‘Obsession’: When De Palma Stepped Out of Hitchcock’s Shadow

“Taxi Driver was written before this, but Obsession was shot first.” —Brian De Palma Cinefantastique interview

Released in the late summer of 1976, more than a year since the end of production due to Columbia Pictures minor objections to some of the film’s controversial themes and motifs, Brian De Palma’s psychological thriller Obsession achieved solid box office results and was welcomed by a mixed reaction from the critics. Its life under the spotlight was inescapably limited, however, since De Palma’s breakout film Carrie hit the theaters in November of the very same year. Obsession ended its life in cinemas and soon fell into the uncomfortable and unfair realm of filmgoing oblivion, overshadowed by both the acclaimed adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, and the filmmaker’s grander future projects. But this masterful homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it should be noted, is without any doubt a film quite deserving of constant reappraisal. With bulletproof performances of Cliff Robertson (Charly) and Geneviève Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days), De Palma told a highly cinematic, Hitchcockian mystery with style, class and more than enough unique quality for the film to be able to stand solidly on its own feet, regardless of the similarities it shares with Vertigo, an inspiration that both De Palma and his screenwriter Paul Schrader acknowledged from the very get-go. Schrader was very proud of his script, which is why he took it to heart when De Palma insisted on changing the film’s climax. On the suggestion of experienced composer Bernard Herrmann, the director decided to shorten the finale, solidify and condense it, much to Schrader’s chagrin. Consequentially, the screenwriter distanced himself from the project and moved on to other work, soon reaching the peak of his career with Taxi Driver.

Paul Schrader’s ending actually went on for another act of obsession. I felt it was much too complicated and wouldn’t sustain, so I abbreviated it. Robertson is arrested at the airport and goes into a mental institution for ten years. He gets out, grabs a gun and goes to Florence, goes in the same church, again, Genevieve Bujold is there! But she doesn’t recognize him as she’s been in a catatonic state since her attempted suicide. The nuns at the clinic she’s in want to try out a new form of hypnotherapy in which they re-enact the kidnapping a third time. Bujold thinks it’s the first, and Robertson thinks it’s the second… and it’s then she says “Daddy, daddy…” as Robertson opens the suitcase with the money finally in the right place. It was an interesting sequence, but it just wouldn’t have worked. It made Schrader very unhappy; he thought I’d truncated his masterpiece. He’s never been the same since. —Brian De Palma Cinefantastique interview

 
Bernard Herrmann, famous for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest) but also for Citizen Kane, Cape Fear and The Day the Earth Stood Still, cared deeply about Obsession, considering it “the finest film in his musical career,” as he stated in a thank-you note to De Palma. The film was unfortunately his penultimate work of art, as De Palma recommended him to Scorsese for Taxi Driver: upon completing the score for this masterpiece, Herrmann died in his sleep, aged 64. His score for Obsession continues to be highly praised, just like Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is highlighted for its gothic beauty and special sensibility that goes hand in hand with De Palma’s desire to tell as much as he can without the use of dialogue. The images are mostly the ones that do the talking, and it’s wonderful to see that there are moments when the student manages to get out of his professor’s shadow. De Palma is a worthy successor to the undisputed master of suspense, which he would prove with his future films like Carrie, Body Double and Blow Out. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was Obsession that put him on the map.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Paul Schrader’s original screenplay, titled Déjà Vu [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Compiled by Bill Fentum from several sources, including: A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith (1991, University of California Press); The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles (1979, Holt, Rinehart and Winston); The Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady (1981, Simon and Schuster); An Interview with Bernard Herrmann by Royal S. Brown (High Fidelity, Sept. 1976); and De Palma has the Power by Mike Childs and Alan Jones (Cinefantastique, Summer 1977).

THE MAKING OF OBSESSION

Obsession was conceived, appropriately enough, in the midst of a conversation about movies—this one between De Palma and then beginning screenwriter Paul Schrader. “We were sitting around talking,” recalled Schrader. “I was talking about Autumn Afternoon, by Ozu; and we were talking about Vertigo, and we just got the notion for a movie. The thing that intrigued me most was the notion of creating a love story so strong that you could transgress the boundaries of time without jarring the audience. The love story could be so strong that the audience would allow you to go into the future to tell it.”

As is often the case, the problem came in finding backers who shared this vision. Over a period of two years, producer George Litto was able to raise about $1.4 million, one quarter of which he drew from his own savings. “We really didn’t have much to sell,” said De Palma. “First there was Paul’s script, called Déjà Vu. [The money men would later insist on a title they were sure the public would understand.] All I’d done was Sisters and that was considered an AIP picture. There was nothing really financeable.” At last, production began in the fall of 1974 and “creative differences” soon set in between writer and director.

The screenplay contained several elements that never made it into the final cut, including a much more extended climax. As it stands, Obsession ends with Michael (Cliff Robertson) running to an airport terminal to kill the suicidal Sandra (Genevieve Bujold), only to embrace her when he realizes she is actually the daughter he thought he’d lost 16 years before. But Schrader’s plan was to move the story one last time into the future.

Michael would be arrested at the airport and committed to a mental institution for murdering LaSalle (John Lithgow), who he’d learned had plotted with Sandra to rob him of his fortune. Released after ten years—and still intent on revenge—he buys a gun, again withdraws the $500,000 ransom, returns to Florence, and goes to the same church, hoping Sandra will be there. And sure enough, he finds her… but in a catatonic trance brought on by her suicide attempt ten years before. (Crazy, I know. But stay with me—it gets even wilder.) The nuns at the church, who apparently know a lot more of the story than Michael does at this point, decide to re-enact her childhood kidnapping as a form of hypnotherapy, and it works! Seeing that her father has FINALLY come through with a suitcase full of “real” money, she hugs Michael and calls him “Daddy.” Whereupon, the film ends in the same way: with their embrace, and Michael’s stunned expression.

During production, when composer Bernard Herrmann was brought on board to begin planning the movie’s score, he read this portion of the script and told De Palma, “Get rid of it—that’ll never work.” The director agreed, and soon decided on the more condensed finale. However, Schrader resented the change, later explaining that when the new ending was chosen, he lost interest in the project: “Brian wrote that (ending). He asked me to write it, but I couldn’t. I wanted just to move on to something else.”

In addition, a lovemaking scene with Michael and Sandra was removed, which left only a “suggestion” of incest between father and daughter—an element the writer had hoped would be much more explicit. “It (the incest) rather vividly scared the producer,” said Schrader. “I can’t imagine why. Maybe because he thought he would lose his PG or something. So only the hint of incest remains. But the smoking pistol is gone.” Still, others felt this cut was absolutely needed. Editor Paul Hirsch said, “I thought it was a mistake to drag incest into what was basically a romantic mystery, so I suggested to Brian, ‘What if it never happened? What if instead of having them get married, Michael only dreams of getting married? We have this shot of Cliff Robertson asleep. We could use that and then cut to the wedding sequence.’ And that’s what we did. It became a projection of his desires rather than actual fact.”

Other ideas were dropped, often due to budget restrictions. These included a larger role for Michael’s secretary, Jane (whose scenes would have shown a healthy sexuality that contrasts with Michael’s near necrophilia); and an actor who would have appeared in three antagonistic roles throughout the film—first as one of the kidnappers, then a rival for Sandra’s affections in the Florence scenes, and finally as the psychiatrist back in New Orleans—much like Peter Sellers’ Quilty in Kubrick’s version of Lolita.

The screenplay also called for a Patti Page song, ‘Changing Partners,’ to be played during Michael’s opening dance with his wife and daughter, but the rights would have cost about $15,000. Said Schrader, “The money thing that hurt me most in the movie was that I lost (the song), because that to me was just everything that the movie was about… ‘I’ll keep changing partners till you’re in my arms again.'” In its place, Herrmann composed a waltz theme that recurs at the end, when De Palma’s camera swirls around the reunited father and daughter.

Convincing producer Litto to hire Herrmann took a little time. He wanted to approach John Williams (whose standing in Hollywood was about to take an enormous leap with the release of Jaws), but De Palma and Hirsch had other plans. Said Hirsch, “I laid the Vertigo score against the sequence of Robertson following Bujold through the streets of Florence. The material itself was very neutral, but the music made it seem as if Robertson was dying of love for this woman—which was the whole idea. Litto said, ‘What’s that, ‘Romeo and Juliet’?’ We said, ‘No, it’s Bernard Herrmann!’ From then he was sold.”

Herrmann’s rapport with the director had improved a lot since the shaky beginning of their work on Sisters, and despite his declining health, he made contributions to Obsession that went well beyond a typical scoring assignment. Yet at first, the filmmakers were a little worried. When Herrmann viewed the rough cut, they were surprised to hear him chuckling throughout the film. Asked why, the composer smiled and said, “I’m laughing because I can hear the music already. But YOU’LL have to wait.”

As luck would have it, Herrmann was completely taken with the project, even carrying a small photo of Bujold in his wallet for inspiration. “I set up a lot of sequences just for him to play,” said De Palma. “He was the master of giving a whole emotional subtext to the characters. That is what makes the film work.” Months later, Herrmann would tell an interviewer, “I don’t really remember writing it, I was so carried away with the picture. I don’t know. I used to write at four o’clock in the morning—it just all came to me, I don’t know where from. And I identified with the girl, you know, how she felt it… It’s a very strange picture, a very beautiful picture, very different for me. It’s all about time. Has a Proustian, Henry Jamesian feeling to it. The only other score I ever felt this way about was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; there’s the same feeling of aloneness, of solitude.” He would later say that the score was his favorite among his work in films.

Just as he had earlier advised changes in the script, Herrmann would make one more suggestion that greatly enhanced Obsession as a work of “pure cinema”: a credit sequence that juxtaposes shots of the Florentine church where Michael meets both Elizabeth and Sandra… with still photos taken of Michael and Elizabeth during their time in Florence eleven years before the story begins. This montage serves several purposes. First, it foreshadows the importance of this particular location (the Church of San Miniato) in the story. Second, the photos—which “slide” horizontally into the Panavision frame—provide an eloquent transition into the first scene, where we’ll find out that they are indeed slides being shown at the Courtlands’ anniversary party. Third, the photos themselves will later be echoed by similar shots Michael takes of Sandra 27 years later. And finally, the sequence reinforces the screenplay’s vision of a love story evolving over decades. Friend and fellow composer Laurie Johnson remembered having lunch with Herrmann in London when the notion for these images first came to him: “Benny stopped eating, went straight to the phone, and called De Palma. He said, ‘This is Benny. I’ve got the idea for the main titles. Don’t argue, just listen.’ And he outlined the whole sequence, telling De Palma the number of frames for each shot.”

In August of 1975, post-production was completed. Paul Hirsch recalled, “We screened the film, and it’s an extraordinary moment when you see a picture for the first time. Several people were there—record executives, Brian, myself, Benny, and others. As the picture ended the lights came up, and Benny was sobbing. He cried for about ten minutes. I was very moved by this. After a while we went outside and got into a taxi. Benny was still sobbing occasionally, and I put my hand on his arm… The next day Benny and I had dinner at Sardi’s and he said, ‘I want to tell you why I was so upset yesterday. When I saw the picture all finished, I felt as if those characters had left me.'” He gave the finished score to De Palma, inscribed “With thanks for the finest film of my musical life.” Four months later, hours after recording his music for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Herrmann died in his sleep at the age of sixty-four.

Obsession was sold to Columbia Pictures for distribution, but lingered on the shelf for nearly a year, when according to De Palma, the studio “tiptoed out with it. They were amazed by how well it did.” In fact—though the film has gained a reputation over the years as a financial failure—this was not really the case. Its U.S. release ran from late summer well into the fall of 1976 (Schrader later mentioned having received a profit check). And with this success behind him, the director would move on to another modestly budgeted picture that would solidify his place in world cinema.

When the composer Bernard Herrmann gave Brian De Palma his written score for the director’s film Obsession (1975), he inscribed it: “With thanks for the finest film of my musical life.” De Palma was shocked, for when he glimpsed the inscription he thought Herrmann had written “final film.” As it was, it would be his penultimate film; Herrmann’s last hurrah being his brilliant but atypical score for Taxi Driver (1976). It seems that few have agreed with Herrmann’s estimation of Obsession. While virtually every one of his scores from Citizen Kane (1941) onward have been available on CD, Obsession has been out of print for years – until now. —Bernard Herrmann’s Magnificent Obsession

 
“Over the last decade, directors like Walter Hill, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese have defined the urban scene as little more than the sum total of its most extreme forms of decadence. Brian De Palma, perhaps the most popular of the new breed of brutalist directors, for whom depravity has generally been a movable feast, spread it out in Chicago for The Fury (1978) and in New York for his current film, Dressed to Kill. To these directors, the city is a pit of vice, grimly polluted and inhabited by the worst kinds of predators and human refuse: rapists, murderers, muggers, junkies, weirdos. Violence has become reflexive, an inherent part of the urban rhythm. Each insists it’s not the same obsession, however. ‘We are not a movement,’ declares Schrader. Yet the orbit of their backgrounds, aesthetic canons, narrative and cinematic preferences intersect at so many points that it’s hard not to see them as a galaxy of like-minded moviemakers. Scorsese, De Palma, and Schrader are all well acquainted, all have attended film school, all have professional histories that have overlapped at some point. Schrader wrote two screenplays for Scorsese, Taxi Driver and the forthcoming Raging Bull, and one for De Palma, Obsession. Robert De Niro, one of the actors most closely associated with Scorsese, was discovered by De Palma, who in turn routed the Taxi Driver script to Scorsese. As De Palma says, ‘We have very direct connections. We’re friends. We’ve discussed each other’s projects and kept a constant dialogue going over the years.’” —The Brutalists: Making Movies Mean and Ugly, The Saturday Review, 1980

Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene BBC series consists of detailed, incisive discussions in which film directors analyse key scenes from their film output. Those interviewed include such famous names as Brian De Palma, David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and many others. Presented in a lively and accessible manner by Cousins, the series will appeal to the general viewer and those wishing to learn about the craft of filmmaking. De Palma talks to Cousins about his maverick career, his childhood and his films: “So I like to try to go back and develop pure visual storytelling. Because to me, it’s one of the most exciting aspects of making movies and almost a lost art at this point.”


Watch Scene By Scene: Brian De Palma

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Brian De Palma’s Obsession © Columbia Pictures.

 
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