Magnificent Obsession

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Synopsis

Reckless playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson, in his breakthrough role) crashes his speedboat, requiring emergency attention from the town’s only resuscitator—at the very moment that a beloved local doctor has a heart attack and dies waiting for the lifesaving device. Thus begins one of Douglas Sirk’s most flamboyant master classes in melodrama, a delirious Technicolor mix of the sudsy and the spiritual in which Bob and the doctor’s widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), find themselves inextricably linked amid a series of increasingly wild twists, turns, trials, and tribulations.

Picture 7/10

Criterion ports over their previous DVD edition of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession to Blu-ray, presenting it on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The 1080p/24hz presentation is sourced from the same high-definition transfer used for the original 2009 DVD. It was scanned from a 35mm interpositive. When the DVD was originally released there was discussion online about the aspect ratio: the film came out around the time of transition from the Academy 1.37:1 ratio to widescreen, and to fill the gap the film was released in both formats. There were arguments over which one was the correct one but Criterion has opted to release the film again in the widescreen ratio of 2.00:1, like the DVD.

The Blu-ray is simply offering the full high-definition version of the original master, so the improvements are probably not as drastic or wide as I would have hoped, but I was pleased to see there is still a noticeable improvement. The Blu-ray is a bit brighter, my daughter even commenting on how much darker the old DVD looked in comparison, murkier even, and because the Blu-ray is brighter the smaller details manage to show through quite a bit more. Grain is more noticeable here as well (it looks like it was over-managed on the DVD) and though it still has more of a digital look it’s not a noisy mess in the end.

Clarity is a bit better, too, allowing some textures on fabrics and and other objects pop a bit more. Criterion has also cleaned up more of the damage that was still on the DVD, but some smaller issues and thin tram lines pop up. Unfortunately some of the bigger problems, which would be inherent to the source and probably hard to fix without the original Technicolor negatives, remain. Colour separation pops up, particularly bad in a couple of scenes, which completely distorts the image. There are also some visible colour fluctuations that pop up. The colours do look a little better here, and have the Technicolor look, but I feel I’ve seen better.

In all it’s a noticeable improvement and the film still looks fine, but the film is in serious need of a complete redo in the restoration department.

Audio 6/10

The audio has been upgraded to lossless PCM 1.0 mono and it sounds decent, if a still product of the time. Dialogue is clear and sharp, and the track doesn’t present any significant damage. Music can get a bit edgy during highs but its otherwise managed well. Not overly dynamic but suiting to the film.

Extras 9/10

Criterion ports everything over from their previous DVD, though do offer a rather significant upgrade. Like their DVD edition they do provide the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, directed by John M. Stahl, but the surprise here is that this is sourced from a newer film transfer (they’re not reusing the standard-definition master used for the DVD) and it is presented in high-definition, 1080p/24hz. The audio is even presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono (instead of Dolby Digital). Criterion has also seen fit to present the film on its own disc, the second dual-layer disc in this release, to give it the maximum amount of room they can. If any restoration has been done it’s minimal: the image is still laced with a lot of scratches and marks, but the image is so sharp and clean, even rendering the grain nicely (better than the main feature) it ends up being easy to look over the damage. I was expecting an upscaled presentation of what was on the DVD, so it’s a nice surprise getting an all-new presentation.

Unfortunately the film itself still does little for me. I admit being a sucker for Sirk’s over-dramatized adaptation, and that film, as ridiculous as it is, is far more entertaining. In the commentary for the main feature Thomas Doherty does bring up this film and calls it a lighter, even sillier adaptation, which it is, but it really goes through the motions of the story, which is basically the same. Sirk ended up amping things up quite a bit, making the drama a bit more ridiculous and injecting more shock value with a number of important plot points and incidents. Despite this, though, I like that Criterion has still seen fit to include it (like Universal did with their own Imitation of Life release), though chances are higher I’ll revisit Sirk’s version in the future.

The remaining features are all found on the first disc with the 1954 version.

Things again start off with the 2008 audio commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty, who sets the tone right away by introducing himself as the “disembodied talking head” who will discuss the film while trying not to be too annoying. It’s a nice light way to start the track and it was nice to find it could be informative and even humourous (he does poke some fun at the rather absurd plot) while he discusses this film and Sirk’s work. He offers a lot on Sirk’s excellent relationship with Universal, who pretty much let him do what he wanted (and they knew they had a hit with this one), while also getting into how he worked with actors, specifically Rock Hudson, talks about the Technicolor process, the history of melodrama, Sirk’s influence on Fassbinder, and even how Sirk has divided film buffs. He also offers his own comparison between Sirk’s film and the original 1935 Stahl film, favouring Sirk’s, despite some problems he points out. With this he also brings up Sirk’s feelings about the story, which he didn’t really like (Wyman was the driver behind the film). And yes, there’s discussion on the aspect ratio of the film, bringing up the heated debate between cinephiles as to what aspect ratio Sirk actually preferred. Ultimately, though, Doherty doesn’t offer an answer, admitting he’s not too familiar with this facet of the film. In the end I still like the track.

Criterion does also provide one new supplement, a 2009 interview with screenwriter Robert Blees, who was one of the last contact writers hired by Universal. He talks about first coming to Hollywood, getting a studio job, meeting Sirk, and then being drafted to fix the script for Magnificent Obsession. He explains what was wrong with the script (it sounds to basically just come down crossing the line of what makes a melodrama/soap opera more cheesy than dramatic), looking at the original film and the original novel (which he says shocked him), and bringing in elements he had seen in other films that appealed to him (the surgery scene at the end). Basically, he had to make it less laughable. It’s a fun 19-minute interview offering a snapshot of one step of the studio system process.

Carried over from the original DVD is From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers, an 82-minute documentary/interview with Douglas Sirk. I was a tad disappointed with this feature, though it was more in its presentation. It’s rather stuffy and its director, Eckhart Schmidt, has an odd fetish with intertitles that at first I thought denoted “chapters” for the discussion but seem to just flash for the hell of it. Thankfully, the rather bland, almost pompous presentation doesn’t completely detract from the director reminiscing over his career, beginning with his work for UFA in Germany, working with actress Zarah Leander, and then making his move to the United States, and comparing European and American culture. He gets into his relationship with Universal and talks about some of his American films. It’s long and it can be stale (and again I blame the format) but Sirk makes for a great interview subject.

Tributes to Sirk presents two interviews, one with Allison Anders and another by Kathryn Bigelow. Anders’ interview, running about 9-minutes, begins with her showing off her Sirk poster collection, a couple of items having been given to her be Martin Scorsese. She talks about how she first discovered Sirk’s films (through her mother and late night television) and her favourite films by the director. Bigelow’s interview, running 13-minutes, focuses on her meeting the director at the premiere of her film The Loveless, which was a homage of sorts to his films, as well an interview her and Matthias Brunner did with Sirk. They’re both loving appreciations showing how his style and work has managed to influence future filmmakers..

The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer for the film, where we are promised a real weepy. Criterion does also bring over the same essay by Geoffrey O’Brien that appeared in the DVD’s booklet, but Criterion does drop the booklet format, changing it to a fold-out inset. The essay is still there, but it drops some of the photos that were found in the booklet.

Still a good set of features going over the film, Sirk, his style, and his influence.

Closing

The new Blu-ray does provide a better picture for the main feature but it’s wide open for a new restoration. The features are still good, though, with the excellent addition of an interview with screenwriter Robert Blees and a new digital presentation for the 1935 version of the film.

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Directed by: Douglas Sirk
Year: 1954
Time: 108 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 457
Licensor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: August 20 2019
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50
2.00:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Audio commentary featuring film scholar Thomas Doherty   Magnificent Obsession (1935, 102 minutes), a new digital transfer of John M. Stahl’s earlier version of the film   From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers (1991, 82 minutes), a rare documentary by German filmmaker Eckhart Schmidt in which Douglas Sirk reflects upon his career   Video interviews with filmmakers Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, in which they pay tribute to Sirk   Theatrical trailer   Essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien