Thursday, July 28, 2011

Magnificent Obsession (1954) - Directed by Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk’s melodramas are elegant and precise films that appeal directly to the audience’s emotions, featuring wildly entertaining stories that contain improbable circumstances that have you wondering whether you should smirk and laugh at the events taking place. But….and this is the genius of it…. in that split instance before you laugh, you realize you are already invested in this story. You also realize you like, even love the characters you are watching and you are wrapped up cozily in a Technicolor dream world, one in which you really don’t want to leave. So instead of laughing at the moment, you become filled with childlike innocence and you grab your blankie, curl yourself up and become even more absorbed. You are totally entranced and you can’t help it. You completely submit to the charm and you worship at the alter of melodrama and Douglas Sirk, embracing the wild swings in plot and emotion and are begging for more, more, more.

Okay so maybe I exaggerate a bit, but not by much. I don’t know if any director leaped so headlong into true and classic melodrama as Douglas Sirk, embracing it both as glorious entertainment and artistic expression. He is truly the Godfather of Melodrama and all those after him who utilized it - Fuller, Fassbinder, Almodovar – owed him gratitude and in many cases, made direct homage to his work. Magnificent Obsession is Douglas Sirk’s first great foray into melodrama. He would follow it with more artistically and thematically ambitious films, like All That Heaven Allows (1955), but I think this one ranks up there among the best of his work, if for nothing other than the script itself. It's easily the wildest plot that Sirk ever filmed. I don’t even want to go into the plot much because part of the real fun of the film is not knowing what will happen next. To set up the story, playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) wrecks his boat and needs to be resuscitated with the only resuscitator machine in town. It so happens that Dr. Phillips, who is loaning the equipment, has a heart attack the same day, and dies, probably because the resuscitator was not available. Enter Helen (Jane Wyman), Dr. Philips’ widow, who crosses paths with Bob Merrick and they soon become linked together, as Bob tries to somehow repay her for the grief he has seemingly caused.

Rock Hudson’s character Bob Merrick is fascinating in that we’re never sure exactly why he feels so compelled to repay Helen and make things up to her, and ultimately lots of other people as well. Is it for love? He seems to be able to get whatever girl he wants with the money he has and those looks, so that wouldn’t seem to be a problem for him. Is it to clear a guilty conscience? This option is quite likely although we’re never really convinced that he’s ever felt guilty about anything in his whole life. He meets up with an Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), an artist, who becomes a sort of angel-like mentor to him, dispensing advice, caring for him after a night of drinking. This old guy convinces him that doing good and repaying others, without asking for anything in return, creates a Karma of sorts that can be addicting. It seems it’s more this latter option, that Merrick embarks down a path of doing good and cannot stop, that makes the most sense. He seems like the obsessive type, and this giving to others becomes his new impulsive obsession, and we see this type of impulsiveness play itself out in the film at other times as well. Hudson's counterpart, Jane Wyman, was never the most beautiful of actresses. She is good at playing the wholesome, honest, average woman type. Here this comes to great fruition in that we believe her and the actions that she takes in the film because she’s not too glamorous, giving her credibility in this convincing role, necessary for a melodrama of this stature. We have to believe her because the film rides on her ability to convey and project an inner calm and goodness. It should also be mentioned that Barbara Rush gives an incredible performance as Joyce, Helen's stepdaughter. She's as emotional and as fiery as it gets and provides a good contrast to Wyman's stoic poise.

Sirk’s melodramas never feel like reality to me. I think that’s why they succeed so much. There’s no hiding the fact that the stories take place in their own movie world, devoid of apparent realism for the most part, despite the fact that they highlight prejudices and repression in some of his films. The glossiness of the films only superficially covers over the underlying themes. But beneath the gloss you can see truth. This camouflage allows Sirk the ability to not hold back. You can’t go half way with a melodrama, otherwise it comes across as contrived. When you sell it 100% and don’t pretend you’re trying to be something else, it really works. Taken as a whole, Magnificent Obsession requires some leaps of faith, but the leaps come in several smaller increments so that by the time you would question the reality of what you’re seeing, you’re already so invested and love the film.  As I mentioned, Sirk would become more ambitious in All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959) regarding themes. But, Magnificent Obsession is a glorious entertainment in its own right and a worthy introduction to Sirk’s films.


Sam Juliano said...

This is a passionate review Jon, and one that is truly honors it's subject, a director who developed his own aesthetic that is referred to years later as "Sirkian." The emotions, the seasons, the colors, the exceeding melodrama, it's all there with the deeper social underpinnings. This is certainly a great Sirkian film as are WRITTEN ON THE WIND, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and IMITATION OF LIFE among others. Sure it requires a stretch and sure it's Movieland, but this is all part of this peculiar but ravishing hybrid. Hudson and Wyman are terrific too.

Jon said...

Thanks for your passionate enthusiasm Sam! I know you are a great fan and admirer of Sirk's cinema as am I. I find these films to be quite irresistable. Magnificent Obsession sometimes doesn't get mentioned enough alongside Sirk's other films.

Sam Juliano said...


Just wanted to let you know that I sent you a few important e mails Jon. I know you are away, but you may get this soon enough. Thanks.

Jon said...

Hey Sam I sent you an email in reply. Thanks.