Deep in the second act of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, as Jane Wyman’s blind heroine Helen Hudson mourns for her lost sight after a disappointing prognosis from the world’s greatest ocular specialists in a Swiss Clinic, she steps out of her bedroom and into the drawing room of her accommodations (no tourist class for this class act). The conversation of the previous scene took place in full light, but as Helen glides into the room like a whisper the room is suddenly in shadow, as if dusk has crept up on Helen and her devoted step-daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush). “The night is the worst time,” she confesses to Joyce, her face picked out of the darkness by a sliver of rim lighting on her cheek, like a crescent moon. “It does get darker, you know. And then when I finally do get to sleep, I know that when I get up in the morning, there won’t be any dawn.” We’re not quite blind, merely drifting at the edge of her perpetual darkness, and it casts a somber atmosphere over the scene. There is no “realistic” reason for our plunge into darkness and Sirk makes no explanation as he, for a few brief moments, takes us into her twilight world. But it feels right. His use of light and color is not unlike the way the underscore builds through the scene. As Helen gropes through the apartment to reach the balcony, where her fumbling knocks a pot off the ledge and smashing into the street below, the score crescendos on the shattered pot, the physical echo of her shattered hopes as she sobs over her affliction. Like the music, Sirk conducts the light to reflect the inner world rather, not the material world. When Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) swoops in to cheer her up, the rooms lights up with him. “I’d forgotten how happy I could be,” she chokes in the brief glow of his presence. It’s doomed to be short lived in this world of grand emotions and self-sacrifice, at least until the final triumph where love does indeed conquer all.
Magnificent Obsession is the first of Douglas Sirk’s great Hollywood melodramas, a romantic tale of hubris and loss and sacrifice and rebirth in a rarified Technicolor world of storybook-pretty homes and sun-dappled preserves of nature. The setting is the lakeside village of Brightwood, part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright, but apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter’s control of his portrait’s landscape. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and constantly playing with his light as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater, while never breaking the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil.
Wyman’s Helen Hudson is the widow of a self-sacrificing surgeon and Hudson’s Bob Merrick is an arrogant millionaire playboy whose reckless ways and attitude of entitlement indirectly lead to the death of Helen’s husband and to the accident that leaves her blind. The “magnificent obsession” of the title refers to a spiritual philosophy of secret charity and self-sacrifice that paternal painter and sage mentor Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) passes on to Bob. The references to Christ and the swell of a heavenly choir every time this ideal is discussed makes the religious origins clear but the dialogue keeps the ideal in a secular framework and, as far as Sirk is concerned, the film remains in the mortal world of love and loss and human redemption.
Bob is the classic man-child who faces the emptiness of his self-absorbed life and redeems himself by returning to his medical studies and secretly doing good deeds with his fortune. But for all his pursuit of Helen, he’s in many ways the object of desire (Hudson was younger than Wyman and a figure of bland male beauty) and Wyman’s Helen is the character that the audience identifies with. Bob’s sacrifice is all about time and money and effort, leaving behind a life of wasteful pursuit of pleasure and thrills to embrace a life of service and the personal satisfaction that brings. Helen meanwhile keeps her spirits up while enduring one tragedy after another, and then sacrifices her own happiness so as not to be “a burden” or an object of pity.
It’s utterly irrational on the surface, a plot of contrivances for our characters to suffer through and come out the other end “earning” their ultimate happiness. Sirk’s response is to embrace the emotional responses. His unreal exaggerations offer a beautiful world of beautiful people and tortured emotions and grand sacrifice to the altar of love. Audiences willingly and eagerly surrendered to his American operas then. Today we don’t look past his exaggerations, we see them as a surreal heightening of the conventions into an expressive theatricality. His cinematic arias are just as irresistible today.
Criterion’s two-disc edition is beautifully mastered at a “Superscope” widescreen ratio of 2.00:1 from an excellent print, sharp and clear and saturated in the magnificent hues of Technicolor (apart from a few brief shots, lasting only seconds, of soft, oversaturated film from what appears to be an inferior dupe print). The commentary by film scholar Thomas Dohery is well researched and prepared, and his presentation is engaging and accessible and Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow offer tributes to Sirk and his influence on their work in short video interviews. The second disc features the original 1935 adaptation of the Lloyd Douglas novel directed by John Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor and the 1991 feature-length documentary From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers, featuring on-camera interviews with Sirk (speaking in German, with English subtitles). The accompanying booklet features an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
For more views and reviews:
Dave Kehr reviews the DVD in his “Critic’s Choice” column in the New York Times here.
Dennis Lim writes on the DVD for the LA Times here.
Gary Tooze offers his technical appraisal of the disc on DVD Beaver.
The aspect ratio is debated at the Criterion Forum here. (Skip to the last pages to get to discussion of the actual Criterion release.)
Jean-Loup Bourget’s essay on Magnificent Obsession for Bright Lights Film Journal, issue 48, found here.
My overview of Sirk’s style and career is on Parallax View here.