An enjoyably melodramatic mystery thriller that plays like a cross between Don't Look Now and Vertigo, Brian De Palma's 1975 hit has aged remarkably well - perhaps because of its classical quality that some would have found quaint even back then. Clearly but not unfavourably modelled on Hitchcock, the film starts as a kidnap thriller but soon settles into a languorous romantic groove that constantly plays with the audience's expectations. Aided by richly layered performances from his leads De Palma wrings real emotion and drama from what could have been a deeply silly caper.

Michael Courtland is a successful New Orleans businessman who seems to have it made - the palatial Southern mansion, the beautiful young wife and a daughter they both dote upon. His life is thrown into turmoil when his loved ones are snatched in the night, leading to a ransom situation that goes disastrously awry.

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Sixteen years later, Michael is still haunted by these events, disconnected from his career and psychologically adrift. A business trip to Florence reunites him with a vision of his wife in the church where they met, leading to a romance that seems too good to be true for both of the players. As the new couple return to America, they both become consumed by their obsession with the past, as Michael's chance at redemption turns into a dangerous reprise of the previous tragedy.

Cliff Robertson brings his usual gravitas to the central character, etching Michael's guilt and compulsion with care and passion. Geneviève Bujold excels in a demanding dual role that can only be fully appreciated in retrospect, beginning as alluring to the audience as she is to Michael and becoming a heart-breaking victim as events spiral out of control. John Lithgow gives a suitably sinister supporting performance, his reptilian charm and sleazy appeal making his part in the plot obvious from the start but no less pleasurable for that.

Locations play an important part in Obsession, and De Palma makes good use of them all, from downtown New Orleans to sunset Rome. His roving camera may not seem that innovative now but it still has an elegant pull, sweeping the viewer along on the characters' emotional journey. His framing gives even static dialogue scenes an almost comic-book quality that is entirely appropriate for such heady, heightened material. He also gets maximum mileage out of Bernard Hermann's Oscar-nominated Gothic score, reinforcing the film's dreamy ambience and adding a sense of both the spiritual and spirituality to the layers of intrigue.

De Palma takes twisted relish in toying with the audience, throwing in subtle and blatant nods to his craft and our experience throughout. The prelude sees one of the hoods teasing a distressed performance out of Michael's daughter to aid their demands, his appreciation of her convincing efforts - "That's good, that's real good!" - mirroring a director's manipulation of his actors. Later, a kid delivering the ransom message is told to ask for a deliciously inappropriate tip, making this harrowing moment subversively amusing.

The camerawork is fluid and sensual throughout, with an early pan-around of Michael's graveyard visit smartly bringing us up to date with the narrative, while the spinning shots the director loves so much (they're repeated in everything from Carrie to Scarface) are effectively deployed for moments of deepened melodrama.

Elsewhere, such familiar devices as shimmering dream sequences and cliched gap-filling flashbacks are employed to more provocative effect than usual thanks to the director's fearless approach with the material. Cunningly, Bujold's love interest is introduced via her lecturing Robertson on Renaissance art restoration, providing an unmistakable metaphor for De Palma's technique; immaculately composed surfaces with cruder concerns glaring out from underneath.

Obsession might not go down well with modern thriller audiences weaned on the likes of M Night Shyamalan (and God only knows why it has been released with a hugely misleading 18 rating on the box), but it's a satisfyingly murky slice of pulp nonsense that resonates more than it probably should due to the fierce commitment of the actors and the bravura style of the director. It makes a good introduction to De Palma's body of work, with many recognisable themes and visual motifs that recur in his more widely recognised classics. It might not be up there with the Hitchcock films that inspired it, but it's still a simultaneously classy and trashy potboiler that has stood the test of time well.

Reviewed on: 14 Jul 2011
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A businessman hit by tragedy becomes obsessed with the past.
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