Obsession (Dmytryk, 1949)

Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession, also called The Hidden Room, is a pretty progressive British noir that can find recent homages in anything from Breaking Bad to Prisoners.

Dmytryk was, of course, one of the Hollywood 10, blacklisted for suspected Communist sympathies in 1947, though he would later name names in 1951 (which was partially responsible for his move to the UK).  I know Dmytryk mostly for Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire, and for attempting an ill-advised remake of the von Sternberg classic The Blue Angel.

Obsession is a chilly revenge film.  It’s not necessarily “Hitchcockian” in its presentation, but it does have some of the mood of Dial M for Murder and Rope.  The strengths here are Robert Newton’s against-type performance and the script from Alec Coppel’s book, which is even more sinister than other mid-late-period American noirs:

Dr. Clive Riordan (Newton) discovers that his wife Storm (Sally Gray) is having an(0ther) affair with Bill Kronin (Phil Brown).  He devises a scheme where he’ll kidnap Kronin and hold him hostage under the constant threat of death.

The newness of the film arises from Newton’s absolute confidence and calmness in his morality and ability as murderer, and the frightening way in which he discusses the horrific details – including some fancy chemistry – with his prisoner.

Like with Elia Kazan’s films, it’s pretty easy to, post-1947, look for a HUAC metaphor embedded in Dmytryk’s work.  Kazan’s films such as Panic in the Streets, On the Waterfront, and The Visitors are filled with finger-pointers and mass-induced hysteria.  While Obsession has little of the latter, Dr. Riordan does seem to operate as a man resigned to a fate that he’s made for himself and thereby must accept.  Could he be a Dmytryk stand-in as the director mulls over his HUAC role in 1949, two years before he’d take the stand?  There is also an anonymous letter to Scotland Yard, indicating Dr. Riordan’s involvement in the crime.  While that’s more certainly just a trope of this type of thriller, it could’ve been a plot element that caught Dmytryk’s eye as a situation familiar to him.

There are some great shots of London as Dr. Riordan moves from his house to where he holds Kronin.  I love a lot of these wide-shots in the square frame that really emphasize the overhead, looming space.  It’s also smart filmmaking: Dmytryk lays out Dr. Riordan’s path from home to hideout early in the film in a very clear manner, so that later, as Scotland Yard gets on the case, we can easily track their progress as they get further from and nearer to finding Kronin:

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Those last two shots above are gorgeous.  I really love the second-to-last.  Riordan gets lost amidst the rubble.  It’s a far cry from his posh home.

My favorite sections of Obsession take place in the makeshift holding cell that Dr. Riordan has devised for Kronin.  Here’s an early shot of it.  Riordan is frame left, Kronin frame right.  Kronin is chained to the wall at his back, so he can’t see what Riordan’s doing.  It’s a brilliant frame for emphasizing both his and our curiosity (and it reminds me of a famous shot in Rosemary’s Baby):

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The problem is that, instead of stringing out this curiosity, Riordan just tells Kronin what he’s doing (there’s a whole lot of this “evil genius revealing his plan to the helpless victim” in here, and it does come back to bite Riordan).  It’d be so much stronger if Kronin – and we – didn’t know what Riordan was doing for much of the film, and it was revealed only later, and visually.

Aside from the great look of this set, another strength in this underground cell is some of the blocking.  Once it’s been established that Riordan knows the exact distance he can stand from Kronin without the latter able to reach him, Dmytryk plays with that concept quite a bit, as in these two shots below.  The second one could be, if taken out of context, just two friends hanging out (in a shady cellar).  Their proximity is nice: the two men have a love-hate relationship throughout:

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There is also a bit of Hitchcock’s winking British humor in here as later, when Kronin has saved a dog from Riordan.  Kronin draws a circle in chalk around the dog’s ability to maneuver, in the same way that Riordan has a chalk circle drawn around Kronin:

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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