Reviews

Magnificent Obsession

Sirk explores behavior through archetypes, shading personality with scalpel-sharp precision.


Magnificent Obsession

Director: Douglas Sirk
Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Barbara Rush, and Otto Kruger
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1954
US DVD Release Date: 2009-01-20

Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote of director Douglas Sirk, in his landmark book The American Cinema: “Sirk requires no extreme rationalization, and his films require no elaborate defense. Even in his most dubious projects, Sirk never shrinks away from the ridiculous, but by a full-bodied formal development, his art transcends the ridiculous, as form comments on context.” It's as if he was saying that although Sirk’s classic Hollywood melodramas were indeed filled with meanings and subtexts, all of that ephemera was simply an added pleasure; a surprise under the ever-present Sirkian Christmas tree, if you will. To enjoy and appreciate a “Douglas Sirk Film” all you need to do is merely open your eyes.

Beginning his career in the theaters of Weimar-era Germany, Sirk left Europe, alongside his Jewish wife, as the Nazis came to power and soon ended up a successful Hollywood director with much commercial success, though he was often derided by critics as not being important because of his sensitivity to the role of women, both in film and society. Upon retiring to Switzerland after this brief fling with the studio system in 1959, the expatriate Sirk’s reputation would soon receive an incredible bolstering by the most important film critics of the time: the nouvelle vague writers, particularly Jean Luc Godard of the Cahiers du Cinema. The group, which is responsible for constructing what we now recognize today as “the auteur theory”, elevated Sirk’s directorial prowess and his oeuvre to an art form.

Sirk’s work has been a major, formative influence on contemporary directors the world over. Wong Kar Wai, Pedro Almodovar, Ang Lee, Werner Fassbinder, John Waters, and Todd Haynes are but a few of the modern greats who have all directly referenced his work in their own. Sometimes, as with Haynes’ jewel-toned Far from Heaven, the homage is literal both in style and in spirit. There would be no Mad Men on television right now had Sirk’s films not existed.

“Sirkian Melodrama” has become a popular catchphrase for films that ape this particularly colorful, visual style of storytelling with a vintage flair. These other endeavors borrow from Sirk’s tragic, sexy, stylized sensibility, which is almost always finely-attuned to women’s topics, or at least puts its women in the forefront of the narrative. Like a brilliantly-staged opera, Sirk’s films are theatrical feasts, rife with symbolism and hidden meanings.

In Sirk’s vision of Magnificent Obsession, the viewer is treated to a Technicolor dream world where truth is often kept suffocated in favor of the expected or the mundane. Emotions, motivations, and realities all bubble well beneath the lacquered surface, and are often treated in merely a symbolic way. This leaves viewers to decode the messages for themselves, making for a welcome challenge. The characters are a product of their stiff, moral culture. To challenge the status quo would be fatal for them; a form of social suicide. Still, Sirk finds a way to work each of his character’s angles to maximize their impact. He explores behavior through archetypes, shading personality with scalpel-sharp precision.

Based on a popular Lloyd C. Douglas book, Sirk’s 1954 adaptation of Magnificent Obsession is certainly not lacking in the suds department. Initially filmed to little acclaim in 1935, the remake succeeded in bringing actor Rock Hudson his first major starring role and success. Sirk also saw leading lady Jane Wyman to an Oscar nomination for Best Actress after she sought the property out, wanting to play the female role first tackled by Irene Dunne in the John M. Stahl original -- which is also digitally-remastered and included here, along with a rare, comprehensive film documentary on Sirk called From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers.

Also included with the mind-blowing extras on the Criterion edition of Magnificent Obsession are the ruminations of two female director’s whose careers have been heavily influenced by Sirk: Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging, Grace of My Heart) and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, The Hurt Locker). Anders speaks eloquently about the influence of Sirk’s work on an entire generation of female movie-goers, including her own mother, who she says was affected by the “racial elements” of the film Imitation of Life.

This highlights Sirk’s commitment to bringing forth social change via his art, but it also examines a belief in and trust of women to be the harbingers of change both in the movies and in reality. This sensibility empowered women in a time when freedom of expression was in short supply, yet a radical shift in thinking and gender was taking place, thanks to the first wave of the feminist movement. Family, sexuality and gender were all being deconstructed in a way that had never even been considered, and Sirk helped to lead the way for a mass audience to experience this new way of thinking with his films.

Bigelow, who first learned of Sirk in one of Sarris’ graduate seminars at Columbia University, calls the director a “major influence” and eruditely reasons that a film like Magnificent Obsession is “imagistic”. The sumptuous, scrupulously-detailed sets and costumes, and the masterful use of light, color and shadow which are integral to Sirk’s deliciously rich mise en scene, almost distract from everything else going on in the film (the pristine digital transfer is stunning). From the skillfully filmed opening speed boat sequence on a tree-lined lake to the brief, explosive “burning of the witch” scene, Sirk’s images transfix and are crafted with an impeccably-trained artist’s eye.

As Anders emphasizes, the combo of Hudson and Wyman would be used again by Sirk the very next year for his film All That Heaven Allows. She theorizes that the director figured out a formula that audiences responded positively to, that his motif of using the same performers, only for different films, was deliberate. He enjoyed that people’s reactions to his marriage of character types and the performer’s personas were favorable and repeated these configurations for further exploration of previous themes.

Wyman, for example, in Magnificent Obsession, plays Helen, a well-coiffed, grieving widow. In All That Heaven Allows, Wyman plays Cary, a well-coiffed, grieving widow. Hudson in Magnificent Obsession plays Bob, a well-coiffed, free-spirited ne’er do well romantic. In All That Heaven Allows, he plays Ron, a well-coiffed … you get the point.

This style of acting and performance, deliberate in its execution, may seem overly-mannered or antiquated by today’s standards. In between histrionic bursts of crying or smarmy romantic clinches, there are genuine moments of introspection by the two leads and by the always-stellar, stalwart supporting actress Agnes Moorehead, endowing her character, who on paper is ill-conceived, with an iron-clad work ethic and crackling inner life.

Sirk’s films, Magnificent Obsession chief among them, can be enjoyed on multiple levels. First, the purely aesthetically-oriented one where you let the beauty of his images and the audacity of his color schema simply sweep you off your feet (believe me, this is quite easy – one can get lost in the director’s quixotic visual poetry). The palette that Sirk employs is much deeper than simple construction or flourishes of color or light and shadow, however.

A second, alternative method of viewing would be to decode the messages covertly implanted in the film’s rich subtexts and unique textures, with a critical eye on his revolutionary ways of thinking. The joy of Magnificent Obsession functioning on so many levels simply means that potential viewers will have at least two meaning-filled encounters with the formality and the romance of this singular auteur.

The director’s canon is filled with such flirtatious technical wonder and whimsy, it’s true, but don’t be afraid to analyze what is bristling behind these clever facades. Profound ruminations on love, impulse, gender, class, philosophy, charity and destiny are all cannily explored in a socially-conscious, purely artistic way that is missing from contemporary big-budget Hollywood fare.

To think that Sirk’s essential films were box office champs in their times offers a glimmer of hope that, because of the cyclical nature of the film industry, movies with similarly wallop-packing emotional scopes and vibrant stylistic ranges could come back into vogue. We just have to open our hearts to this possibility, and our eyes.

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