The legend that is Alfred Hitchcock has inspired many moviemakers over the years. From slight stylistic nods like the dolly zoom in Jaws to outright ridiculous remakes such as Gus Van Sant’s atrocious 1998 Psycho, Hitchcock’s echo can be seen and felt across cinema right up to the present day.
Brian De Palma is one director who displays his own Hitchcock obsession in a more obvious way than most. Before becoming known as the man behind such gangster greats as The Untouchables, Scarface and Carlito’s Way, De Palma made Obsession and although nowhere near as good a horror as Carrie, it serves as both a tight gripping thriller and a haunting homage to Hitchcock
Opening in 1959, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) is New Orleans businessman who seemingly has it all with a loving family and a multi-million dollar company. However his world is ripped apart after a botched kidnapping results in his wife and daughter’s death, plunging him into a deep depression driven by guilt and regret.
In 1975 after years in isolation Michael is convinced by his business partner to revisit Florence, the city he met and fell in love with his wife. At a church he has a chance encounter with a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his long dead lover and sees this as fates way of giving his a second chance at happiness.
Falling head over heels for her Michael rushes his new love back to the U.S, but their life together takes a tragic, all too familiar turn and Michael starts to wonder if he is losing his mind or there is something else more sinister at work.
De Palma is a director’s director and many of his great films reference other great movies, from the stone stair shot out in The Untouchables which is a homage to Battleship Potemkin to Blow Out which was built out of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup and even Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. However Hitchcock is his major influence and has impacted many of his movies.
Obsession along with Body Double and Dressed to Kill are all love letters to Hitchcock and take their stories, style, shots and themes straight from his work. With a plotline straight from Vertigo and with additional references to Dial M for Murder and Notorious, Obsession may appear to be a mash up of the Master of Suspense’s most manipulating movies but it is also a brilliant film all on its own.
From a story by De Palma the script is written by Paul Schrader, the scribe who gave us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and is crafted cleverly to play with the audiences expectations, taking us on a ride of suspense and thrills with an over arching sense of impending doom.
De Palma has been quoted as saying that Hitchcock “is the one who distilled the essence of film. He’s like Webster. It’s all there. I’ve used a lot of his grammar” and this can been seen in Obsession. It’s wonderfully filmed primarily constructed using Hitchcock’s cinematic language of shots and cuts, adding some of De Palma’s own flair and ideas into the mix, all supremely scored by composer Bernard Herrmann a longtime Hitchcock collaborator.
Full of mounting unease and an eerie dreamlike quality, Obsession is driven by the obsessive performance of Cliff Robertson playing Michael, with a balance of impulsive love sick romance and maniacal unhinged psychosis which tips both ways during the course of the story. Genevieve Bujoldis brilliant as the object of his desire and dreams and John Lithgow is also excellent in an early performance proving his talents as a dramatic actor.
What De Palma captures with his trio of Hitchcock inspired thrillers – Obsession, Body Double and Dressed to Kill – is something few directors have succeeded in doing: altruistic allusion without pitiful parody, respectful reference without irreverent rip off and that is an achievement in itself and what makes all of them such great movies in there own right.