Thursday, January 22, 2009

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (Universal 1954) Criterion Home Video

Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) is a rather syrupy remake of John M. Stahl’s 1935 movie of the same name. Both films are loosely based on the 1929 novel by Congregationalist pastor Lloyd C. Douglas; a convoluted tale of religious fervor and mutilated Christianity cleverly wrapped in a conventional romance, involving a rich playboy who discovers God through his sudden devotion to a good woman he has initially wronged.

Although the novel left much to be desired in terms of its critique of religion, its romantic subplot and well timed condemnation of the jazz age nevertheless captured the public’s immediate fascination and the book became an instant best seller.

Robert Blees’ 1954 screenplay is much more faithful in its adherence to the 1935 Stahl film than it is to Douglas’s novel. In Sirk’s Technicolor remake, Jane Wyman is cast as Helen Philips (the role originally played by Irene Dunne); newlywed to a prominent physician who dies alone at his seaside home because the inhalator that might have saved his life was borrowed moments earlier to resuscitate Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson); an egotistical playboy capsized in his speedboat.

Distraught, but recovering rather quickly from her grief, Helen quickly learns that the hospital her late husband founded is in dire financial straights. Apparently, Dr. Philips was treating needy patients without any thought for collecting on their overdue bills. Owing to a rather restrained view of religion, circa the 1950s, the film avoids any direct comment on the logic or reasoning behind the good doctor’s philanthropy.

When Merrick learns that Helen’s husband likely died to save his own life he becomes morbidly fascinated by that level of self sacrifice. Awkwardly, Merrick launches into a cheap flirtation that rubs Helen the wrong way and later ends tragically when, in an attempt to escape his advances, Helen accidentally backs out of a taxi cab and into oncoming traffic. Blinded, Helen convalesces at home with the aid of her good friend and nurse, Nancy Ashford (Agnes Moorehead) and a tomboy schoolgirl, Judy (Judy Nugent).

In the meantime, Merrick has seemingly been touched by the hand of God, or at least stirred to greatness by the benevolence of Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger); a close personal friend of the late Dr. Philips. With Edward’s guidance, Merrick returns to medical school, something he gave up long before. Quietly, he reintroduces himself into Helen’s world as Robbie Robertson – a man Helen gradual grows to love.

Secretively, Merrick pays for three of the best European neurosurgeons to examine Helen in Germany. However, their negative prognosis sends the usually optimistic Helen into an emotional tailspin from which she recovers only when Merrick reenters her life as Robbie and their tangled romance ensues. After learning that Robbie is Merrick Helen retreats into a self imposed exile.

A near death experience reunites Merrick and Helen. He is forced to operate on her brain to relieve a build up of pressure. The film’s narrative stops just short of restoring Helen’s sight in the final screen moments, but suggests that Helen can make out a bright light. Is it proof, as she believes, that the restoration of her sight is imminent, or are these the final moments of a near death experience?

A filmmaker renown for such excessive romantic treacle and implausibly heartrending melodrama, Douglas Sirk must be given high marks for keeping both the impracticality and soap opera-ish quality of the story successfully at bay. Magnificent Obsession is far from perfect storytelling. But it maintains an often gripping and intelligent patina of considerable good taste.

Both Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson deliver seminal performances in their respective careers. Hudson in particular is a revelation, his transformation from embittered blowhard to thoughtful surgeon startlingly on point. By comparison, Robert Taylor in the original film is quite one dimensional – seemingly out of touch and unable to communicate the brevity of his transformation.

Unlike Irene Dunne’s perennial pert and plucky take on Helen – often teetering dangerously close to the madcap heroines she often played elsewhere, Jane Wyman is effectively tragic without degrading her blind woman to stock Hollywood cliché. In the final analysis, Magnificent Obsession is an over the top four hanky weepy that deserves a second viewing. It may not be high art, but it aims successfully at being solid second tier melodrama.

Criterion’s anamorphic widescreen DVD is advertised as a ‘restored’ hi-definition transfer. Unfortunately, the image is inconsistently rendered at best. In assessing how far the image has come (from those prints readily available on late night television), and, how far it still has to go, one should recall first that Technicolor was a film grain concealing process.

Unfortunately, many scenes in Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession are marred by excessive grain, either for a film of this vintage and certainly for a DVD advertised as ‘restored.’ Worse, there are several glaring instances where the 3-strip color is grossly misaligned, resulting in obtrusive halos and a generally blurry picture. When the color is properly registered, it tends to shimmer, with ‘breathing’ around the edges of the film frame. Flesh tones fluctuate from shot to shot. Several scenes exhibit extreme color fading.

The 1935 original is also included as a supplement. Here, the B&W image is generally sharp, though again, far from smooth. Age related artifacts and film grain are the biggest culprits, though on the whole the film is quite acceptable. The audio on both editions is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level.

Extras include several video interviews, a comprehensive commentary track on the Sirk version by film scholar Thomas Doherty and the film’s original theatrical trailer. On the 1935 original we also get the 1991 documentary, From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers. There’s also a very smart snap analysis of the film in booklet form written by Geoffrey O’Brien.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
1954 version - 3
1935 version- 3

1954 version - 3
1935 version - 3.5


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