Time has been kind to Douglas Sirk and his sumptuous melodramas. Once dismissed as banal—unsurprising given the critical perception of melodramas as feminine and therefore lowly—his work has since been heralded for its striking use of exaggerated colour, atmospheric lighting, and subversive social politics. A prolific filmmaker, his most esteemed era remains the 1950s, a period that saw him hone his skills as both a dramatist and visual storyteller. Magnificent Obsession, released in 1954, marks a perfect entry point into his wider oeuvre.
From the off, Sirk establishes the ordered morality of his hyperreal universe. We're first introduced to spoiled playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) as he shows off to a series of unimpressed onlookers in his speedboat, tearing across a lake with reckless abandon. The resultant accident draws the small town's medical services begrudgingly to his aid, along with the sole resuscitator for miles around. Inevitably, the well-loved philanthropist Dr. Phillips—a man who the locals talk about in the same hushed tones as the Pope or David Attenborough—has a heart attack at the same time and dies. When Merrick awakes, he has to reckon with the now quantifiable value of his vapid life, and his sudden infatuation with Dr. Phillips' widow, Helen (Jane Wyman). Trials and tribulations ensue.
While it's easy to imagine a modern audience rolling their eyes at the increasing extremes of the plot machinations that follow, as well as the hearts-on-sleeve romance, it's refreshing to see Sirk play the more absurd aspects of his narrative so straight. No winks, no talking down to the material. Instead, Magnificent Obsession stands out for how open-hearted its missive to human kindness remains. Sirk's synthesis of a larger-than-life love story with flecks of magical realism and the rich hues characteristic of the Technicolor colour process makes Magnificent Obsession an incredibly warm film from top-to-bottom.
Criterion are releasing disc versions of two classic Sirk pictures this month, both of which star Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman: Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, released a year later in 1955. If the quality of this digital restoration is anything to go by, then it's a good month to be a Sirk fan. Although the colours here are softer and subtler than in Sirk's later works, perhaps owing to working from a 35mm interpositive rather than the original Technicolor negatives, this is easily the best looking version of the film on the market.
Also included in this two-disc release from Criterion is the John M. Stahl original of the same title, dating from 1935. Shot in black-and-white, with far more traditional camera set-ups and blocking compared to Sirk's outing, Stahl's version remains compelling in its own right, an exercise in classical formalism that, despite its straightforward rigour, features a far more exaggerated and cocksure rendition of the central playboy from Robert Taylor. I'll leave it to you to decide who proves dreamier.
- High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2008 featuring film scholar Thomas Doherty
- Magnificent Obsession, John M. Stahl's 1935 adaptation of the same novel, newly restored
- From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers (1991), a documentary by Eckhart Schmidt
- Interview from 2009 with screenwriter Robert Blees
- Interviews from 2008 with filmmakers Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, in which they pay tribute to director Douglas Sirk
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- An essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien
The Criterion edition of Magnificent Obsession arrives in the UK on Blu-ray on March 13th.