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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Brian De Palma finally went full Hitchcock with this Vertigo riff

Illustration for article titled Brian De Palma finally went full Hitchcock with this Vertigo riff

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Midnight Special pays inspired tribute to the work of both Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. In its honor, we’re recommending excellent homages to other films and filmmakers.


Obsession (1976)

Throughout his career, Brian De Palma has been dismissed by some critics as little more than a ripoff artist, just swiping ideas and set pieces—specifically from Alfred Hitchcock—and making them R-rated. But even when he’s repurposed the shower scene from Psycho (with explicit nudity) or the voyeurism of Rear Window (with even more explicit nudity), De Palma’s usually had a slyer purpose in mind. Sometimes he uses Hitchcockian elements to hook an audience while he riffs on some aspect of human psychology or modern life. And sometimes he’s just testing limits, seeing how well the components of great cinema work when they’re applied to something fundamentally ludicrous.

Obsession is both crazy and quasi-relevant—as well as being the most boldly Hitchcock-derived movie in De Palma’s filmography. (Body Double is a close second, with Dressed To Kill lurking just behind.) Screenwriter Paul Schrader patterned the story directly after Vertigo, a movie that circa 1976 was out of circulation, and had a mixed critical reputation. But Schrader and De Palma weren’t trying to fool anybody. They just both loved Vertigo, and rather than writing an essay for some film journal, they made a movie together that expressed what fascinated them about it.

Cliff Robertson stars in Obsession as a New Orleans businessman named Michael Courtland, whose wife Elizabeth (played by Geneviève Bujold) gets kidnapped and murdered in 1959. A decade-and-a-half later, Michael meets and falls for an art restorer named Sandra (Bujold again), who looks enough like Elizabeth that he thinks he can remake the new woman in his dead wife’s image. Meanwhile, John Lithgow—who’d go on to be a frequent De Palma collaborator—mugs shamelessly as Michael’s thickly accented business partner Robert Lasalle. As Robert and others question Michael’s sanity, he finds himself circling answers to a mystery that’s haunted him for 15 years.

In addition to Schrader, De Palma was joined by New Hollywood’s most daring cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who gives Obsession the hazy look of a half-remembered dream. And the director re-teamed with his Sisters composer (and frequent Hitchcock employee) Bernard Herrmann to reproduce the sound of a classic Hollywood thriller. Production wrapped in 1975, but the film sat on Columbia Pictures’ shelf for a year, finally hitting cinemas a few months before De Palma’s Carrie. Both movies were surprise hits, briefly putting the director toward the top of a rising generation of filmmakers that included his pals Steven Spielberg (who was about to shoot Close Encounters Of The Third Kind with Zsigmond) and Martin Scorsese (who was busy at the time making Taxi Driver with Schrader and Herrmann).

Obsession doesn’t exactly plumb any depths that Vertigo didn’t hit first, nor do its insights into one dangerously driven man differ much from what Hitchcock and screenwriters Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor had already done. But the movie’s extended, dialogue-free set pieces are mini-masterpieces of cinematic choreography. And the heightened luridness of Obsession does succeed in making Vertigo’s twisty plot seem all the more inessential to that film’s power. What both movies do is cut a tale of murder and madness down to its essence, exploring characters who’ve been damaged by social expectations and their own desires. The difference is that in Vertigo, James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson is, deep down, probably a decent guy—while Robertson’s Michael is an empty suit, defined only by his wants. That’s the De Palma touch.


Availability: Obsession is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services. (DVD and Blu-ray editions are available on the import, bootleg, and used markets.)