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Obsessions (Blu-ray Review)

12 Jun, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Cult Epics
$34.95 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Not rated
Stars Alexandra Stewart, Dieter Geissler, Tom Van Beek.

For those willing to lower expectations to somewhere at or about the Boxcar Bertha level, there’s some lukewarm kinkiness to be gleaned from this Dutch Hitchcock homage (or at least hijacking of Hitch situations) that never reached U.S. theaters despite provocative displays of supporting actress tan-lines and considerable box office success abroad. If the allusion to Bertha sounds arbitrary here, it isn’t, given a screenplay credit that was shared with Obsessions’ director Pim de la Para (great name) and Wim Verstappen. In the picture’s chief claim to fame (there are one or two lesser ones), the third writing party was, of all people, Martin Scorsese — from around the time he was in Amsterdam shooting the extraneous but smoothly choreographed sexual fantasy sequence that enabled debut feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door to pick up a U.S. distributor.

By 1968 or ’69, you can bet that Scorsese had seen a ton of Hitchcock — a passion already shared by his collaborators, of which de la Para was perhaps most prominent. The most direct inspirations here are Rear Window (basic premise) and Psycho, given the importance of a voyeur’s peephole in the chief protagonist’s apartment — so much so that this spying mechanism is all but a character in the film. As a medical student prepping for a make-or-break exam, our dweller (the film’s co-producer Dieter Geissler) has so little mind on the academic matter at hand that a colleague even cautions him about keeping his eye on the ball — a tough thing to do when so much sex and related incidentals (as in disrobed women being drugged and tied up in the bathtub) are regularly taking place just a hole in the wall away. Also from the Rear Window playbook — if you think about Grace Kelly, her travel-bag negligee and James Stewart’s relative obliviousness — is a stunner of a girlfriend (cult actress Alexandra Stewart) that Geissler’s protagonist semi-ignores despite what seems like her bed-ready demeanor.     

The actress plays a magazine journalist who, to my eye, appears to be saucing it a lot in the office — assuming it’s not merely a stash of Hires or A&W that she keeps sipping out of a brown bottle. One of her past stories had to do with a young woman who got in over her head in terms of the drug scene — and now has an alleged boyfriend or former one whose body has just been discovered, which motivates Stewart to seek out her onetime subject (no longer an easy thing to do). The next question is whether the latter intrigue has anything to do with the low-jinks in the adjacent apartment, which would be an odds-defier in a city the size of Amsterdam, but then again, we’re talking about an exploitation melodrama, right?

An experienced actress who worked with Otto Preminger, Arthur Penn, Francois Truffaut and (if you prefer), Gene Barry, stunner Stewart surprised me by coming off as stilted here as the rest of the cast in this shot-in-English psychological thriller. There’s an overall awkwardness here that keeps the result from engaging all gears or even half of them — and yet, some of the ideas here (or at least their germs) allow Obsessions to resonate a little more than expected after a wild-ass ending that clarifies that at least this is a movie with the courage of its convictions. Helping out, though not as much as expected, is the third point of interest beyond Scorsese and Stewart.     

This is the more or less makeshift score by Bernard Herrmann, who was then having a tough time finding movie employment (in-credible) after Hitchcock stupidly bowed to Universal hacks (and no major studio had as many in the ’60s) and fired the composer from Torn Curtain, which really could have used the Herrmann help. Even in this period, no Dutch filmmaker could afford Herrmann’s services — and yet the prickly one did permit de la Parra to utilize some “snippets” he’d composed but never used for a TV gig or gigs. The result isn’t top-tier Herrmann, but neither is it, say, Vic Mizzy. The greatest benefit from the association was indirect and residual: thanks to the connection, Scorsese was later able to hire Herrmann, and memorably, for Taxi Driver — a score, lore has it, completed the very night this greatest of all screen composers died.

This package comes with a nice array of extras, including separate interviews each running about 20 minutes and change with de la Parra and Geissler, who have contrasting personality styles but otherwise couldn’t possibly be more personable. There’s also a page-by-page replication of the shooting script, complete with copious Scorsese margin notes. This last appears to have been preserved with more care than the movie’s printing components, which end up making the result appear to have been shot in brown-and-brown. 1080 transfer or not. And yet, I have to admit that serious flaws aside, Obsessions is just weird enough for even the ’60s (Brian De Palma wasn’t quite yet a big-screen factor) to make me glad I was able to see it. Once.     

Adding to the weirdness is the film’s decidedly non-Herrmann-ish musical opening, which is instantly identifiable as the standard eagle-logo backing for Republic Pictures in roughly its last decade. It’s part of Obsessions’ stated acknowledgment to Republic as inspirational fodder, much as Godard regarded Breathless as homage to Monogram (never got the joke on that one, either). Whatever, but I just can’t see any of Republic’s contract actresses replicating some of the femme behavior here — or a marquee screaming, “Vera Ralston and Jane Frazee as you’ve never seen them before.”

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