Magnificent Obsession

Magnificent Obsession Blu-ray cover

Originally released in the summer of 1954 and based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Lloyd C Douglas, Magnificent Obsession was the first film which would bring together director Douglas Sirk with stars Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson and Agnes Moorehead, an overwrought melodrama now released on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection alongside the film which would reunite them the following year, All that Heaven Allows.

The millionaire inheritor of the Merrick Motor Company, Bob Merrick (Hudson) is an exemplar of the idle rich, spending his days pushing his speedboat faster and impatient with anyone who does not serve him in some way; injured in a crash and resuscitated by the lakeside, taken to the hospital he is rude to Nurse Ashford (Moorehead) and demands to be discharged, finally escaping by scrambling down an embankment where he collapses and is found by Mrs Helen Phillips (Wyman).

Magnificent Obsession; Helen and Joyce (Jane Wyman and Barbara Rush) learn of the death of their husband and father, Doctor Wayne Phillips.

Immediately propositioning her despite her obvious disinclination to engage in anything beyond the courtesy of a good Samaritan, Merrick is aghast when it finally becomes apparent that she is the widow of the recently deceased primary physician of the hospital and that he is indirectly responsible for his death, the resuscitator required for his self-inflicted accident having been unavailable when Doctor Phillips was taken ill simultaneously, but undeterred Bob presses on with what he regards as his “magnificent obsession” to make amends.

Previously filmed in 1935 with a vein of comedy running through it, screenwriter Robert Blees says in the accompanying archive interview that his own approach was to remove that and instead attempt to keep the film grounded and believable regardless of how preposterous the events depicted were, a tall order considering Bob is later directly responsible for Helen being struck by a passing car as she tries to escape as he pursues her demanding she agree to a dinner date, resulting in a traumatic head injury and permanent blindness.

Magnificent Obsession; Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) befriends Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) who is unaware of his identity.

Blees also saying of Hudson “he’s handsome, can’t act too well, but you surround him by talent,” his boorish contribution befits his adopted stage name, a smooth surface shaped to perfection but resistant to warmth and unable to flex or adapt, while Wyman would be nominated for an Academy Award for the stoic suffering Helen Phillips endures without complaint, later coming to find comfort in Bob unaware he has adopted a new name to continue to be close without her becoming aware that he is the man who caused her this silently borne anguish, hoping that one day she might forgive him.

Merrick guided by a “secret belief” imparted to him by the painter Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) whom he has also inconvenienced with his boorish behaviour, crashing his car at his gate, any mention of the ethos to which the late Doctor Phillips also subscribed is accompanied by a heavenly choir vocalising Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, assuring the audience that although Bob Merrick is a drunk, a harasser of women and a stalker who employs private investigators to trace Helen when she vanishes that his magnificent obsession is square with the Good Lord Above, the suffering of woman an unfortunate but incidental tool to achieve the essential task of redeeming man.

Magnificent Obsession is available on Blu-ray from Criterion now

Magnificent Obsession; Bob Merrick and Helen Phillips (Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman), reunited in Europe.



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