Brian DePalma’s Obsession (1976)

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Brian DePalma's Obsession (1976)

On the eve of Michael Courtland’s (Cliff Robertson) tenth wedding anniversary, his wife Elizabeth (Genevieve Bujold) and their young daughter Amy, are kidnapped and held for ransom. The police convince Michael to use counterfeit money to pay the criminals and trap them. This plan eventually backfires and, during a high speed pursuit, Amy, Elizabeth and the kidnappers are killed in a tragic accident.

Ten years later, while on a business trip in Italy with his associate La Salle (John Lithgow) Michael stops into a cathedral he and Elizabeth used to frequent, when they would visit Europe together. Inside, Michael meets a mysterious young woman named Sandra, who happens to be an exact double of his dead wife…

Michael is instantly taken with Sandra, perhaps a bit too much. But, none the less, the two begin a courtship and fall in love. Eventually Michael brings Sandra back to the states to wed, against the advice of La Salle and virtually everyone around him. Oblivious to his obsessions and blinded by this “second chance” Michael presses forward with the nuptials.



On the eve of the wedding Sandra vanishes, in her place is a ransom note, a duplicate of the one from ten years before… Frantic and overcome with near psychotic desperation, Michael vows to do everything in his power to avoid a repeat of his past mistakes and to get his beloved Sandra back…

In the early seventies Brian De Palma and film school companion Paul Schrader attended a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958.) So inspired by the revisiting of this classic film, De Palma and Schrader decided, in their own act of obsession, to do an homage of sorts and, thus, Obsession (1976) was born. And, in my humble opinion, not only does Obsession do a successful job of honoring Hitchcock, it also one ups it’s source of inspiration on almost every level, but particularly and, most importantly, in emotional resonance.

I have long been an admirer of Brian De Palma’s films. He is a master of manipulation and visual artistry. De Palma always paints a unique filmic experience onto the screen with a fantastical, slightly removed from reality touch. His movies are always drenched to the bone in style, and I mean true style, no shaky cam junk, no flash cutting, just vivid cinematic beauty, existing in it’s own special De Palma plane. And, Obsession is, naturally, no exception to this rule.

From the first shot to the last Obsession finds itself in a world of lush, soft focus photography, fluid and florid camera movements, operatic locales and transitions, jaw dropping twists and a dreamy, off kilter atmosphere so thick it’s almost staggering. Although De Palma would make his most well known film, Carrie, later in the same year. And, he has had much larger successes, Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Mission Impossible 1996.) AND, my personal favorite of his works, Dressed to Kill (1980), certainly stands as a great cinematic work. I consider Obsession to be De Palma’s best film, as a filmmaker, not only because of his usual visual theatrics, but because the film has much more of a deeply, deeply emotional story and characters than any of his other output by a large margin.

Michael Courtland as played by (the usually supporting or villainous) Cliff Robertson is instantly likable, for no real reason, other than appearing to be a kind, decent, human being from the first moment we meet him. Robertson’s “lack of star power” adds a layer of familiar un-familiarity to the role, that a bigger name never could have. He comes across as a nice relative or next door neighbor you’ve known and loved for years, with simple body language and tone of voice. This immediate likability makes the ensuing tragedy (upon tragedy) all the more heartbreaking, because you can truly feel for this man (and his actions) from the bottom of your soul.

The rest of the acting in the film is also top notch. Particularly from Bujold, who, like Robertson, flies on Oscar caliber wings throughout the film’s running time. Bujold has always been an odd actress, seemingly hard to place in a film, but here she is used to the absolute best of her abilities. Also, as La Salle, John Lithgow (one of the screens great hams) delivers a relatively subtle performance, that still maintains a slight edge of silliness or camp to it, that helps (at times) cut the edge off the abject seriousness of the film in a very appreciable way.

The screenplay by Schrader and De Palma is intriguing, both exceedingly subtle and all at once over the top. It is chock full of both “normal” subdued moments and highly unusual twists that come along at a brisk pace. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and operatic score deserves special mention, as it drives the film and enhances the story in a perfect manner, almost becoming like a living, breathing character itself. Vilmos Zsigmond’s typically brilliant photography also elevates Obsession to another plane it never would have achieved in lesser hands (particularly since the film was shot on a meager, even for the time, $1.4 Million budget.)

When all is said and done Obsession is the ultimate tale of regrets, second chances, the depths of love and the human soul, and, what can happen when you let all of those things blind you to the rest of the world.

10 out of 10 star filtered, soft focus shots!


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