In the opening scene of the career-spanning documentary De Palma, legendary director Brian De Palma recounts seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for the first time. In Hitchcock’s masterwork De Palma discovered the very nature of a director, and De Palma would lift techniques from the master throughout his filmmaking career. This, however, has been a bit of a double-edged sword for De Palma as he’s often faced allegations of ripping off Hitchcock wholesale, a trumped up charge that amplifies the similarities while ignoring the distinctions between the two cinematic minds. While the origins of De Palma’s infatuation with Hitchcock predate his filmmaking career, there’s one film in De Palma’s career that represents the turning point where the director shed his early tendencies towards experimental filmmaking and became the modern master of suspense – that film is 1976’s Obsession, now reissued on Blu-ray by the good people at Scream Factory, the horror imprint of Shout! Factory.
As De Palma himself tells the story in the documentary as well as the special features on the new Blu-ray, the director and Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader caught a screening of Vertigo at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and quickly developed an idea riffing on Hitchcock’s classic. De Palma fleshed out the story and Schrader wrote the screenplay. They called it Déjà Vu (though they’d eventually have to change the title) and were able to secure a modest budget and go before cameras in New Orleans and Italy for their international riff on Vertigo. For the first of many times, De Palma would be working with famed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and the score would be composed by Hitchcock’s own masterful composer Bernard Hermann.
Cliff Robertson would star in the kind of prototypical Hitchcock leading man role as Michael Courtland, a Southern real estate developer haunted by the death of his wife Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold). Years after his wife and daughter were killed in a kidnapping scheme gone horribly wrong, Michael is in Italy with his business partner Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow) where he encounters a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth in Sandra Portinari (also Bujold). Michael soon finds himself infatuated with the young woman and attempts to transform her into his deceased wife. However, nothing is what it appears on the surface and old wounds leave lingering scars in the twisted world of Obsession.
Obsession introduces a lot of the trademarks that would come to be integral to his later, stronger films that still operated within that Hitchcockian vein such as Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double. Of course, Hermann’s score echoes that of the score he did for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, though the master composer wouldn’t live to finish recording it – he died after completing his classic score for Taxi Driver though he had written the score for Obsession. In his first collaboration with Vilmos Zsigmond, De Palma utilizes the split diopter for the first time, a tool he would frequently employ that splits the frame and gives the look of a deep focus shot. De Palma employs slow motion to drag out suspenseful moments as Hermann’s score whirls, a tease of what’s to come in subsequent films. Obsession is still a fun piece of devious cinema by De Palma, but it’s the start of a filmmaker finding all of the tools before taking that next step into mastery.
Some of the special features on the new edition of Obsession get a bit into some of the troubles encountered on the production. Interviews with producer George Litto and editor Paul Hirsch explain how the film’s big twist proved controversial to distributors. (I won’t spoil the twist, but it is quite fucked up.) On set, Cliff Robertson proved to be a terror, often giving his costar Geneviève Bujold little to work with as he passionlessly recited lines of passion and would purposely shift himself to affect her eye line in the shot. In De Palma, the director recalls his cinematographer snapping at the star and his propensity to use lots of bronzer, pushing him against a mahogany wall and screaming, “You’re the same color as this wall!” However, the issues proved surmountable and Obsession turned out to be a decent box office hit.
Obsession was the first of two films Brian De Palma released in 1976 and it’s the weaker of the two – the other being the immortal classic Carrie (also available from Scream Factory). Obsession endures because De Palma fanatics can see the origins of the director’s obsessions make their way on to the screen. Once again, Scream Factory has delivered the goods for fans of Brian De Palma’s films, and this edition joins the ranks of other releases – Phantom of the Paradise, Raising Cain, and the aforementioned Carrie – as must-own editions for De Palma devotees. We all have our own obsessions, Brian De Palma just put his on the screen.
A twisted take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo from director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Paul Schrader, Obsession lands on Blu-ray with a crisp new transfer of the film that serves as the genesis for so many of the trademarks associated with De Palma’s influential career.