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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Obsession (1976)

"Should they restore the original, but never know for sure what lies beneath?"
- Sandra (Geneviève Bujold)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: June 25, 2001

Stars: Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold
Other Stars: John Lithgow
Director: Brian De Palma

Manufacturer: Columbia/Tri-Star
MPAA Rating: PG for Mild Violence
Run Time: 01h:38m:02s
Release Date: June 26, 2001
UPC: 043396041813
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- C+C-B B

DVD Review

It certainly is no startling revelation that Brian De Palma is a fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Any Brian De Palma film will, almost without fail, contain an homage of some sort to Hitch—sometimes subtle, other times more obvious. The same people that critique this technique so harshly seem to forget that De Palma has made some truly memorable films (Sisters, Carrie, Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables). On the reputation of those six movies, he has earned his place as a marquee director in my world, and I'll forgive him the inconsistent messes of The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Mission To Mars, Snake Eyes, and Mission: Impossible.

Obsession is De Palma's 1976 variation of Hitchcock's classic Vertigo. The plot is similar, yet with enough minor differences to make it unique, while still standing as a tribute to the original. It is a classic story of lost love, deception, and second chances.

Cliff Robertson is given the lead role that Hitchcock usually reserved for the likes of Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. Michael Courtland (Robertson) is a wealthy land developer, happily married to the lovely Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold), and father to their 9-year-old daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman). During the opening sequence, set in 1959 New Orleans, a lavish reception is being thrown at his home to celebrate a huge real estate development deal. To build suspense of imminent doom, a Hitchcock-ian trait, De Palma gives us a brief glimpse of a gun tucked in the waistband of one of the waiters.

Courtland's perfect world is shattered later that evening when Elizabeth and Amy are kidnapped and held for ransom. When the ransom drop goes horribly awry, Courtland blames himself for the death of his wife and child, and he spends the next 15 years grieving stoically.

The story then jumps to 1975, where he meets art historian Sandra (Bujold, in a dual role), a dead ringer for his late wife. To make things more bizarre, he first meets her in Florence, Italy at the same church he met Elizabeth many years ago. Courtland is obsessed (hence the title) with Sandra, and falls in love with her. In his mind this is an opportunity to get a second chance with his beloved Elizabeth.

Unfortunately De Palma takes forever to set up the heart of plot (that of Courtland 'discovering' another 'Elizabeth'), and the film continues to move a frustratingly lazy pace before reaching a somewhat convoluted climax. Long, dialogue-free passages occur often, and De Palma uses this opportunity to fill the screen with compelling, Hitchcock-inspired visuals. For example, during the ransom drop sequence early in Obsession, the kidnappers instruct Courtland to take a paddle-wheel boat. For no reason other than visually, the boat is full of boy scouts, so that Courtland is literally awash in a sea of green uniforms as he prepares to deliver the ransom.

There are many moments in Obsession where I felt as I was watching The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, or any of Hitch's mid 50's classics. As a De Palma fan, I appreciate the technical and visual aspects of Obsession, but it's the acting that stifles the story.

Robertson lacks the charisma of Grant or Stewart, and his acting borders on the comically stiff. He spends the bulk of his screen time with the same blank expression, which is apparently supposed to relay obsession, grief or love. It's just difficult to tell which emotion is which. John Lithgow is Courtland's partner Robert LaSalle. Complete with hokey southern accent and a moustache that resembles a strip of furry tape, Lithgow's LaSalle is an over-the-top characterization that almost becomes a parody. Obsession spans 15 years, and LaSalle wears what seems to be the same exact suit for the entire time. Only Bujold, surprisingly, is enough of an actress to make Obsession engaging. Her Sandra is cute, lively, and she breathes a bit of much needed life into the proceedings.

Without question, though, it is the score that makes Obsession worthwhile. The legendary composer Bernard Herrmann (Pyscho, Vertigo, Marnie) has created another haunting set of music that helps propel De Palma's vision along the familiar Hitchcock path. Without Herrmann's score, the tedious pace of Obsession would have been unbearable. It is really the highpoint of this DVD, and the remastered soundtrack is bright, rich and loud.

Overall, Obsession regrettably proves to be a bit too slow.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A less than memorable, somewhat disappointing anamorphic transfer from Columbia. Much of Obsession has a grainy look, which is even more jarring during the occasional moments when the print is sharp. The black levels in the abundant darkly lit scenes are a bit muddy and indistinct. However the daylight scenes, when not grainy, are vibrant.

Another distraction is that there are extensive dust and flecks that appear frequently.

It's unfortunate that there is such inconsistency in this less than stellar transfer, because De Palma places such importance on inspired visuals. It certainly would have greatly enhanced Obsession had the transfer been of higher quality.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Two words: Bernard Herrmann. It is his score that makes Obsession. Columbia has digitally remastered the audio on this release, and they have done an incredible job. The score thunders, and like Aimee Mann's music in Magnolia, almost overtakes the actors.

For a 1976 release, the 5.1 transfer is excellent, though it varies little from 2.0 mix. As expected, there is little rear channel audio other than Herrmann's score, but the separation is top-notch and the sparse dialogue remains anchored solidly. Compare this to the available mono mix and you will certainly appreciate the fine audio restoration Columbia has done to Obsession.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French and Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Against All Odds, Devil In A Blue Dress, and Someone To Watch Over Me
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The "Obsession" Revisited documentary is a real plus for De Palma fans. Running about 35 minutes, De Palma, Robertson, Bujold, producer George Litto and others give an interesting background into the making of Obsession. De Palma talks at length about how he and screenwriter Paul Schrader wanted to remake Vertigo, and detail the process involved in the creation of such a project.

This is a better than average behind-the-scenes piece, because the principals actually talk about the film, and not simply a "It was great to work with so-and-so" strokefest that is so typical of DVD extras.

Trailers and filmographies round out the special features, but don't add a thing. Does anyone really read the filmographies?

I think a De Palma commentary would have been a real plus on this disc, and could have given this release a much needed boost.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

This is an extremely slow moving film, and despite being only 98 minutes, it seems to take forever to reach the twisty climax. Hardcore fans of De Palma will no doubt find this release of Obsession enjoyable from a historical perspective, as one of his more obvious Hitchcock emulations.

Unfortunately the pacing is off, Robertson is too stiff to be a compassionate lead, and Lithgow hams it up to the point of distraction.

The real highlight is the Bernard Herrmann score. It elevates Obsession, and thanks to the remastered audio, it sounds like it was recorded yesterday.

Obsession is not in the category of De Palma's finest work, but it is worth a rental if you are a fan.


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