Hitchcock and repetition: A reassessment of "Obsession"

Last seen: 12 years ago

Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is not only a film about obsession and repetition—it has also become an object of obsession in itself, particularly to the “new Hollywood” filmmakers of the 1970s.  Martin Scorsese has spoken about his “obsession” with Vertigo, and we can see glimpses of it turn up in, for example, Shutter Island (2010).  Vertigo is a film that has been countlessly referenced, re-imagined, cited—in the background of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), in the romantic dreams that become nightmares in Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos (1997), in Sheryl Lee’s dual role as Laura/Madeline in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.  For Brian de Palma, who has veritably made a career out of re-imagining the Hitchcock canon (with mixed results), Vertigo appears most obviously in the appropriately titled Obsession (1975)—scripted, it should be noted, by Paul Schrader, another figure from the 70s “new American” school on whom Hitchcock clearly made a deep impression.  

The film is a creaky, laborious re-working of the Vertigo plot, moved to New Orleans and given a somewhat ugly incestuous twist.  The Jimmy Stewart character is now a wealthy real estate developer played by Cliff Robertson.  His wife and 9-year-old daughter are taken hostage, but the ransom is botched and they are presumably killed.  Sixteen years later, Robertson discovers a young Italian woman who uncannily resembles his late wife and plans to marry her, not knowing that she’s actually his daughter, who survived the kidnapping.  Lucky for him, she’s been raised to be a “good Catholic girl” who doesn’t believe in pre-marital sex, and Robertson solves the mystery before they’re able to go through with the wedding.  In addition to the derivative plot, de Palma indulges in showy 360-degree pan shots, employs a somewhat trite Bernard Herrmann score, and even throws in a dash of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, as the soon-to-be second wife finds herself haunted by the memory of her predecessor.

Vertigo theorizes the very notion of recursivity, of returning over and over again to familiar ground, replaying the same scenes and moments.  So it makes sense that it has lent itself to such constant reworking.  Obsession, however, seems a particularly tedious exercise; it isn’t tempered by the dark comedy or sense of nervy fun that characterizes, say, Dressed to Kill, de Palma’s witty variation on PsychoDressed to Kill feels like one great artist riffing on the work of another, and doing it in style; Obsession simply feels like an artist in training trying to imitate a master.  My viewing of Obsession this week is itself an act of repetition: having last seen the film roughly twelve years ago (near the height of my enthusiasm for de Palma), when I found it somewhat dull and hokey, I wondered if it would seem better to me now.  The marginal improvement may be because I’m no longer watching it in pan-and-scan on cable.  Original rating: **  New rating: **½     

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