Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Douglas Sirk | 1hr 48min

The melodrama of Magnificent Obsession is set in motion by a stroke of bad fortune. The moment that reckless playboy Bob Merrick loses control of his speedboat, badly injures himself, and uses up the nearest resuscitator, his neighbour Dr Phillips suffers a heart attack and, without access to the device, dies. The tragedy worsens when the doctor’s wife, Helen, is blinded in a car accident, indirectly caused by Merrick’s attempt to apologise. Though he feels guilty, it is evident that his priority is to merely clear his conscience rather than to make real restitution. Ironically, it is the philosophy of the late Dr Phillips which sparks a change of heart within him, inspiring him to spread generosity and good will without expectation of repayment. From there, Douglas Sirk leads Merrick down a path of moral rehabilitation and redemption, transforming him into the very man whose death he is at least partially responsible for.

Though Sirk was not yet at his full powers in 1954, still being a year away from his breakthrough, All That Heaven Allows, he nevertheless paves the way in Magnificent Obsession for the beautifully luscious displays of mise-en-scene and sensitive characterisations he would become known for. He isn’t afraid of sentimentality, but this is no barrier to his acute social critiques of class privilege. In fact, it is exactly because of Sirk’s great empathy that he can so skilfully identify Merrick’s weaknesses, understanding his ego not as a fatal flaw, but rather a fault upon which he can improve.

The depth of field in Sirk’s compositions is excellent. There is always a sense of vulnerability and isolation simply in how these characters are blocked.

Over time as Merrick cares for Helen, his pity for her disability gradually evolves into an authentic love, though one hindered by his decision to conceal his identity from her, still holding onto a bit of shame. It is a love which motivates him to study medicine, carrying the hope that he might one day cure her blindness. Even when all seems lost in their relationship though, we can see the legitimacy in his new lease on life. He continues striving to become a doctor not to win her heart, but out of a genuine desire to help others.

Florals frequent Sirk’s mise-en-scène, lending splashes of colour to his foregrounds and backgrounds.

It is in Sirk’s delicate staging of these character interactions within elegant domestic settings where this drama lands with great emotional power, using mirrors to layer actors across the frame and obstructing compositions with plants hanging in the foreground. When both Helen and Merrick both reach their lowest points, their faces are almost entirely concealed behind lace curtains, and Sirk makes the rare move to dim his usually-soft lighting to starkly illuminate only half of their faces, or else only the edge of their profiles. In representing the affluent status of these characters on this visual level, he also lets it impose upon their presences, complicating their search for emotional truth by crowding it out with so much material wealth.

This scene is unusually dark for a Sirk film, visually speaking, with his expressionistic influences emerging in the low-key lighting.
Wide shots revealing a great distance between his characters, though even in the emptiness there is still great detail to his decor and lighting.
Lace curtains concealing Sirk’s actors, imposing upon their presences.

For this Sirkian melodrama though it is all about tonal balance, as immediately following this dark scene, Helen and Merrick open up about their romantic feelings for each other and go out on a date. As they sit and absorb their surroundings, he describes to her in detail the things he can see which she cannot – the blazing bonfire, the bursting fireworks, the communal folk dancing. Given the way he caters for her disability, it is evident that the relationship which emerges between them is not a direct copy of what she had with her late husband, and yet the parallels between the two are nonetheless apparent. Merrick’s moral reformation is made even more potent by the fact that Dr Phillip is only spoken of and never seen in person, turning him into an intangible ideal for the young playboy to aspire to, or perhaps an empty space for him to fill. Privilege may be a corrupting force in Magnificent Obsession, but any instance where pure goodness wins out over ego and insensitivity is infinitely precious to a soft-hearted empath like Sirk.

Tender affection in a simple composition, Merrick and Helen’s silhouettes kissing above a bouquet of flowers.

Magnificent Obsession is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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