At the time of its release, Obsession was by some degree the most refined of Brian De Palma's films, an ironic twist given how it is perhaps the most compromised of his pictures to that point. Rewritten to avoid certain controversies, and then slashed to the bone per the wishes of legendary score composer Bernard Herrmann, Obsession differs so thoroughly from the vision of its writer, Paul Schrader, that he disowned it during production. The cuts, however, make for a streamlined production, perhaps too truncated but nevertheless taut, and it's no wonder that the film proved the director's first noteworthy hit.
Patterned after Hitchcock's Vertigo, Obsession's moments of De Palmian trickery are few and far between. Instead, he captures the high melodrama of a past age and, more importantly, never treats it as anything less than silly. He does not look down upon the style, mind you, but he sidesteps the critical mistake of attempting to play the absurdity in the serious manner of 1970s cinema. Instead, he plays the film just straight enough to embrace the melodrama, and more than any other De Palma film to this point, Obsession keeps the audience wanting to watch the story rather than jump through his aesthetic hoops.
Opening with a lavish party for real estate developer Robert Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his wife Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold), Obsession communicates the heavy trimming upon its script immediately as it jumps along rapidly through establishing character moments and a sudden, random abduction of Elizabeth and daughter Amy by unknown assailants. They leave a note demanding $500,000, enough money to bankrupt Courtland, but police encourage him to place shredded paper in a suitcase along with a tracking device instead of the money. When the kidnappers discover the ruse, they enter into a car chase with the police that ends in a horrific crash that kills Elizabeth and Amy.
As you can guess, Robert is devastated, and the Vertigo influence enters the film when Courtland's business partner, Robert LaSalle (John Lithgow), encourages him to take a trip to Florence, Italy. Consumed by sorrow and unable to think of anything but his dead wife and child, Courtland agrees, without question for the sole reason that he met Elizabeth in Florence years ago. When he arrives and enters the church where they met, Courtland finds, to his shock, a woman restoring the paintings there who looks just like his wife. Sandra (also Bujold) hesitantly warms to the man's instant and passionate fixation upon her, but soon she enters into a relationship with the man and even acquiesces to his attempts to turn her into his wife.
At this point I found myself for the first time agreeing with De Palma's detractors that he appeared only to be recreating his influences, not working with them. Though it may be the director's tightest work yet, Obsession openly displays Herrmann's creative wishes, and one has to think that he had a hand in paring the film down until it played more like a Vertigo retread.
And yet, De Palma undermines the brevity of his shortened film, and in the process he subverts Hitchcock by introducing a complex romanticism into the Vertigo story. To better understand the split between the moments of outright plagiarism and the artistically fulfilling offshoot of his own vision, look at the contrast between the basilica of San Miniato in Florence and the replica memorial Courtland erects as the gravestone for his wife and child. One is a copy of the other, of course, but it reconfigures the meaning of the original into terms that are emotionally resonant for this character. A visual metaphor for De Palma's entire approach to the film, this juxtaposition lays the framework for a much darker yet more genuine exploration of Hitchcock's themes even with the most insidious implications of the plot left on the cutting room floor.
Where Hitch alerted us with an entire act left that Judy was Madeleine, De Palma holds off the revelation until nearly the end, by which point things move too swiftly for us to consider Courtland's psychological state. But by that point, we do not have to, because the director has used the preceding time to make a film not about the armchair psychiatry Hitch detested yet put on the screen so often but the emotion. Hitchcock had to suck us into his world with his tricks to torture us, but De Palma does not project Courtland's agony upon us but merely at us, asking to consider the horrible pain of a man left with nothing.
Compounding this despair is the truth of Sandra's identity, not Elizabeth as we might have guessed but his daughter, Amy. What layers of incestuous subplot existed in Schrader's script are left more to a dark corner of the mind, but the slight change in role proves the most ingenious alteration between the two works. The subject of Vertigo was obsession as much as it is in this one, but De Palma shows us how we all use grief to cover up truths that could cure us of our fixations. LaSalle, who organized the kidnapping to bankrupt his partner and assume total control, found Amy alive and raised her to hate her father, brainwashing her with the memory that he did not pay the ransom money and thus did not care enough for her or her mother to part with his money. Courtland, meanwhile, is so consumed by remorse that he does not ever consider that the woman he courts may look like his wife because she shares her genes. Both of them are blind to the irony of their lives: Amy/Sandra collaborates with LaSalle out of hatred for her father by entering into an Elektra complex with him, while LaSalle did effectively kill his partner's interest in the company though he did not bankrupt the man.
The spirals of the main characters, eventually looping into an extended déjà vu that reconfigures events around the truth, crescendos emotionally, demonstrating how we do not fully understand how much we love something until we've lost it. When Sandra fakes her kidnapping so LaSalle can have a second chance at ruining his partner and she can see whether her father actually brings cash this time, the mounting tension of Courtland's frenzy demonstrates that he's learned his lesson. He secures the money, only for LaSalle to swap out the suitcase for a fake, and he performs the same money drop. When he finally learns of his partner's deception, Courtland kills LaSalle and takes the money straight to the airport, where he hopes to kill Sandra for her role in cheating him. However, he breaks open the suitcase in front of her before he can shoot her, and Sandra/Amy can now see that her father did get the money after all and shouts "Daddy!" with glee. One might expect De Palma to have this ending, in which a child and parent are reunited through money, to be cynical, but there is no moment in the film as flamboyantly melodramatic nor as emotionally genuine as his nearly endless, whimsical circle around the hugging father and daughter.
The opening credits of Obsession contain the most overt indication that De Palma is directing. He intersperses a shot slowly tracking toward a building where the party is being held with slides containing pictures charting Elizabeth and Robert's relationship. Once the credits end and De Palma at last moves inside the mansion, we see that the characters are watching the slide show, which abruptly ends with the card, "And they lived happily ever after." He starts the film at an ending of sorts, and one that steels the viewer for the inevitable heartbreak. Elsewhere, however, De Palma is elegant, his tracking shots, pans and tilts graceful as they pore over numerous shots of art and of the heavenly haze around the characters (provided by Vilmos Zsigmond). For the first time, the romanticism that can be plainly seen in works such as Carlito's Way peek from behind De Palma's bag of tricks, and his technique is used toward a purpose, a purpose greatly aided by Herrmann, who may have hindered the director and writers' visions but contributed one of his finest and most context-appropriate scores as repayment. Hell, De Palma even gets one of his few unimpeachable performances out of an actor, in this case Lithgow, whom we can see here starting to perfect what eventually became his stock and trade: weak-bodied but able-minded schemers and villains. In a film built on dramatic and tragic irony, the greatest twist of Obsession may be that it is at once the most indebted to the work of someone else even as it makes the greatest case yet for De Palma as his own artist, someone who can think beyond his list of references to break them down and reconstruct them into something that can stand proudly alongside the works he plunders, even the masterpieces.