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The Criterion Collection presents
Magnificent Obsession (1954)

"He's the man who's haunting me."
- Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 26, 2009

Stars: Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Barbara Rush
Other Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Otto Kruger, Gregg Palmer
Director: Douglas Sirk

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:47m:53s
Release Date: January 20, 2009
UPC: 715515034821
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Just how seriously can we take Douglas Sirk in an age so saturated with irony? His films are relentlessly overwrought, yet there's nothing winking or knowing about them—they're soap operas made in deadly earnest, and if even a little bit of cynicism crept into them, they'd probably be unwatchable. There are die-hard Sirk cultists, some of whom seem deeply committed to the director and his work, others who seem to be into it as part of an elaborate put-on. (It's like me trying to make a persuasive case to you that the great rock act of the 1980s was K.C. and the Sunshine Band.) If you're looking for a first taste of Sirk to see what the noise is all about, or if you're a purist and Sirk completist, this handsome DVD release of Magnificent Obsession is a great place to start.

Rock Hudson stars as playboy Bob Merrick, known around town for buying his way out of trouble, but money can't paper over some of the damage done by his reckless streak—when he flips his speedboat, the medics are called, and they're forced to bring with them the one resuscitator in town, owned by the ailing, saintly and unseen Dr. Phillips. In the sort of cruel irony almost always restricted to the world of soap opera, Dr. Phillips has a heart attack at the very same moment, and without his precious equipment nearby, he dies—the wastrel Lothario lives on, and the man of healing has gone on to a better place. No one takes his death harder than his widow, Helen, played by Jane Wyman, even though she and the good doctor have been married only six months, and she's closer in age to her late husband's daughter. Merrick the cad first tries to put the moves on the grieving widow, then, after understanding what he's done, tries to atone for his sins, but doesn't find a receptive audience. His search for grace and for getting into the good graces of Helen and her family is principally what the film is about. (It's also, unintentionally, a PSA for fully funding the EMTs in your town.)

The improbable story points come galloping at us fast and furiously, and I won't give them away here. But there's plenty to discuss without spilling the plot, and almost all of it has to do with the churning subtext of this and all of Sirk's pictures. Hudson's presence points this up, as in later decades he became Hollywood's most famous outed movie star, a man who spent his onscreen life romancing Jane Wyman and Doris Day, but off screen was gay, closeted, and probably the industry's most famous AIDS casualty. You can't help but read a gay subtext into a lot of this movie, and the naïveté of Hudson's acting style lends itself to that sort of interpretation. (Hudson was always a little wooden on screen, but here he's particularly unpolished; this was made the same year as On the Waterfront, as Thomas Doherty points out in his excellent commentary track, and the stark difference between Hudson's Bob Merrick and Brando's Terry Molloy couldn't be greater.)

Similarly, there's an almost New Age, Christianity Lite vibe to much of this—we learn that the late Dr. Phillips was a grand benefactor, making gifts of almost all of his earnings to those in need. For one thing, it means that his widow isn't nearly as financially secure as she might have imagined, and that there's an army of those who have benefited from the doctor's largesse, who have been asked not to pay it back, but to pay it forward. The doc's best friend is a painter named Randolph, played by Otto Kruger, who functions as Merrick's conscience, or his guardian angel—the violins swell whenever he shows up on screen, and Rock's emotional journey is about moving from a total lout to one who serves others. It's actually a little creepy and weirdly paternalistic, especially in regard to keeping your family completely in the dark when it comes to estate planning.

The cheap shots come a little too easily when it's time to talk about Sirk movies, I guess, and they shouldn't—you both find yourself thinking that what's going on is completely ludicrous, and yet getting swept along by the grandeur of its emotions. Especially notable in the supporting cast is Agnes Moorehead, as a nurse who stands by the Phillips family during a tsunami of unthinkable crises, and the performance is sort of a weird halfway point between her turn as the mother of Charles Foster Kane and her recurring role as Endora, intergalactical nightmarish mother-in-law of Darren Stevens.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.00:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: If you really want to get into it, surf on over to criterionforum.org, and re-open the scab that's started to heal over the debate about the aspect ratio of this movie. You're probably better off sticking to the pretty pictures, however, and Russell Metty's smashing Technicolor cinematography looks, well, magnificent in this saturated, dewy transfer. It's a delirious serving of eye candy.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The Ode to Joy chorus swells in the string section a few times too many on the soundtrack, and dynamics in the mono offering can be stunted, but it's all sufficiently clear.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Thomas Doherty
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. 1935 version (see below)
  2. accompanying booklet
  3. color bars
Extras Review: Certainly the most notable extra is the inclusion of the 1935 version of the film (01h:42m:05s), directed by John M. Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor—it's about as soapy as Sirk's version, though perhaps not as emotionally lurid. (Both films are based on a novel by John C. Douglas.) It can feel like a bit of overkill to watch them back to back, but the opportunity to compare and contrast, and to see just how Sirk put his stamp on the material, makes this an auteurist feast. The second disc also includes From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers (01h:22m:31s), a 1991 documentary directed by Eckhardt Schmidt, consisting almost entirely of interview footage with the director shot in 1980. It's in German, Sirk's native tongue, and though he discusses his American years extensively, Magnificent Obsession only gets a few passing mentions.

Back on the first disc is Thomas Doherty's fine commentary, which provides lots of biographical information Sirk, goes over the aspect ratio discussion, discusses the constriction of gender roles on screen in the 1950s in comparison with earlier decades, and charts the ebbs and flows of Sirk's reputation. (Rainer Werner Fassbinder was Sirk's biggest cheerleader, and more than anyone is responsible for the rehabilitation of the director's reputation in the 1970s.) Jane Wyman talks directly to us in an original trailer, which is a bit unnerving; and in accompanying interviews from 2008, filmmakers Allison Anders (9m:10s) and Kathryn Bigelow (13m:17s) discuss their affection for Sirk's films. These are alas more about the interview subjects than about Sirk, though it makes you wonder if there's something particular in Sirk's work that brings out that confessional streak. The accompanying booklet features an informative essay by Geoffrey O'Brien, and lots of saturated color photographs.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Madly overwrought, like all the best Sirk pictures are, the film is beautifully presented here and comes with a persuasive package of extras.


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