A cloud of resentment has drifted over the town that is home to the newly widowed Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman). The lakeside community has been scandalized by a speedboat accident involving millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), whose mishap kept the town’s only resuscitator from aiding Helen’s husband, Dr. Phillips, who was suffering a heart attack on the other side of the lake. While Helen and her daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), tend to funeral arrangements, Merrick heals in Phillips’ hospital, surrounded by the late doctor’s staff, who never fail to remind him his survival came at a terrible cost to others.
Once Merrick recovers, he offers to make a large cash donation to the hospital, and Helen lashes out at him for his insensitivity. While heading off on a drinking binge, Merrick is “rescued” by a local artist, Randolph (Otto Kruger), who hears the troubled young man out and instructs him on the way he might cleanse his soul.
Merrick approaches Helen again, and disaster strikes once more: in an effort to avoid Merrick, Helen is hit by a car and subsequently loses her sight. As time passes, Helen spends her days sitting by the lake with a young friend, Judy (Judy Nugent), and a shy, quiet man who is actually the guilt-ridden Merrick. Helen falls in love with him, completely unaware of his true identity.
Director Douglas Sirk’s 1954 melodrama Magnificent Obsession marked a high point in a series of extraordinary dramas he created at Universal Studios in the 1950s. Based on the 1929 bestselling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession had been brought to the silver screen once before, in 1935, by director John M. Stahl (and cinematographer John J. Mescall, ASC). Sirk chose to highlight the story’s considerable drama less directly, primarily through composition and lighting, and cinematographer Russell Metty, ASC, proved to be an ideal collaborator. (The two had worked together before, most recently on the wildly creative 3-D feature Taza, Son of Cochise.)
For Magnificent Obsession, Sirk and Metty worked closely to create a vibrant Technicolor landscape, using color saturations often reserved for lighthearted genre fare such as musicals. The picture’s dense, richly detailed color palette not only helps to bring out the narrative’s over-the-top plot points, but it also often provides insight into the characters’ emotions. Sirk and Metty’s bold, unusual use of Technicolor was repeated in three of their four subsequent feature collaborations.
The Criterion Collection recently released Magnificent Obsession in a two-disc edition that marks the film’s DVD debut, and the package includes both Sirk’s feature and Stahl’s 1935 adaptation. On the first disc, the main attraction has been given an excellent image transfer; the highly saturated Technicolor hues are handsomely reproduced, and there is a fine balance of true blacks as well as just the right amount of visible film grain. The film’s first half, filled with bold primaries, is suitably eye-popping, but the darker schemes in the second half are particularly impressive, offering nuanced color in low-light situations free of any chroma noise. The monaural soundtrack exhibits no age-related distortion and has good presence.
The first disc also features an insightful, detailed audio commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty, brief interviews with directors Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Stahl’s 1935 film, which appears on the second disc, has been given a generally impressive transfer, offering crisp image reproduction and an excellent, visible grayscale. The disc also includes an 82-minute documentary from 1980, From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers, directed by Eckhart Schmidt.
Sirk’s film still holds strong appeal for romantics as well as viewers who might be more attracted to its undeniable camp aspects. Regardless of where your opinion lies, this excellent DVD package brings back the rich gleam of 1950s Hollywood. Wyman gives a great performance, and Hudson finally comes into his own as an A-list actor.