One of Brian De Palma’s most underrated films is out now from Scream Factory
Maverick director Brian De Palma’s own obsession with Alfred Hitchcock is the farthest thing from a secret. In almost every one of De Palma’s films, the Master of Suspense is referenced and fetishized, from the basic PSYCHO meets REAR WINDOW structure of SISTERS, in which the male – as opposed to the female – lead is murdered graphically in the first reel and is witnessed by a nosy neighbor, to PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, where the PSYCHO shower scene is riffed -on, replacing a toilet-plunger with a knife, to CARRIE’s slow-burning, operatically suspenseful bucket-mount finale to DRESSED TO KILL, which amalgamates almost ALL of Hitchcock’s signature set-pieces into one over-sexed, kinky souffle.
But this fixation on Hitch has never meant that De Palma isn’t a blazingly original filmmaker, rather he simply uses those beats and motifs to sculpt his own brand of “style-as-substance” cinema, which is just as much a by-product of the French New Wave (interesting, as it was the young French filmmakers and audiences who first pushed to make a case for Hitch himself as an auteur filmmaker) as it is Hitchcockian. His shot-in-1975 and released in 1976 thriller OBSESSION however, might be De Palma’s most direct Hitchcock-cribbed film. In fact, it started its life with the director and writer Paul Schrader (TAXI DRIVER) catching a screening of VERTIGO together and later discussing making their own version of Hitch’s dark, dreamy, surreal tale of romantic, death-locked love and tragedy. And like with VERTIGO, OBSESSION – which was shelved initially by its distributor before being released the same year as CARRIE and becoming a surprise hit – sees a man living life in a haze after the death of a woman, before finding another female that he grooms to replicate her. In VERTIGO it was Jimmy Stewart chasing around two incarnations of Kim Novak and here, its Cliff Robertson going through the motions, starring as Michael Courtland ( THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode ” A Hundred Yards Over the Rim”, SPIDER-MAN) as a wealthy man whose wife (DEAD RINGERS and COMA star Genevieve Bujold) and young daughter are killed in a botched kidnapping plot. Twenty years later, devastated and blaming himself for the violent demise of his pretty ones, he follows his partner Lasalle (John Lithgow, in what would be an early collaboration with De Palma that would continue in several films like BLOW-OUT and RAISING CAIN) to Rome where he meets a young art restorer (also Bujold) who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife. Slowly, surely, he courts the shy woman, falling in love with her and attempting to mold her as he sees fit. But as his titular obsession mounts, all may not be exactly as it seems, leading to a corker of a climax.
As with SISTERS, De Palma explicitly screams his love of Hitchcock by employing Hitch’s right-hand composer Bernard Herrmann to write what might be the musician’s most delirious ever. Certainly Herrmann thought so and said as much publicly and in the press. It’s a swooning soundscape, romantic and dark and to hear it draped over gorgeous Italian locations, and against De Palma’s swirling, fluid direction guiding Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera, is an out-of-body experience.
De Palma believed – in a feature on the back-end of Scream Factory’s beautiful Blu-ray, ported over from a previous release – that Robertson was wrong for the part and damaged the movie, with his expression failing to illustrate the sort of anguish the character was suffering from. But I disagree. It’s a solid leading man performance and Robertson’s stone-face paints the haunted hubby as suffering a sort of shell-shock, a kind of corrosive guilt and pain that he has simply succumbed to and that has left him a joyless automaton. It’s a dream-like turn in a very deliberately dream-like film. And while not De Palma’s best work, it certainly sets the template for the maniacal free-fall into wall-to-wall style that is DRESSED TO KILL, four years later. And again, that finale, with its dizzying camera rotations and PG-rated perversity…damn it’s a doozy.