Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review – Magnificent Obsession

August 18, 2010

Magnificent Obsession – U.S., 1954

What may be the most important moment in Douglas Sirk’s film Magnificent Obsession occurs off-camera. Had we seen it, it probably would have gone by so fast that at first viewers would probably not have been aware of its significance. Five minutes later, though, the scene may have set viewers against Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) to such an extent that it would have been much more difficult for this character to ever redeem himself in their eyes, and that may indeed be why we don’t see it. However, what is clear is that at the end of a series of unfortunate and largely preventable events, a rather pompous, inconsiderate man has been saved at the expense of a man of immense charity and character. And the deceased would not have had it any other way.

The deceased man is Dr. Wayne Phillips, and he leaves behind a wife and a daughter, both of whom adored him tremendously. Now, imagine their reaction upon hearing that the good doctor died so that Bob Merrick could live - Bob Merrick, rich, spoiled, seemingly without a care in the world, a man who wastes away his evenings in bars while spending bits of his inheritance on alcohol and fleeting good times, a man for whom speed is an utmost thrill and for whom the term “designated driver” must seem like a foreign phrase. To those Dr. Phillips left behind, this is a travesty, a terribly uneven exchange. As for Merrick, upon learning just how costly saving his life was for the Phillips family, he decides to pay them back the only way he knows how – with a check, an idea that rarely ever works in movies, and Magnificent Obsession is no exception.

Movies have gone down this path before (and after, for that matter), and most viewers will be able to predict key parts of the film rather easily. The late doctor’s wife, Mrs. Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), will not be able to stay mad, no matter how much she may want to, and Merrick cannot stay an uncaring cad for the entire length of the film. Eventually, we’ll get to the obligatory scene in which he asks for forgiveness and she grants it. But what then? What do these two characters possibly have to talk about? The answer to that question, not entirely surprising despite their apparent age difference, turns out to be romance.

Merrick, as luck would have it, has a bit of a soft side after all, and after an ill-advised attempt to convince Mrs. Phillips to forgive him accidentally results in her being struck by a car and significantly injured, Merrick begins to feel one of two things: He either loves her or feels so responsible for her condition that he devotes his life to ensuring that she is well taken care of. It’s clear that Sirk and screenwriter Robert Blees wants viewers to see the former as being true; however, the film lacks a moment that would clearly show why or when Merrick develops truly passionate feelings for Mrs. Phillips. All we see is that several months have passed, and Merrick and Mrs. Phillips are holding hands and smiling as if they were two crazy teenagers in love for the first time. I was unconvinced, but eventually that feeling went away, perhaps as a result of the strong performances on both Hudson and Wyman.

In spite of the amount of time devoted to Merrick and Mrs. Phillips’s budding romance, it seems to me that the film is essentially about destiny and the way that people are moved by unseen and unexplainable forces. And seen in this light, Magnificent Obsession is one of the most religious movies I’ve ever seen, this despite the fact that a specific religion is only overtly mentioned once. I believe it was William Blake that once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing here) that God sent Jesus among humans to show them how to be godlike on Earth, and from what we learn about him, it’s seems evident that Dr. Phillips took this notion to heart. As the film opens, as years of manic benevolence have finally taken a toll on the noble doctor physically, someone else must pick up the torch and carry on his obsessive acts of secret kindness. That responsibility unexpectedly falls upon Merrick’s shoulders, yet he must accept it on his own terms. He must want it, not for what he can gain from it – namely Mrs. Merrick - but for what it can ultimately give others. He has to believe that there is an end result that will somehow make him understand (and perhaps reward) his sacrifice, hard work, and anonymous charity. That journey is a tough one, involving events that can only seem excessively cruel to those experiencing them, yet according to the film, these events, both good and bad, are part of a grand plan, of a journey that characters take on their road to forgiveness and everlasting love.

Magnificent Obsession is not likely to be remembered as one of Sirk’s greatest films – it’s much too predictable and emotionally manipulative for that. However, it remains a successful film, in part because it skillfully taps into that side of movie audiences that delights in seeing evidence of the transformative power of love. In the film, Rock Hudson’s greatest challenge lies in making each stage of Merrick’s transformation believable, and in this, he succeeds admirably. Also worthy of praise is Otto Kruger, who plays the late Mr. Phillips’ close friend Edward Randolph. Randolph acts as Merrick’s spiritual guide, introducing him to what he calls secretly being in the service of others. At key moments in the film, Randolph hovers above Merrick, looking down on his as if he were a guardian angel, and Kruger plays him as a man who seems to always know a little bit more than we do about destiny and human nature. Is the character meant to be more than that? I’m not sure, but if he is, I wonder what Dr. Phillips is meant to be. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)

3 stars

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