Obsession – Blu-ray Review

Hitchcockian De Palma thriller gets Collector's Edition treatment 4 Stars

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the movies of director Brian De Palma can be seen as riffing off of the works of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock; the director has often mentioned this in several reviews. Interestingly enough, one of De Palma’s cinematic nods to the Master of Suspense, Obsession, came out the very same year Hitchcock unveiled what would be his final film, Family Plot. Parallels aside, Obsession stands out as one of the director’s most sustained and stylish homage to Hitchcock in his entire overue. Previously released by Columbia on DVD and Sony as part of their MOD DVD line, Obsession debuts on Blu-ray in a Collector’s Edition courtesy of Shout Factory’s Scream sub-label.

Obsession (1976)
Released: 01 Sep 1976
Rated: PG
Runtime: 98 min
Director: Brian De Palma
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Cast: Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow, Sylvia Kuumba Williams
Writer(s): Brian De Palma (story by), Paul Schrader (story by), Paul Schrader (screenplay by)
Plot: A wealthy New Orleans businessman becomes obsessed with a young woman who resembles his wife.
IMDB rating: 6.8
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Sony
Distributed By: Scream Factory
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 1.0 DD (Mono), English 5.1 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: PG
Run Time: 1 Hr. 38 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Blue keep case with reversible cover
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 01/15/2019
MSRP: $34.99

The Production: 4/5

In 1958 New Orleans, businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) seemingly has it all: a burgeoning business with partner Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow) and a happy marriage to Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) with a lovely daughter, Amy. However, that perfect life is shattered when a kidnapping and extortion attempt ends up going horribly awry when both Elizabeth and Amy presumably end up dead. Flash forward to 1975, when Michael, during a trip to Florence, encounters a young woman named Sandra, who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to his long dead wife. When the two start to fall in love, it kick starts a chain of events that lead to Michael confronting the demons of his past and a shocking truth behind it all…

If Dressed to Kill (1980) and Raising Cain (1992) were his takes on Psycho and Body Double (1984) his own spin on Rear Window, then Brian De Palma’s Obsession can be considered his own take on Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo. Backing up this claim is that Paul Schrader’s screenplay makes use of the doppelganger in the similar way that Hitchcock drew upon Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor’s script for Vertigo, except here Schrader uses a neat little twist on the formula that’s better seen than talked about here. Another big connection was utilizing composer Bernard Herrmann for the score; as one of the last films he scored in his career (he earned a posthumous Oscar nomination for his work), he creates a musical atmosphere reminiscent of his time with the Master of Suspense, but very much in keeping with De Palma’s own visual style of storytelling. However, the one key contributor to the film, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, helps establish this one from the pack with a visual eye that’s more in keeping with the 1970’s style of filmmaking than the 1950’s – diffusion is clear throughout the entire film. So, when one is watching this movie, keep in mind that it has some similarities to Hitchcock, but it’s done in De Palma’s own voice, like a master piano player giving his own unique take on a Chopin masterpiece.

The most crucial reason why this homage to Hitchcock works is the strength of its three lead performers. Cliff Robertson is solid in the lead as Michael Courtland; he basically holds his own when compared to the two leading men that the Master of Suspense worked with the most: Cary Grant and James Stewart (this writer tends to think that Robertson’s performance lies a little closer to Stewart’s in Vertigo than, say, Grant’s in North by Northwest). Genevieve Bujold, in what could be her finest performance (or performances!) since her Oscar nominated turn in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), is amazing as both Michael’s ill-fated wife and the young woman whom Michael becomes enamored with years later; one can easily see parallels between Bujold’s performance and that of Kim Novak in Vertigo. As Michael’s wily business partner with a secret, John Lithgow makes a memorable impression in one of his earliest roles; this solid work would effectively parlay into a solid working relationship with De Palma, especially with films like Blow Out (1981) and Raising Cain (1992). The solid performances of the three leads gives the film a strong foundation to make the Hitchcock homage truly work.

Video: 4/5

3D Rating: NA

The original 2:35:1 aspect ratio is preserved on this HD transfer, presumably the same one used for Arrow’s Region B release of the movie. The film has always had a soft look, since it was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond with diffusion lenses, so grain structure is more coarse looking in some scenes but still very organic. Colors and fine details are strong throughout and while some blacks appear to be crushed, again this is likely due to the diffusion used; overall, this transfer surpasses the old Columbia/TriStar DVD and represents the best incarnation of the movie to date on home video.

Audio: 4.5/5

The Blu-ray comes with two audio options, a Dolby Digital mono track (reflecting the original sound mix) and a 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio track. Both tracks give great ambiance and fidelity to Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score while not being too overpowering, while dialogue is strong and clear along with sound effects; hardly an instance of age related artifacts can be detected, making both the best the movie has ever sounded on home video.

Special Features: 4/5

Commentary by author Douglas Keesey – Recorded for this release, Keesey goes over the film and some connections with De Palma’s other movies as well; the commentary does contain major plot spoilers, so please watch the movie first before listening to this insightful track.

Producing Obsession (26:19) – In this newly filmed interview, producer George Litto goes over his involvement with the movie as well as his career leading up to the production.

Editing Obsession (20:30) – Newly filmed for this release, editor Paul Hirsch talks about the movie as well as an interesting anecdote involving him and the legendary Bernard Herrmann on an earlier De Palma film (I’m talking about the movie Sisters, of course).

Obsession Revisited (37:31) – Carried over from the old Columbia/TriStar DVD, this retrospective featurette goes over the film; those interviewed include Brian De Palma, Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, George Litto, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Paul Hirsch.

Original Theatrical Trailer (1:35)

Radio Spots (5) (0:59)

Still Gallery (6:17) – 85 production, behind-the-scenes, and promotional stills are presented here with some courtesy of Brett Cameron.

Not carried over from Arrow’s Blu-ray release of the movie are a pair of early Brian De Palma short films: Woton’s Wake (1962) and The Responsive Eye (1966).

Overall: 4/5

Obsession would not only further establish Brian De Palma as a master stylist, but it’s also a very good Hitchcock homage that’s entertaining in its own right. Shout Factory has done a solid job with this Blu-ray release, improving upon a great transfer with some quality bonus features – both new as well as previous – about the movie. This is an easy upgrade from the previous DVD release and essential for fans of the movie or De Palma’s work in general.

https://www.amazon.com/Obsession-Collectors-Blu-ray-Cliff-Robertson/dp/B07J33Q4VH/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1548891215&sr=1-1&keywords=obsession+blu+ray

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17 Comments

  1. Nice review. Yes, this film was directly inspired by Vertigo. De Palma and Schrader had gone to see Vertigo when it was finally released to cinemas again in the 1970s (after many years of being unable to see it) and were so in love with it they decided they had to make a film like it. So, Schrader went off to write something and Obsession became the film they would make. So, it really is their Vertigo.

    This to me has always been De Palma's most overlooked film as it seems there is never much discussion of it and while I see big fans of his other pictures popping up and a lot of discussion of those films, Obsession remains one that seems not to draw much attention.

    I think this is because they were very open about the fact that a viewing of Vertigo inspired this film. A lot of people seem to refer to De Palma's work as a "rip off" of Hitchcock but it is not. As De Palma himself has said he was never "ripping off" Hitchcock but rather just trying to stand on his shoulders. He was always attempting to build upon what Hitchcock did, not steal from him.

    The Arrow version of this, at least their first release of it, included a nice book that contains the original script Schrader wrote which is a very cool extra.

    I'm a huge fan of De Palma and my favorite works from him are his thrillers and this was the picture where he really seems to first display his mastery of the genre. Sisters is great as well but he really takes off here with this love letter to Vertigo.

    I hope that this release brings more attention to this picture as it is a very nice thriller. I would try not to compare it to Vertigo while watching it, though it will be obvious that De Palma and Schrader are riffing on that, and to just enjoy it as a beautifully crafted and wonderfully acted thriller.

    If I recall correctly, Cliff Robertson was a gigantic pain in the ass when they were shooting this which is sort of funny. I think De Palma wanted to kill him.

  2. Reggie W

    Nice review. Yes, this film was directly inspired by Vertigo. De Palma and Schrader had gone to see Vertigo when it was finally released to cinemas again in the 1970s (after many years of being unable to see it) and were so in love with it they decided they had to make a film like it. So, Schrader went off to write something and Obsession became the film they would make . . . . . they were very open about the fact that a viewing of Vertigo inspired this film. . . . .I would try not to compare it to Vertigo while watching it, though it will be obvious that De Palma and Schrader are riffing on that, and to just enjoy it as a beautifully crafted and wonderfully acted thriller.

    I respect film makers who acknowledge their debts and admit openly when they borrow an idea or plot point from another film. What I despise is film makers who plagiarise someone else's work and pretend their own work is entirely original.

    There's absolutely nothing wrong with re-imagining a story. Last night I watched Broken Lance which is a remake of House Of Strangers which itself derives from a re-imagining of King Lear. The story is hugely different but two major plot points come from Shakespeare's play.

  3. Robin9

    I respect film makers who acknowledge their debts and admit openly when they borrow an idea or plot point from another film. What I despise is film makers who plagiarise someone else's work and pretend their own work is entirely original.

    There's absolutely nothing wrong with re-imagining a story. Last night I watched Broken Lance which is a remake of House Of Strangers which itself derives from a re-imagining of King Lear. The story is hugely different but two major plot points come from Shakespeare's play.

    Yes, I see no issue with this. However, I think some people do. And when you make a film that you tell everybody is inspired by a Hitchcock film…well…people are going to compare it to the Hitchcock film and they are going to dismiss it as "not as good."

    So, they were off to a rough start there. Plus it always bothers me that there are people that write De Palma off as a Hitchcock rip off artist when he obviously, to me anyway, is constantly adding his own style and flourishes to the mix.

    Obsession is not just a Vertigo copy. It is not the Gus Van Sant take on Psycho. Schrader wrote a story inspired by Vertigo and sure it uses the idea of two women that look identical but it is not the same story.

    I think for these guys and even for Van Sant you are really setting yourself up to get hammered when you openly try to make films like these. However, I think people should try to examine them on their own merits.

  4. According to Wikipedia:

    "In October 1983, Rear Window and Vertigo were the first two films re-released by Hitchcock's estate after his death. These two films and three others – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and Rope (1948) – had been kept out of distribution by Hitchcock since 1968."

    When OBSESSION was made, VERTIGO had been unavailable for a long time. Rather than actually seeing the film, Paul Schrader and Brian dePalma were basing OBSESSION on their memories of seeing VERTIGO many years before. Their intention was not so much copying Hitchcock as putting out a film that was similar in structure to VERTIGO, as VERTIGO could not be seen for 8 years, and would continue to be unavailable for another 7 years.

  5. I watched this movie and disc for the first time recently and rather enjoyed it. I had avoided some of De Palma's 70s-80s films for fear of the Hitchcock comparisons, but had quite a bit of fun going through them (watched Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill and Body Double, as well as Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito's Way within the last few months/weeks). Seemed like a more unhinged, less repressed version of Hitchcock. Obsession has a really nice evocative score by Bernard Herrmann doing his Vertigo sound. Plot's kinda silly but fun. Body Double is another film that tries to explore Vertigo's plot holes.

  6. lark144

    When OBSESSION was made, VERTIGO had been unavailable for a long time. Rather than actually seeing the film, Paul Schrader and Brian dePalma were basing OBSESSION on their memories of seeing VERTIGO many years before.

    Well, I did misspeak a bit there, Vertigo had not been released to cinemas again when they saw it, they had gone to a special showing at the LA County Museum and then went out to dinner afterward and had a discussion about how blown away by the film they were (De Palma thinks this showing was in Vista Vision).

    So, Obsession did arise out of them seeing that showing of the film in the 1970s. I have heard both of them tell that story of finally seeing the film in a theater like that and not being able to get it out of their heads.

    Here's a video of De Palma telling that story and obviously this video is loaded with spoilers so don't watch it unless you have seen Obsession..,

  7. I wasn't aware of that. In a way, it's too bad, as I would have preferred that OBSESSION was based on foggy, twenty year old memories of VERTIGO, as that's how it comes across. Something that's almost pre-conscious, lingering just outside awareness; a condition that echoes the title of the original French novel VERTIGO is based on: "D'entre Les Morts" or Among the Dead; in other words, a phantasmal, dream state.

    Of course, Brian DePalma references VERTIGO in so many of his films–BLOW OUT, BODY DOUBLE, FEMME FATALE–that the themes and visual tropes of VERTIGO become a kind of obsession, an rasion d'etre that is a metaphor for the act of cinema in itself, a doubling that is the outward projection of one's own inner state of being. So while many critics have accused Mr. DePalma's entire body of work as an act of plagiarism, and Mr. DePalma himself refers to these Hitchcockian themes as "grammar", for me they seem to be a way for Mr. Palma to express the way he feels about things within the context of a thriller plot while remaining in plain sight, a doubling that mimics the doubling of the lost mother from VERTIGO.

  8. I find Obsession to be a very effective film; I like the scenery of New Orleans & Italy, and the storyline was creepy & unsettling at times. One of Cliff Robertson's best roles, and John Lithgow played a great "villain". Also liked the scenery of '70's New Orleans & Italy. Very well-done, and the first time around it kept me guessing until the very end.

    I'm a huge fan of De Palma's '70's & '80's flicks; I find these films to be homages to Hitch's movies, but without being blatant rip-offs (if that makes sense).

  9. Worth

    I've always felt De Palma owed less to Hitchcock and more to the Italian "giallos" of the late-60s to early-70s.

    Since Giallos are inspired by or copies of the same Hitchcock films-visual tropes that DePalma is always accused of copying, then if he's copying Giallos, he's copying copies of Hitchcock, which is still copying Hitchcock.

    Not that I'm accusing DePalma of copying Hitchcock, for he was using themes of voyeurism and point of view tracking shots in his experimental films of the mid to late 60's, before any giallos were shown in this country.

  10. Just a correction about the Arrow: It says it’s Region B but it is Region Free. I’ve had it (along with the reproduction of the original script) for years.

  11. lark144

    I wasn't aware of that. In a way, it's too bad, as I would have preferred that OBSESSION was based on foggy, twenty year old memories of VERTIGO, as that's how it comes across. Something that's almost pre-conscious, lingering just outside awareness; a condition that echoes the title of the original French novel VERTIGO is based on: "D'entre Les Morts" or Among the Dead; in other words, a phantasmal, dream state, like the gauzy photography in the film under discussion.

    Well, even though they had recently saw it I think what you are saying is actually descriptive of the process. Basically, because first they had a memory of seeing Vertigo, then the experience of seeing it again…and the film does play with the idea of memory and how that is a multifaceted thing.

    And funny thing is their title was originally Deja Vu.

  12. RBlenheim

    Compared to Hitchcock, DePalma is a pipsqueak. Obsession is okay, but it doesn't stand on its shoulders; it coils around the foot of its foundation like an eel around a monument.

    Well, that's a fairly unkind thing to say about De Palma, and really not true. Of course they stood on the shoulders of Hitchcock as had he not existed, or gone where he went with his pictures, likely many others may not have either. Secondly, Hitchcock did not invent suspense or the thriller…he was just very adept at it.

    I don't think comparing one filmmaker to another is a great idea. Hitchcock was Hitchcock, De Palma is De Palma. Brian is, in all honestly, a brilliant filmmaker and his understanding of the craft is quite evident in his work. He does have a dark and sarcastic sense of humor, which he directs at himself as well, and I think people miss that but Hitchcock also had a twisted sense of humor. Not as twisted as De Palma's and probably not as mischievous but that is something they have in common.

    Brian's films are of his time and Hitchcock's of his. I don't expect to convince anybody of anything here but I am thankful that De Palma absorbed Hitchcock's lessons so well because it made for some really fantastic films…for me anyway.

    And look, if I was asked which film you had to see if you could only pick one, Vertigo or Obsession, obviously I would tell people Vertigo but that does not lessen what Obsession is in any way really.

  13. Not me. I adore lots of Hitchcock's films, but VERTIGO was never one of them. Other than early on (when it plays more like a De Palma film), I find it a most unsatisfying experience. OBSESSION satisfies me, every step of the way.

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