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Obsession

Obsession(1949)

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teaser Obsession (1949)

London psychiatrist Dr. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) could use a shrink of his own. Despite his professional manner and calm faade, he is seething with murderous rage over his wife's constant infidelities and her latest dalliance with Bill Kronin (Phil Brown), an American on business in England, proves to be the final straw. Methodically and obsessively, Riordan begins to plot his revenge on his wife Storm (Sally Gray) and her lover and his diabolical plan involves a secret underground chamber in a deserted bombed-out neighborhood and a bathtub full of acid, strong enough to completely dissolve a human corpse.

Not as well known as Edward Dmytryk's groundbreaking film noirs of the forties, Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947), Obsession (1949, aka The Hidden Room) is nonetheless a gripping psychological thriller that builds considerable menace and tension in its bleak trajectory of events. On a visual level, the film (photographed by C.M. Pennington-Richards) is pure noir but in terms of execution, Obsession compares favorably to such better known portraits of aberrant behavior depicted in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and Dial M for Murder (1954); like Robert Walker's Bruno Antony or Ray Milland's Tony Wendice in the latter films, Dr. Riordan is the sort of cunning psychopath who has worked out the perfect murder down to the last detail but has overlooked the possibility of any flaw in the grand design. And in this case, the best laid plans hinge on the fate of a missing dog named Monty.

One possible reason that Obsession has been overlooked and underrated for so long is because so few people have actually seen it except in poor quality, gray market dupes over the years. The film was made in England on a low budget by Dmytryk after he had been uncooperative before the House Un-American Activities and was blacklisted in the Hollywood community along with other members of the infamous "Hollywood Ten" that included screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The fact that Dmytryk was branded as a communist and politically subversive by the press certainly hurt his career and reputation and it's little wonder that Obsession was poorly distributed and ignored by audiences in the U.S. Yet, those who seek out the film are rewarded with a taut yet darkly humorous character study of a marriage made in hell and its consequences.

The cast is uniformly excellent with Robert Newton giving a surprisingly intense yet restrained performance (by his usual scenery-chewing standards) as the insanely jealous Riordan. The alluring and stylish Sally Gray is perfectly cast as Riordan's spoiled and faithless wife, the sort of pampered woman whose serial affairs are no more than enjoyable diversions like shopping sprees. And Phil Brown as Riordan's unfortunate victim is the sort of wise-guy philanderer who almost deserves his fate but is just sympathetic enough to make you care about him in the movie's darkest hour. Adding a bit of droll humor to the proceedings is Naunton Wayne as Supt. Finsbury of Scotland Yard whose deceptively cheerful behavior while investigating Riordan hides a steel-trap mind. To top it off, there is a subtle but brooding score by Italian composer Nino Rota, who would soon begin collaborating with Federico Fellini, starting with The White Sheik (1952).

Based on the stage play A Man About a Dog by Alec Coppel (who adapted the screenplay), Obsession was shot over a thirty day period which presented some challenges to Dmytryk such as finding a trained dog to play Monty, the pet terrier of Storm Riordan. In the end, the featured canine had to be trained prior to filming and was insured for a substantial sum in case he ran away. More unpredictable was Robert Newton whose reputation as a troublesome alcoholic preceded him. In his autobiography, Dmytryk wrote, "One of the nicest, most considerate, most sensitive of men when sober, he was a holy terror when drunk, though sometimes amusing....He had to post a 20,000 [pound] bond guaranteeing his sobriety during production. If we had been a few days over schedule, I doubt he would have made it. As it was, on the last day of shooting, with liberty in sight, he started drinking ale at lunch. By the time I had said "print it" on his last scene, his face was glowing a deep red. By the time our set party was over, he was already Mr. Hyde."

As for Monty, the runaway scene stealer of Obsession, Dmytryk noted that, "A few weeks after completion of filming, he apparently disappeared from the producer's apartment. The insurance company offered a reward. Someone found him at the other end of Hyde Park and returned him to a somewhat reluctant owner. A couple of weeks later, the ungrateful pup ran off again. Once more a sizable reward resulted in recovery. Sometime later, he ate some poisoned meat. No reward could save his life. Moral - too much insurance is not good protection."

Among the few reviews Obsession received at the time of its release, most were positive such as this Variety review that said "Powerful suspense is the keynote of Edward Dmytryk's first British directorial effort" and singled out a supporting player: "Naunton Wayne as the Yard superintendent is an example of perfect casting and his nonchalant manner deserves particular praise."

A more recent reassessment of the film by Barry Gifford, author of Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula which became the basis of the 1990 David Lynch film, called Obsession "a corker," adding "This is a great film of a rational mind at work, enjoying the anticipation, watching his rival suffer, and there's a good predictable trick ending. The real reason to watch this movie, however, is to see the lovely Sally Gray, a British actress who did not appear in many films (Dangerous Moonlight [1941] was a good one). Her seeming intelligence is part of her beauty; she has it all over any other celluloid blonde as far as I'm concerned."

Producer: N. A. Bronsten
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Alec Coppel (screenplay and book)
Cinematography: C. Pennington-Richards
Art Direction: Duncan Sutherland
Music: Nino Rota
Film Editing: Lito Carruthers
Cast: Robert Newton (Dr. Clive Riordan), Phil Brown (Bill Kronin), Sally Gray (Storm Riordan), Naunton Wayne (Supt. Finsbury), James Harcourt (Aitkin (butler)), Betty Cooper (Miss Stevens (receptionist)), Michael Balfour (American sailor), Ronald Adam (Clubman), Roddy Hughes (Clubman), Allan Jeayes (Clubman).
BW-96m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living by Edward Dymtryk (Times Books)
The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films by Barry Gifford (Grove Press)
IMDB

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Obsession (1949)

This Cannes contender was shot on a shoestring while director Edward Dmytryk was in creative exile in England after refusing to play ball with the House Un-American Activities. It's not too much of a surprise that the bad guy in this dark noir is a crass American (Phil Brown) who gets what's coming to him after canoodling with the wrong unfaithful wife (elegant blonde Sally Gray). When her husband Dr. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) finds out he's been cuckolded, he concocts a Hitchcockian "perfect plan" to dispose of the other man, including the psychological torture of a bathtub slowly filled with corrosive acid. Among Dmytryk's challenges was finding a trained dog for a key plot point, but his greater challenge was directing Newton: the actor familiar to Disney fans from Treasure Island (1950) had a reputation as a mean drunk. The director insisted on a 20,000 bond that Newton would forfeit if he drank alcohol during production. Newton kept his word, but Dmytryk later remarked "If we had been a few days over schedule, I doubt he would have made it." Unavailable for years because of Dmytryk's ruined reputation, this taut British noir later garnered the critical acclaim it deserved.

By Violet LeVoit

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