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Woman Obsessed (DVD Review)

4 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available at www.screenarchives.com
Twilight Time
$19.95 DVD
Not rated
Stars Susan Hayward, Stephen Boyd, Barbara Nichols, Theodore Bikel.

In that brief window of time between Susan Hayward’s Oscar win for playing ‘B’-girl/accused murderer Barbara Graham and the failure of Stephen Boyd’s cranial shock absorbers to finesse his facial bounce-around at the end of Ben-Hur’s famed chariot race, 20th Century-Fox cast both leads in the outdoor domestic drama that’s now the latest on-demand Fox lease from the recently launched Twilight Time.

Even this doesn’t tell the complete “adventures-in-movie-marketing” story. Graham saga I Want to Live! came out in November 1958, and Woman Obsessed filmed during January-February 1959. After Hayward won her Oscar in early April, Fox managed to get Obsessed into theaters by May — but wait, there’s more. A mere two days after the Oscarcast, Paramount opened Thunder in the Sun — the exercise in dementia where Hayward and Jeff Chandler (Hayward’s real-life fellow grad of Brooklyn’s Erasmus Hall High School) found themselves in the only wagon train Western I know that deals with Basque immigrants.

Wow. Today’s movie marketers are so savvy at synching all promotional tie-ins that we tend to forget how few beats were missed in the old days as well.

But this is getting beyond the story, which in Woman’s case deals with a recent Canadian Rockies widow/mother who weds a widowed guy (Boyd) who is either a) merely one of those emotionally fragile neurotics who in the late ‘50s began to emerge even in frontier cinema; or b) the most threatening stepdad to come along since Bob Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Early on, director Henry Hathaway gives us a shot of some quicksand (portent, portent) during one of the young Hayward son’s exploratory outdoor afternoons. At this point, you just know that someone is going to end up in some 2.35-to-1 Big Drink.

As with almost every movie that top-billed her following the Live! Oscar win, this is purely a Susan Hayward vehicle: she emotes, sports professionally-sculpted hair and wears some decent nightwear — not Frederick’s of Saskatchewan, exactly, but a good male alternative to staring out of the cabin at bears. I was always kind of a Hayward fan after my father took me, either just before or just after I turned seven, to see after my Demetrius and the Gladiators — whereupon he pronounced, “she knows how to walk.” I didn’t know what he meant but figured it out before too long (maybe a couple weeks) and later married a redhead. Stephen Boyd I never got: I think even Victor Jory acted with more humor.

This is the movie Hathaway directed right after From Hell to Texas, a decent Western that my old NYU prof and genre expert William K. Everson hugely admired. And Texas is the one where the filmmaker and Dennis Hopper had their famous contretemps (not your everyday word to be used in the same sentence as “Dennis Hopper”) that resulted in the then young actor being pretty well industry-blackballed for a number of years, though not on TV. I remember seeing Hopper, on an old “Later with Bob Costas” show, claiming that Hathaway never moved the camera, and you will see plenty of ammo to support that assertion here. Though I like all kinds of his movies from The Shepherd of the Hills to Fourteen Hours to Niagara to North to Alaska, Hathaway was the kind of director who rose or sunk with the material at hand, and in the case of Obsessed, the material is irredeemably turgid.

There are a couple interesting sidebars. One is that the script, which is already confused in its attitude toward Boyd’s character, portrays Hayward’s young son (Dennis Holmes) as such a whiny little wimp that you can’t blame Boyd for growling at him; in my own middle school, to use just one example, it wouldn’t have been just the coaches but the jock-ish music and biology teachers as well who’d have eaten this kid’s lunch with a Blimpie’s chaser on the side. The other is that the woman behind the counter in the local general store is played by Barbara Nichols — an amazingly rustic setting for an actress whose oeuvre was so associated with neon nightlife. Maybe Joi Lansing worked at the rival shop.

This limited release comes with the usual Twilight Time accoutrements. But even with detailed Julie Kirgo liner notes and an isolated soundtrack of the music, the movie puts me in the mind-frame of a Barbara Graham alternative: I Want to Die! More promising are TT’s upcoming Blu-ray of The Egyptian (with its combo Alfred Newman-Bernard Herrmann backing of early-CinemaScope Victor Mature) and then The Flim Flam Man, which is among the signature pictures of The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner, who died this past November.

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