alright but it won’t be that easy. He soon makes it his mission in life to redeem himself and make amends with Helen. Bob gets off to a pretty bad start by getting into an argument with her that results in Helen getting accidentally hit by a car that robs her permanently of her sight.
Sirk’s film plays up the book’s emotional extremes as only he could. For example, when Bob and Helen have their first argument, Sirk punctuates the climax of their first heated exchange with loud, swelling dramatic music. The over-the-top plot twists are pretty tame by the standards of today’s soap operas but Sirk refuses to wink knowingly at the audience, preferring to play things straight. He’s helped considerably by Rock Hudson’s breakout performance which is grounded and natural in contrast to the heightened reality that Sirk creates with his vibrant color scheme. With his matinée idol good looks, Hudson goes from despicable cad to selfless companion to Helen, being there when she needs him. Magnificent Obsession is an excellent example of 1950s melodrama and is one of Sirk’s signature films.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty. He starts off by talking about how Technicolor was used to lure people back to movie theaters after the rise of television. Naturally, he gives a biographical sketch of Douglas Sirk including his transition from European cinema to Hollywood. Doherty does an excellent job of analyzing the film’s style and its themes on this very informative track.
“Tributes to Sirk” features filmmakers and Sirk fans Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow talking about their love of his films. Anders shows off her vintage Sirk movie posters and speaks about how her mother introduced her to his films. Bigelow cites Written on the Wind as an important influence on her films, especially her first one, The Loveless (1982). Bigelow talks about how she discovered his films and recounts how she actually got to meet the director at the Lacarno Film Festival where The Loveless had its world premiere.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
The second disc includes the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession directed by John M. Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. It is fine effort but certainly lacks the visual flare of Sirk’s version.
“From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers” is a feature-length documentary released in 1991. It features a rare 1980 interview with the man. He reflects, in detail, on his life and career with an emphasis on his time at Universal Pictures.