Magnificent Obsession wasn’t German expatriate Douglas Sirk’s first film made in Hollywood, his first collaboration with frothy producer Ross Hunter, or his first dabbling in the genre of melodrama. It isn’t even, by Sirk enthusiasts’ measure, his first masterpiece. But in retrospect it was the decisive turning point for his late career boom, in which he crafted deliriously purplish, deeply jaded women’s weepies that only later became revered for both celebrating and critiquing the excesses of red-blooded, middle-American ‘50s entertainment.
And it’s no softball first pitch: Fate, irony, faith, altruism, martinis, speedboats, instantaneous blindness, exotic European clinics, secular Christianity, charitable sexuality, and modernist interior design are all ladled onto moralist/novelist Lloyd C. Douglas’s rickety narrative frame without so much as the whisper of a suspicion that the whole enterprise ought to collapse even without the added weight of Sirk’s soon-to-be trademark Brechtian skepticism. In short, Magnificent Obsession is perhaps the first Sirk film to call to mind Stuart Klawans’s memorable description of “film follies” (in the essential book of the same name): “These are movies for people who want to die from too much cinema.”
Of course, Sirk’s ‘50s melodramas are far too rigorous and tightly wound to ever merit comparison to the delightful fiscal irresponsibility of Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, even if occasionally his subject matter approached emotional recklessness of a comparable magnitude. Sirk’s specialty during this rarified period was chronicling with a merciless analytical bent (good humor? Bad faith?) the mechanics of American soapers. It’s become a cliché to celebrate Sirk now for his cold, ruthless take on social mores, and to overcompensate for deconstructing not only those behavioral habits but also how pop culture reflects and feeds them.
What people don’t quite give him credit for nowadays in their rush to justify his intellectual credentials is the fact that if he didn’t necessarily believe in the cheesecake he served up, he gave off a damned good impression—one that makes all the difference in the world and why Sirk’s movies endure as almost any one of his more celebrated contemporaries falls continually in and out of fashion. The proof is in Magnificent Obsession‘s goopy pudding. Unlike All That Heaven Allows (with that shot of Jane Wyman trapped inside a TV set that all but writes the dissertation for you), Written on the Wind (the ultimate example of Sirk’s sympathy for the devils and contempt for virtue), and Imitation of Life (a movie that for 50 years now has mopped the floor with any other attempt to tackle America’s never-to-be-resolved race crisis), Magnificent Obsession is really and truly utter trash. And it’s unapologetically entertaining.
It opens with a breathless orgasm of proofs to Murphy’s Law: Rock Hudson’s callous playboy gets into a 180mph boating accident basically because he can afford it, is saved by a special medical device invented by a doctor on the other side of the lake, a doctor who happens to have a heart attack at the very moment his device is saving Hudson’s life, after which Hudson spends a long and frosty recuperation at the hospital run by…guess who? It ends with a medical miracle that sees Hudson himself attempting a lifesaving operation on that doctor’s widow (Wyman), but not before achieving a mystical spiritual rebirth and, just for the ladies, scrubbing down in the longest shirtless surgical prep scene in cinematic history. Somewhere in between those two story points, Hudson indirectly causes Wyman to go blind, discovers something like a god in the form of a cryptically gay-ish artiste, entertains Wyman with the help of an adolescent live-action Peppermint Patty, and goes a little gray at the temples. Wyman, meanwhile, cries.
Sirk takes this plot (which was already committed to film in workmanlike fashion by John M. Stahl during the 1930s) and accentuates all the aspects that shouldn’t work: incidental coincidences, irrational decisions, sermons of nebulous denomination. His commitment to the ridiculous is what finesses that trademark Sirkian irony, but it’s not a safe, intelligent irony. One can’t watch Magnificent Obsession today in the same way one would All That Heaven Allows, focusing on Sirk’s ahead-of-his-time attack on small-town mentality. Magnificent Obsession is a much more mysterious beast, one that doesn’t work without a belief in Sirk’s form. In that sense, it’s the ultimate litmus test. If you pass, you might also come to realize that Hudson’s decision to overthrow rationality because the cherub choir swells to a crescendo is the movie’s best self-fulfilling metaphor.
Color me slightly underwhelmed. Considering the advances in DVD transfers made since Criterion put out All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, I truly expected Magnificent Obsession to blow them out of the water, but it's at best a draw. The colors are vibrant but don't quite reach the kaleidoscopic heights of Heaven's stained-glass bedroom sequence. Sharpness is also an issue. Whereas the blowing leaves in the opening sequence of Written on the Wind were flawless, Obsession bears the unmistakable mark of edge enhancement. The picture's far better than merely good, but I was sort of hoping I'd feel like my sight was just restored for the first time. The sound mix is even, and there's enough bass in the opening motorboat sequence to keep it from sounding like a prop plane.
Here's the Douglas Sirk smorgasbord Criterion should've tapped with their previous two discs. Audio commentary from Thomas Doherty that's probably a little more studied and less revelatory than the movie's tone merits, but overall rich with detail and insight. But for my money, Allison Anders hits the mark a little closer in her brief introductory video piece about the film, in which she talks about the shock of seeing Rock Hudson's silky hospital pajamas. Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, comes off as nothing if not self-aggrandizing. On the second disc is a feature-length interview with Sirk shot in the final years of his life; despite the bizarre, Night and Fog-suggestive credits, it's an essential forum for Sirk's matter-of-fact assessment of his work in Hollywood. Finally, Criterion includes as an extra feature Stahl's 1935 version of the film starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. The disc's liner notes by Geoffrey O'Brien make a lot of nice observations about the film and how it influenced Sirk's remake, but I imagine most Sirk fans will find it oddly bloodless. (For one thing, this purported melodrama has less incidental music than most Iranian films I've seen.)
Bringing yourself to cherish Sirk not just for his egghead credibility, but also his willful bad taste might be counterintuitive, but it'll be a magnificent obsession.