Brian, I need you to be Alfred again

Obesssion (Brian de Palma, 1976)

I don’t know Brian de Palma well; one of the New Hollywood lot who jumped down from the arthouse ivory tower to make Scarface and other blockbusters, none of which I ever felt much need to investigate. But I know Hitchcock’s Vertigo far too well, and I’d always been curious to see the above film. Vertigo would be a serious contender for my favourite film of all time, it’s one of those few films we all have that we could quote vasts tracts of dialogue from. The morbidity, the fixation on episodes from the past, people from the past, the complusion to revisit and recreate… even after 30-odd viewings I still find it shattering.

Obsession is a love letter to Vertigo, and one which wears its heart on its sleeve; different plot and location, identical theme and mood. Like Vertigo it is a bit nutty- notorious sociopath scriptwriter Paul Schrader gleefully takes the less savoury elements of Vertigo and runs with them, all the way to incestville. Like Vertigo, if you step back and think about it logically and objectively, the plot doesn’t really make any sense. But to do so runs counter to the spirit of the thing. It’s an over-the-top film that requires you to embrace the silliness, throw yourself into the vortex, suspend disbelief and let the lushness and the high romantic delirium carry you away.

It’s a film where style is everything; diffused lighting gives the locations a misty coating and a dreamlike feel. The fine big hotel-sized houses of the deep South gentry (who still have negro servants) are captured in Orson Welles deep focus. As Cliff Robertson rides a steamboat on the Mississippi, the water and the buildings shimmer in the sunlight like Hitch’s San Francisco, like a mirage. In Florence, Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria are sodden with rain, and as Robertson courts Genevieve Bujold by night under narrow medieval arches, the look is quite ghostly.

Aside from the theme, at every turn there’s a little reference to Vertigo, a little wink to fellow fans; Bujold transfixed by the painting of her predecessor, trying on her necklace in front of the bedroom mirror, writing a letter of explanation then tearing it up. Robertson pursuing her pathologically, wanting to have lunch and dinner every day from the first date onwards. Bujold complaining that all her suitors seem to be hooked on their ex-wives and “it’s not very flattering”.

The most crucial allusion, however, is the brilliant soundtrack by Bernard Hermann that envelops the film and contributes so much to its atmosphere. He reprises chunks of the unforgettable Vertigo score; the Wagnerian Tristan chords, low, sombre organs, swirling strings and swishing harps. A recurring choral part is a little like Debussy’s Sirenes. The music brings you back to Vertigo like Robertson’s fixation brings him back to his wife’s death, always mulling things over and wanting to retrace his steps.

The camera movements have their motifs too; very slow tracking shots where the camera approaches locations of import, as if nervously, until the buildings loom over you; particularly in the opening credits as we ascend steps to the facade of San Miniato, the church atop Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence. The famous 360-degree rotation from that chilling scene in Vertigo, where Kim Novak bleaches her hair and pins it up to “be Madeleine again”, is employed at key moments- when Bujold breaks into her predecessor’s bedroom, kept up like a shrine; when the pair have their reconciliation at the end. One nice scene has Robertson and John Lithgow eat breakfast in a café looking onto Piazza della Signoria; as each speaks the camera moves as a pendulum, Neptune and the other statues moving into focus, then out, the camera sent back and forth like a tennis ball.

There is much to admire in these technical aspects, which is just as well as the film’s flaws are substantial. The plot is confused and Cliff Robertson is no Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant. Whether experiencing agony or ecstasy, he looks rather wooden and expressionless thoughout. He swans around in Alan Partridge sports blazers, looking like David Hasselhoff and acting like Roger Moore. Still, John Lithgow is enjoyable as his best friend/villain of the piece, a southern gent with an accent that twangs like a banjo. When Robertson’s wife is kidnapped he talks of going to the “POE-leese”. Better still is Genevieve Bujold in the Novak part; sparkling and luminous, she gives a compelling performance as a charming girl who descends into madness. In fact, she had me at buongiorno.

For what it’s worth, the story: it’s 1959. Courtland (Robertson) is throwing a party for his and Elizabeth’s (Bujold) wedding anniversary. As a waiter glides up to the camera, his torso twists to reveal a gun under his waistcoat- an ostentatious touch. La Salle (Lithgow) makes a speech hailing Courtland, his new business partner, as “cream of the New South”. That night, Elizabeth is called from the bedroom by a crying child. She and the child are kidnapped, a ransom note for $500,000 pinned to the child’s bed. Those pesky waiters!

We’re pitched straight into high tension, as with the Vertigo rooftop scene; but we just don’t know Courtland, and Elizabeth dies before she’s said a word. In Vertigo, Scottie’s emotional mutilation is deeply moving because we’ve seen him relaxed and carefree, exchanging banter with Midge. Then we watch him start to fall for Madeleine. But Elizabeth is essentially a mannequin, no personality or attributes. Even later, when Sandra asks Courtland to describe his wife, he mentions only physical aspects- her looks, her gait, her lipstick.

Courtland is prepared to hand over his wordly goods to the kidnappers, but the police advise him to give a briefcase filled with blank sheets of paper and a radio transmitter. This leads them to the hostages; the kidnappers emerge, with guns to the heads of Elizabeth and daughter. A car chase ensues; the kidnappers drive through roadblocks on a bridge, and into an oil truck- all passengers are killed and the Mississippi carries away the bodies.

Stricken with guilt that he chose not to hand over the money and therefore “killed” his family, Courtland erects a huge memorial; a parkland replica of the San Miniato facade (where he met Elizabeth). I wouldn’t have shown the church in the opening titles, when we see it later it would have been more effective had we recognised it only from the memorial. A 360-degree shot and a 1975 caption bring us to Courtland with a few grey hairs.

Business is going well and La Salle takes Courtland to meet some clients in Florence, the city that looms so large in his memory. Arno at sunset, Uffizi and all that. In a late bar, Schrader gives us the rarity of a good joke.  The balding, paunchy Italian businessmen sit with a bevy of glamorous girls in their laps, and Courtland discreetly asks how they found such beautiful wives. The Italians agree enthusiastically, and fish in their wallets for photos of ugly, sagging, bovine mammas. My wife is wonderful, she makes such good pasta and she bore me eight children.

To Piazzale Michelangelo- say Court, ain’t that the chuuur where yew met yewr wayfe? Courtland enters, moves solemnly through the candlelight and exquisite renaissance frescoes. Touching up one of the paintings in a white coat, who other than Bujold. Cue slow motion and Hermann’s siren choir. Afterwards, Robertson lets us know he’s preoccupied by burying his chin in his hands. He’s going to stay in town for a few more days. He introduces himself to Sandra, the young art restorer, and wastes no time in pursuing her. He’s up front about the reasons; “my wife looked exactly like you”. “You still love Elizabeth”, Sandra tells him. He does nothing to contradict her.

Sandra’s mum fortuitously carks it. On her deathbed she tells the two to marry. They fly to New Orleans, Sandra wide-eyed at the skyscrapers and gleaming steel. Courtland’s maid cannot disguise her distaste upon meeting Sandra. Lithgow and friends suggest it might be “premature” to marry Sandra so soon and Courtland shuts them out with cold fury. While he fends them off in the office, Sandra gazes deep into pictures of Elizabeth, reads her diaries, visits the memorial and presses her cheek against it. A San Miniato wedding cake is prepared.

Sandra has been cutting an increasingly preoccupied figure. In an ambivalent “dream” sequence she tells Courtland she is Elizabeth, come back to give him a second chance to prove his love. One morning she flees, leaving a photocopy of the original ransom note pinned to her bed. Courtland gets it immediately; it’s Kim Novak going up the tower again, and this time Scottie’s going to catch her and stop her. This time he has to throw real money from the boat to show that love means more to him and lay his ghosts to rest.

His assets are tied up in the company and an unimpressed La Salle makes him sign them all over to him at the bank; then has a clerk switch the suitcases so he’s once more throwing blank paper. La Salle takes Sandra/Elizabeth to see the suitcase, “Old Court never comes through with the money”.

At this point the curtain is ripped back- a mental flashback shows that- der-der-DER!- Sandra is Courtland’s daughter. She never joined in the fatal car chase, La Salle engineered the kidnapping and packed the child off to be fostered in Italy. He brainwashed her against the man who “killed” her mother and years later, used her to set up Courtland and take ownership of his share of the fortune. Does this wash? For me, not really.

La Salle tells Courtland that he and Sandra duped him. They wrestle. La Salle stabs himself with a pair of scissors. On a flight to Rome, Sandra is stricken with conscience and tries to top herself in the loo. The flight turns back to the airport just as Courtland arrives, eager to shoot her. They meet in a long corridor, Sandra spots the briefcase and is delighted that daddy has put up the money at the third time of asking. He loves her after all. She jumps from her wheelchair and runs towards him in slow motion. We anticipate the gunshot. She embraces her “Daddy” and the camera spins round and round the pair as Courtland’s realisation sinks in.

The film may as well end here, because I can’t think how the loose ends would get tied up. Won’t the police go straight for Courtland when they find La Salle’s body? What will father and daughter do now, having been engaged for some weeks and (it is hinted) having slept together?

As good as Vertigo? You must be joking. But if that masterpiece captured you as it has so many, you should find much to savour in this curio of cinema.


2 Responses to “Brian, I need you to be Alfred again”

  1. July 20, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Odd how this film has been forgotten, even amongst de Palma fans. I actually saw it before I saw Vertigo, on ITV in the middle of the night when I was 12 or 13, and I found it fascinating and utterly shocking. I think the horror of incest is a neat, near-universal way to punch the audience in the gut and it’s revealing that it’s a twist that only the boldest filmmakers dare to introduce. I daren’t say more for fear of spoiling some as-yet-unwatched classic, but there’s a few of them about.

    John Lithgow was the other big surprise: I’d just watched him in Bigfoot and the Hendersons when I saw Obsession. It’s pretty much a microcosm of my early teens, that sentence.

  2. 2 Jamie
    July 21, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Yes, Chinatown springs to mind in particular…

    I was baffled to see Lithgow in it myself. Especially in the 50s scenes, where he has a full head of blonde hair and looks a hell of a lot like Nicholas Lyndhurst.

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