Directed by Douglas Sirk
Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 108 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: January 20, 2009
Review Date: January 12, 2009
Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, a grand melodramatic Technicolor wallow, comes impressively to life in Criterion’s new DVD transfer. Remaking the original 1935 black and white hit into a lushly colored but somber “women’s picture,” Sirk and producer Ross Hunter have given a sheen and style to the noble emotions of the story that they’d be destined to repeat throughout the rest of the 1950s. This was not the producer and director’s first picture together, but it would be the blueprint for many of the films they’d subsequently make together.
Reckless playboy Bob Merrick’s (Rock Hudson) thoughtless behavior inadvertently causes the death of a famous doctor and the blindness of his wife Helen (Jane Wyman). Learning of the doctor’s noble, self-sacrificing and anonymous good Samaritan life leads Bob toward remaking his own life, going back to medical school, and eventually falling for the doctor’s widow. But Bob is determined to study and work hard so he can find some way to restore Helen’s sight, an obsession which Helen finds unbearable to accept.
The 1935 version of the film (available in this set; see below) was less solemn and dry in its telling of the tale, adapted from the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas; there was more a knowledgeable sense of the absurdity of the extreme emotions in it than in the remake which takes the self-sacrifice and purity of intentions very seriously and with no sense of lightness or humor. When those choirs of angels begin time and again to chant the “Ode to Joy” in the 1954 version, you know that the true spirit of selfless giving is at work and is nothing to be scoffed at. Sirk keeps the somber tone of the piece well contained so that even the ripest lines don’t quite reach the point of ridiculousness, and by spreading the timeline of the story over a period of six years, it seems logical that events could transpire within the frame of years we’re shown (though why Hudson’s hair was grayed quite as severely as it was is open to some question.)
Throughout his life, Rock Hudson always spoke of this film as his breakthrough to the superstardom he would enjoy for the next couple of decades, and he never failed to give credit to co-star Jane Wyman for being so generous to him as an up-and-coming actor. He does earnest work as the playboy redeemed from his irresponsible behavior first by guilt and eventually by love. Jane Wyman, who earned the film’s only Oscar nomination for her performance in the picture, is likewise solid as the newly blinded widow. Her work with Hudson in the follow-up All That Heaven Allows was even stronger with a wider range of emotions available, but here she’s certainly up to the task. Agnes Moorehead is loving, concerned friend Nancy Ashford playing a softer role than she was usually offered, and young ingénue Barbara Rush has some impressive moments of both anger and forgiveness as Helen’s stepdaughter Joyce. Otto Kruger, Paul Cavanaugh, and Judy Nugent all have memorable if smaller supporting roles that they handle very well.
Magnificent Obsession remains one of the most famous of the Sirk-Hunter collaborations. That its sentimental moments don’t have the impact now that they once did doesn’t negate its genuine entertainment value or its impressiveness as a representative of an important film genre of the 1950s.
The film’s originally suggested theatrical aspect ratio of 2.00:1 is replicated faithfully here in this quite beautiful anamorphic transfer. The Technicolor is mostly richly saturated and impressive, only drifting out of registration a couple of times during the film’s running time. Sharpness is usually very good though there is one problematic scene which appears to come from a completely different source than the rest of the film. Film grain is light to moderate, and apart from one noticeable white scratch, the transfer seems free of artifacts. The film is divided into 24 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is a solid mono track emblematic of the period of the film’s production. Dialog is clear and Frank Skinner’s music comes through well, never overpowering the words being spoken. There are no examples of hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter to mar the listening experience.
The audio commentary by Thomas Doherty is informative and pleasant to listen to without being gushy or obsequious to the stars or their director.
Interviews with two female directors who both celebrate the oeuvre of Douglas Sirk make for interesting viewing. Both interviews are presented in anamorphic widescreen with Allison Anders’ chat lasting 9 ¼ minutes while Kathryn Bigelow’s goes on for 13 ¼ minutes.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
Disc two contains two important bonuses.
The complete original 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession lasting 102 minutes is presented in 4:3 and is windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style for Academy ratio pictures. The print is in acceptable shape with a sharp picture and good grayscale but which does have a fair share of damage and debris. The audio is also Dolby Digital 1.0 mono but a moderate level of hiss is present throughout.
A 1991 documentary From UFA to Hollywood finds director Douglas Sirk describing in German (with white English subtitles) his career concentrating especially on the making of Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels but with no mention of Magnificent Obsession. It lasts 82 minutes and is in 4:3.
The enclosed 19-page booklet contains some stills from the film, a cast and crew list, and an essay by writer Geoffrey O’Brien which discusses the original book and compares both film versions most definitely celebrating the latter remake as the superior version.
Criterion’s edition of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession is a fine package that does the film and its parent movie proud. An excellent video and audio presentation makes this an easy recommend for fans of the stars, the director, or the genre.